We've waited so long for Week 1 to arrive. We've hemmed-and-hawed over every notable storyline surrounding the San Francisco 49ers several times over since the end of last season. Finally, it's time for the 49ers to travel to Minnesota and take on the Vikings. Here are a few final thoughts before Sunday's matchup in this week's mailbag.
There's no question that losing Jerick McKinnon changes the 49ers game plan against the Vikings. He was the team's top pass catcher out of the backfield, and I think everyone was eager to see how Kyle Shanahan planned on deploying the free agent addition.
But just because the game plan will be different, doesn't mean it's hopeless. Shanahan and the 49ers will adjust their course of action to fit the skill sets of Alfred Morris and Matt Breida. Both running backs are more than capable of handling sizeable roles. I don't see the overall changes in the running game having a noticeable impact on Jimmy Garoppolo. The quarterback still has a surplus of weapons at receiver, tight end and fullback.
Shanahan would tell you that competition is continuous throughout the season. Obviously, some positions are more up for grabs than others. Linebacker is definitely a spot where you could see some rotation. Even if Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith are the starters, Robert Saleh won't hesitate to insert Brock Coyle into the lineup should the defense need a lift. The competition will continue even after Foster returns in Week 3.
This game is likely to be won and lost in the trenches. Everson Griffen headlines a star-studded defensive front for the Vikings. Mike McGlinchey will be making his first career start and the 49ers starting right guard is yet to be determined. All of those factors make Sunday's game a tall order for the offensive line. Holding their own will be pivotal for San Francisco's offense in both the passing and running game.
Defensively, the 49ers defensive line has a prime opportunity to make a big impact. Minnesota has some injuries on its offensive line – most notably guard Nick Easton. Center Pat Elflein is also dinged up. That should provide ample opportunity for DeForest Buckner and Co. to put consistent pressure on Cousins.
I think the 49ers definitely have a chance on Sunday. Cousins is facing massive expectations in what will be his first start for the Vikings. There's no guarantee that it's going to be completely smooth sailing from the jump. San Francisco is essentially playing with house money as they'll be on the road against one of the Super Bowl favorites. That's not a bad spot to be in.
The Alfred Morris or Matt Breida debate has been a popular topic in fantasy football circles this week. I think the answer is going to be maddening for most hoping for a clear-cut option. Shanahan downplayed the importance of which guy ends up being the "starter," indicating that both guys will be involved. Flow of the game, hot hand and personnel groupings will all be factors in how playing time is divvied up. The fact of the matter is that the split could vary on a week-to-week basis based on matchups. Expect both guys to play a major role all season.
I think Week 15 and Week 16 last season against the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, were great indicators that Levi's® Stadium is more than capable of providing a true home field advantage. The place was rocking even though the 49ers were out of the playoff picture. I'm a firm believer that you can't judge the environment of a stadium until there's a winning product on the field. Maybe we'll get to see that this year. Who knows?
I expect Richard Sherman (left cornerback) and Ahkello Witherspoon (right cornerback) to stay on their own sides of the field on Sunday. They'll each get chances to go against both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
There's no overstating the value of signing Alfred Morris. From strictly a need perspective, McKinnon's injury opened the door for Morris to play a big role in every game. His dependability and experience with Kyle Shanahan is crucial, too. You need a back you can trust in big moments – whether it's short-yardage situations, goal line touches or trying to churn out yards to bleed the clock. Morris checks a lot of boxes for San Francisco.
I wouldn't be surprised if Garrett Celek is listed above George Kittle on the depth chart all season. They're really a 1 and 1a in the 49ers offense with vastly different skill sets. Celek is the premier blocking tight end while Kittle is the team's top pass catching tight end. Both will be used regularly in the 49ers offense, but much like the depth chart at running back, the term "starter" is largely irrelevant.
A player can't be validated after one game in September. That goes for every position and especially quarterbacks. There will be ups and downs over the course of the next 16 games. There's no sense in overreacting to any of them. You'll drive yourself crazy if your belief in Garoppolo is tied to the pendulum of opinions from national pundits. It should also be stated that Garoppolo is already validated in the eyes of the 49ers. The team wouldn't have handed him a five-year contract extension if it didn't believe that Garoppolo was capable of being a franchise quarterback.