Our "Four Downs" season preview series rolls on with a look at notable games in 2018, players you may have forgotten about and a potential second-year standout. Check here for last week's edition that covered the dark horses to make the roster.
First Down: Which game are you looking forward to most?
Joe Fann: Week 7 vs. Los Angeles Rams
It's either this one, or the matchup against the Oakland Raiders on "Thursday Night Football." I'll go with the Rams game on "Sunday Night Football." We were robbed of a juicy Week 17 matchup last year when the Rams opted to bench their starters against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers. The primetime showdown at Levi's® Stadium should mark the beginning of what might become one of the best rivalries in the NFL.
Keiana Martin: Week 1 at Minnesota Vikings
If the 49ers want to make a statement this season, it starts with Week 1. The 49ers will head to the Twin Cities to face a Vikings team looking to rebound after falling short in last year's NFC Championship Game. This offseason, Minnesota added Sheldon Richardson to league’s top-rated defense. Minnesota's offense is no slouch, either. NFL.com recently ranked the Vikings pass catchers as one of the league’s top receiving corps. The Vikings are hopeful that free agent Kirk Cousins is the missing piece to Minnesota’s puzzle. A Week 1 win over a stacked Vikings team would certainly send a message across the league.
Second Down: Who is a comeback player of the year candidate?
Joe Fann: Malcolm Smith
Richard Sherman is an obvious one. Pierre Garçon and Joshua Garnett are also options. But I'm going with Smith. The linebacker was brought in by John Lynch last year to be the 49ers starting WILL linebacker. Instead, Smith tore his pectoral muscle at the team's open practice and missed the entire season. Now he's back healthy and is ready to compete for a starting job. He's likely to start the first two weeks during Reuben Foster's suspension. If Smith plays well, Saleh will have to find a way to keep him on the field for the remainder of the season.
Keiana Martin: Pierre Garçon
How different could the 49ers final eight games have been if they had their No. 1 receiver? Garçon was on pace for his second straight 1,000-yard season before a neck-injury cut his first year with the 49ers short. With a clean bill of health, Garçon is set to reclaim his role, but this time, with the 49ers franchise quarterback in tow. It will be exciting to see the Garoppolo-to-Garçon connection in 2018. It should prove to be a productive one.
Third Down: Which second-year player will make the jump in 2018?
Joe Fann: George Kittle
The 49ers offense needs Kittle to take the next step if it's going to reach its potential this season. San Francisco's roster is still void of a proven red zone target, and Kittle may just be the team's best option. Health permitting, Kittle should be the 49ers primary pass-catching tight end. He's got the speed to be a threat up the seams, and at 6-foot-4, he should also provide Jimmy Garoppolo with a worthy option near the goal line.
Keiana Martin: Solomon Thomas
Thomas didn’t exactly have the grand rookie campaign you’d anticipate from a top five pick, but he still put up modest numbers. Thomas amassed 41 total tackles and three sacks in his 14 games (12 starts) in 2017. This year, Thomas is expected to play LEO on base downs and move to the inside on passing downs. With another NFL offseason under his belt, I expect Thomas to make significant strides in Year 2.
Fourth Down: Who will be the 49ers team leader in touchdowns?
Joe Fann: Jerick McKinnon
Carlos Hyde led the 49ers with eight touchdowns last season, which makes McKinnon the obvious choice in 2018. He might not have the eight rushing touchdowns that Hyde posted, but he should have a handful of receiving touchdowns to make up for it. I'm buying into Kyle Shanahan's belief in McKinnon and what that means for "Jet's" production this year. He's a sure bet to lead the team in touches. There's no reason why he can't lead the 49ers offense in touchdowns as well.
Keiana Martin: Trent Taylor
If there is one word I would use to describe Taylor, it would be "clutch." During the 49ers five-game winning streak, Taylor caught all six of his fourth quarter targets, one of which resulting in a touchdown. If Garoppolo and Taylor’s chemistry continues to carry over into 2018, I wouldn’t be surprised to see increased production and more red zone targets for the 49ers sure-handed receiver.