5 way-too-early predictions for the 49ers 2023 season
Jun 14, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 10:20 am
(Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
With organized team activities & mandatory minicamp officially wrapped up, the San Francisco 49ers are on vacation until late July.
While we’re still months away from the 2023 regular season, it’s time to think big picture with the Red & Gold. No, we’re not referring to a Las Vegas Super Bowl (maybe we will in the future), we’re talking about long-term projections for the team and players during the regular season. Who will have a breakout year? Who will lead the team in passing yards?
There’s so much left for us to find out, but for now, here are a few way-too-early predictions for the 49ers in the 2023 season.
1. Brock Purdy is the starting QB Week 1
Surprise surprise: After weeks of quarterback discussion, the likely starter for the 49ers is still Brock Purdy.
Despite having UCL surgery on his throwing arm in March, Purdy is still seen as the leader in the clubhouse by general manager John Lynch & 49ers’ brass. Beginning a throwing program at the end of May, the Arizona native has had encouraging early sessions, prompting the team to feel confident about his return this season.
“He’s right on pace. I think he throws three times a week. I do not sit and watch those,” coach Kyle Shanahan said to the media during mandatory minicamp. “It’s part of his process of getting back and he’s continuing right on the track he’s always been on. No setbacks and it’s been very good so far.”
While San Francisco hopes Purdy will be fully cleared to practice by mid-August, they are taking a cautious approach. Rushing him back into the fold could spell disaster if his elbow doesn’t hold up. That’s why a three-month throwing program is necessary, slowly building Purdy’s arm strength back to game form. And when he does come back, there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to play right away.
This play from Brock Purdy is absolutely phenomenal
Every single subtle movement to extend the play, the fake, the poise and then delivers and absolute DART 🎯
Very very impressive
— Luke Sawhook 🪚🪝 (@lukesawhook) June 13, 2023
“It’s not really a moving target. Only God knows,” Shanahan added during OTAs. “We’re hoping for Week 1 and I feel pretty optimistic about that. Usually, you have to come back before that to make that goal, and that’s what we’re hoping for.
“And usually that doesn’t mean that’s the day he comes back, usually you’ve got to come before that to make that goal. And that’s kind of the goal we’re hoping for and don’t have any reason to think differently.”
Purdy himself is in the same mindset, taking it one day at a time as he prepares to help his team in 2023.
“I feel good,” Purdy said to the media during OTAs. “My arm is feeling good…That’s the goal [to return Week 1], you want to be ready for the season.”
While the former Mr. Irrelevant wants to be a starter in Week 1, it won’t discourage him if Shanahan & Co. want to go in a different direction momentarily. Purdy has had to earn the job before and doesn’t expect any different once he’s fully healthy. The goal is to win ring No.6 anyway.
“For me, I’m just trying to focus on where I’m at right now,” Purdy said. “For me, I come into work every day, get my arm right, try to be around the guys and do what it takes to win. We want to win a Super Bowl here, simple as that.”
2. Brandon Aiyuk will make his first Pro Bowl
If 2022 was the start of the takeover for 49ers’ star wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk; 2023 is when he gets his flowers.
Telling the world that he’s ready to “take off” this season, Aiyuk certainly looked the part during offseason workouts, routinely being unguardable in drills. Anything thrown in his direction gets sucked in like a magnet, and his speed & agility are at an all-time high.
He’s been THE GUY in the 49ers’ offseason workouts, and the rest of the team has noticed.
“Man, you can’t cover that boy in a phone booth right now,” fellow WR Deebo Samuel said of his counterpart during mandatory minicamp.
“‘Toughest receiver to cover?’ Brandon Aiyuk,” cornerback Deommodore Lenoir added last week. “He’s going to be a top-five receiver in his league this year. He’s gonna put everybody on notice. I feel like he’s been so underrated. He really don’t get the credit that he deserves.”
Brandon Aiyuk is really fooking good at football pic.twitter.com/CiDVnlyc89
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 13, 2023
Bursting onto the scene in 2022, Aiyuk racked up his first 1000+ yard season with the 49ers, snagging a career-high 78 receptions in the regular season. He also added 8 touchdowns to his name, another career-high.
It’s more than just his play on the field that signals his coming out party, as Aiyuk is more vocal in huddles and with teammates. Appearing shy in a first encounter, “BA” is now glowing with confidence, often challenging defensive teammates with trash talk at practice.
A player who was stuck in the dog house his rookie year is now in line for a huge contract extension after next season. Picking up his fifth-year option at the deadline, San Francisco will need to make some hard choices after the 2023 season, including if they want to cash in on Aiyuk.
3. Nick Bosa for back-to-back DPOYs
This is a bold take: Nick Bosa will have 20 sacks this season.
Coming off a Defensive Player of the Year award, the 25-year-old pass rusher is looking to build a legacy in San Francisco that leaves him as one of the greatest to ever play the position. And while he has all the tools to be that dominant, his approach this offseason is a reminder that he’s still learning to be the best version of himself.
“For most of the offseason it’s just preparing myself for a long year and making sure that my body is going to be able to take on a load of 21 games. So, just taking days off, I’d say I have been taking a little more time, not forcing myself to push through things,” Bosa told the media last week.
“I’m learning my body every year, I’m making small tweaks…taking those days when I need them, not forcing myself to push through when it’s May or April or those months where if I push through something it’s kind of pointless.
“Yeah, I don’t take time off very much and that’s probably been the biggest change is just knowing when to take the days off.”
