It’s been a wild first five weeks of the NFL season, but the 49ers are at the top of the NFC West standings after cruising past the Panthers on Sunday. Despite a pair of disappointing losses, the Niners are still in the driver’s seat to win the division.
Here are the position-by-position grades for San Francisco’s 37-15 win:
This was one of the best performances of Jimmy Garoppolo’s career. It seemed like a combination of a change in playcalling and more aggressive decision-making from Jimmy G led him to sling the ball all over the field. Garoppolo will always put the ball in too much danger, fumbling once and having an easy interception dropped by a Panthers defensive back (which is why he’s falling short of an A), but he can still be effective as long as he continues giving his receivers opportunities to make plays. Players like Tevin Coleman and Juan Jennings made amazing plays because Garoppolo gave them a chance to do so. While his final numbers were more solid than excellent (18-for-30 for 254 yards and two touchdowns), the Niners receivers cost him several completions with mental mistakes and drops.
Running backs: A+
The 49ers have struggled to generate their usual consistent success creating big runs this season. That changed this week. Jeff Wilson Jr. took advantage of massive holes to rack up 120 rushing yards on 17 carries with a touchdown. He also had a 12-yard reception. Yet, somehow, newly acquired veteran Tevin Coleman (who was with the Niners from 2019-2020) had the best performance of his career in a 49ers uniform. Coleman looked like the excellent dual-threat receiving and outside rushing threat he was early in his career with the Falcons, rushing for a touchdown alongside three receptions for 44 yards and another score. Add in Kyle Juszczyk’s excellent blocking and a pair of receptions for 27 yards, and you have a flawless grade for this group.
Tight ends: B
The 49ers made it a priority to get the ball in George Kittle’s hands early and it was a recipe for success until his costly fumble in the first quarter. Kittle faded more into the background as the game went on, but the Panthers defense adjusted to his early targets, which made it easier for the rest of the Niners targets. I’d normally knock Kittle more for the turnover, but he and Charlie Woerner were impactful enough as blockers to keep the grade on the above-average side.
Wide receivers: B
This was a weird game for the receiver group. Deebo Samuel hauled in a touchdown, but had multiple drops, missed a catch in the endzone because he slowed down his route, and finished with just two receptions on nine targets. Brandon Aiyuk had some big catches, but was the team’s leading receiver with only three receptions. Juan Jennings had the best overall performance with two huge third-down catches, highlighted by a powerful 32-yard reception where he evaded multiple tacklers to get inside the 10.
Offensive line: A-
The 49ers offensive line is obviously limited without Trent Williams, and Jaylon Moore got embarrassed on an early passing play by Brian Burns, but they made the necessary adjustments to give Garoppolo plenty of time in the pocket. More importantly, they worked with fantastic synergy in the run game, creating big holes all game long for Wilson.
Defensive line: B-
It’s surprising that the 49ers defense took a step back after Nick Bosa went down with a groin injury, particularly up front. Luckily, facing the Panthers abysmal offense (what are you doing Matt Rhule?) they were still able to generate some pressure. Charles Omenihu was the only Niners defensive lineman to have more than one QB hit and Drake Jackson recorded a late sack with the game out of reach. This unit has depth, but it goes from elite to simply average without Arik Armstead and Bosa.
Fred Warner is known as one of the best linebackers in the NFL because of his ability in coverage, but he reminded onlookers that he’s also a standout at a linebacker’s more traditional role. He recorded nine tackles on Sunday, adding a sack, two tackles for loss, and a pair of quarterback hits behind the line of scrimmage. Dre Greenlaw also led the team with 11 tackles, and Oren Burks got in a sack.
Emmanuel Moseley’s possible season-ending injury in the fourth quarter will overshadow what was an amazing showing from the Niners corners. Mooney Ward broke up four passes by himself. Moseley added a pair of passes defended by himself, and of course, added an interception that turned into the defense’s second pick-six of the season. The Niners might be betting on Jason Verrett returning to the field soon and staying healthy if Moseley is out for an extended period of time, but this is why they signed Ward last offseason. Things would be a lot more dire at the corner right now if not for that signing.
Jimmie Ward’s return was short-lived after he suffered a broken hand in the first quarter and that forced Tashaun Gipson into the rotation. Perhaps because the gameplan was built with Ward in mind, Gipson and breakout star Talanoa Hufanga turned in their worst performance of the season. It’s more about how well Hufanga has played this season than any struggles on Sunday. They did combine to miss a few tackles, something that needs to be cleaned up, but they also combined for nine tackles, 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss, a QB hit, and a pass defended.
Special teams: F
Robbie Gould had a field-goal attempt blocked for the second time this season and was forced to make a pair of tackles on long kickoff returns, suffering a knee injury on the second one. Unsurprisingly, Wishnowsky wildly missed one of his two extra-point attempts in Gould’s place. It seemed like the Niners had corrected the special team mistakes that plagued them last season, but the red flags are starting to show up once again.