The San Francisco 49ers hype train: Should you hop on?

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While the age-old saying goes, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” if you ask any player on the San Francisco 49ers how they feel heading into 2018, chances are the answer will be similar to that of offensive tackle Joe Staley.

“I mean, 6-10 at the end of the season, but I don’t think there’s a team in the NFL that would want to see us right now in the playoffs,” Staley said in early January.

As the team that ended last season on a five-game win streak, the fans — and players — are quite optimistic about their future, to say the least.

The 49ers did not look the part of the postseason contender through much of 2017 as the franchise only put up 1 win in its first 11 games.

That was before the team’s savior Jimmy Garoppolo took the helm and led San Francisco to five straight wins. With Garoppolo at the helm, rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan’s roster flashed some serious potential over the final stretch of the season.

When Shanahan took his talent to the Bay Area, he was stuck with a roster full of generally mediocre players in terms of NFL talent. He couldn’t get his trademark zone-stretch-, play-action-filled offense going, and the defense had little consistency.

The entire future of the franchise seemed to change, however, when first-year general manager John Lynch pulled the trigger and sent a second-round pick over to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo.

With the highly touted quarterback, one who many saw as the successor to Tom Brady, the 49ers’ offense quietly but surely became reminiscent of Shanahan’s Atlanta Falcons offensive machine that was one quarter away from a Super Bowl championship. Even with a banged-up offensive line, Garoppolo’s quick release and tight ball placement allowed his otherwise pedestrian receivers to shine, even against some tough defenses.

The 49ers finished the season on a high note, highlighted by a win in which they put 44 points against the historically great Jacksonville Jaguars defense, but the players know that they cannot let the hype get to their heads.

These days, especially with the overwhelming influence of social media, the whole perception of a team can be changed instantly. After all, we all saw Garoppolo go from a backup to being coined “Jimmy Goat-ropollo,” “Jimmy Jesus” and “Gucci Garrop” by football fans around the country in just a matter of weeks.

It is extremely hard, however, to remain level-headed when you go undefeated with your new franchise quarterback, have a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and have one of the brightest and youngest head coach/general manager duos in the game.

Oh, and that’s not to mention that the franchise is also armed with nearly $80 million in cap space, good for second-most in the league.

It will be an attractive free agent destination for at least the next few years, and who knows the potential of this team if Lynch can give Shanahan and Garoppolo some real threats on the offensive side?

The 49ers also have some budding talent on the defensive end, including defensive end DeForest Buckner and linebacker Reuben Foster, who both put together strong 2017 seasons when on the field. Foster, in his rookie year, led all linebackers in run-stop percentage with the help of his dominant speed-size combination.

Foster, however, has run into trouble this offseason and his off-field issues have been a major concern for him in general. He is arguably defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s best player, but his relationship with the organization and Roger Goodell is on an increasingly short leash.

While it seems as though the only direction this team can go is up after three straight seasons with six wins or fewer, expectations should be tempered for a team that is young and inexperienced in almost all facets, from the players to the coaching staff to the front office.

Can the 49ers make the playoffs next season? Maybe, especially as the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals are nowhere near the powerhouses they once were, but the Rams just gained a major playmaker in cornerback Marcus Peters, adding to an already stacked roster in the NFC West.

Fans should expect this team to make major strides in the next year or two, but it will most likely not be a true contender without a few more draft gems and a couple of big-time free agents coming over to the Bay, which is unlikely to happen all in just one offseason. After a few years of post-Harbaugh misery, the 49ers should finally be competitive again, and, at the least, be very fun to watch with Jimmy G conducting the train.

Shailin Singh covers crew. Contact him at [email protected].