That he has done, staying away from the team during OTAs before appearing in workout clothes on the field for mandatory minicamp. Bosa won’t be doing many football activities until training camp, especially with a looming mega deal about to be finalized.
Shanahan's conversations with Bosa haven't changed 😂 pic.twitter.com/0R8iSvEs8B
— 49ers on NBCS (@NBCS49ers) June 6, 2023
Nick Bosa and the 49ers are set to agree to a massive contract extension by the start of training camp, making him the most expensive defensive player in NFL history. While both sides aren’t worried, a soft deadline for an agreement is training camp at the start of August. San Francisco has a history of getting such deals done by then, case in point, Deebo Samuel last season.
For now, though, Bosa will do what he always does: Train, rest, eat, sleep, repeat. Set to make north of $30 million annually, the Floridan isn’t too worried about the final number, confident the 49ers will do right by him.
“I think I’ll get what I deserve,” Bosa said bluntly.
And once that contract is finalized, the Bosa Bear can get back to working on his legacy, because that’s the next step for the superstar pass rusher.
“All those guys that I just mentioned along with Bosa are about really trying to create a legacy and that was probably one of the things that I did talk about beyond just him as a person,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks explained during minicamp. “It’s just, what are we building towards now, which is each step is towards Canton. I think that’s his mindset as well, but he has to stay in the moment each and every day, be where your feet are and take it as it comes, but ultimately, that’s his goal.”
4. Steve Wilks is bringing the heat
Speaking of Steve Wilks, the veteran coach has been a home-run signing for the Red & Gold thus far.
The biggest concern when he was hired was how he’d reignite this 49ers’ roster. Coming off a No.1 overall defensive ranking, how would the group respond to a new guy in charge?
The answer: They love him.
“He’s like the Godfather of the DBs.” Deommodore Lenoir on his new defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks pic.twitter.com/9D5VpPKoMj
— Tracy Sandler (@TracyFGSN) June 7, 2023
“It’s been a seamless transition,” All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said about Wilks. “He’s come in and he’s taken a hold of everything and we all respect the heck out him already… Everything we’ve done in the past is behind us. It’s a new year, a new opportunity… And I know Steve’s going to do an amazing job getting us ready.”
The 53-year-old coach was handed the job because of his pedigree and his style. Using Shanahan’s preferred methods of zone coverage, Wilks will look to only improve on the success of the 49ers last season. But along with that comes some changes, especially when it comes to blitzing the quarterback.
Under Saleh and Ryans, the 49ers leaned heavily on the defensive line to generate pressure without blitzing. In six seasons under that duo, the Niners blitzed 23.4% of the time, 22nd in the NFL. When they did blitz, defensive backs accounted for just 9.8% of them, 16th in the league. In 2022, the Niners were 20th in blitz rate (22.8%) and 11th in defensive back blitz rate (10.1%).
Wilks’ history indicates those numbers could go up. As the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator in 2019, Wilks dialed up a 35.3% blitz rate (fourth in the NFL) and 18.7% defensive back blitz rate (second). As the Panthers’ defensive coordinator and assistant head coach in 2017, Wilks blitzed on 44% of drop backs (second) and used defensive backs on 13.9% of those (fifth).
The team has gathered that shift in guard as well, with new pieces expected to play a vital role in the defensive strategy.
“When people ask me if I’m playing nickel or outside corner more, that’s kind of one of the things I lean to is just being able to blitz more,” Isaiah Oliver told the media in the offseason. “I feel like it just adds so much more to the game and just be around the ball so much more. I like blitzing a lot. And then obviously he has a lot of different schemes, a lot of different things he can draw up for all of us.”
Wilks will also rely on the front four to hit home this season, loading up with the signing of DT Javon Hargrave in free agency. The Charlotte native knows this unit is a force to be reckoned with, he just wants to add his own flair to help reach its’ maximum potential.
“I think you have to embrace the success that they’ve had here,” Wilks added. “It is a foundation that we all agree we wanted to keep and I think it is an opportunity as we go through the process, which we already have, to try to tweak things a little bit. I still think there’s room for improvement.”
Room for improvement; that’s a scary thought.
5. Injuries will happen
Hate to be the bearer of bad news but guess what: The San Francisco 49ers will suffer a few injuries in 2023.
Like clockwork, the Red & Gold are already battling the injury bug, with their starting QB (Purdy) not able to practice and their second running back (Elijah Mitchell) already hobbled in OTAs.
What started out as a rocky 2022, ended up being one of the healthier seasons for the 49ers. By the time the playoffs rolled around, 90% of the roster was able to suit up, including Samuel, George Kittle, Christian McCaffrey, etc. While it’s too early to say what will happen, it’s almost a guarantee that someone will get hurt along the way.
It’s football, things happen.
What’s important to consider here is that the 49ers are aware of it, and are being proactive with the roster.
San Francisco has four QBs currently, and while all of them won’t see meaningful game time (we think), it’s good to have options over the summer.
“It’s OTAs so every position, like I think I’ve said to you guys before, I don’t try to come in and know who’s ahead or not. All this stuff gives these guys a chance to have a chance to compete in training camp,” Shanahan stated. “When you don’t practice football an entire offseason, you don’t do any practice of football since your last game. It’s very hard to come to training camp and be ready to beat someone out and so that’s what you try to provide all this stuff, just to give guys a chance to learn the offense, get their timing, get everything. So now when they go to training camp, they’re ready to compete and that’s truly where I see the competition starting.”
It’ll be interesting to see how the 53-man roster shakes out in August. But for now, it’s about keeping guys healthy, and having a plethora of options at their disposal.