Kyle Shanahan, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, said his 3-5 team needs one simple ingredient to get back on track — for its best players to play better.
The notion is simple, perhaps incredulously so, though there is something to it. Field a quality roster, have that roster play to its potential — it seems an obvious recipe for success. But, perhaps, the answer isn’t just that the Niners’ good players need to play better. Perhaps, the answer is that the Niners need to put better players on the field than the best they can currently send into the huddle.
On Monday, November 15, two such players are poised to return to game action.
Running back Jeff Wilson Jr., the Niners’ leading rusher from one year ago, is set to play his first minutes of the regular season against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football in what is unquestionably a make-or-break game for San Francisco. Safety Jimmy Ward, who sustained a quad injury against the Chicago Bears on Halloween, was back at practice Friday and is likely a full-go this weekend, as well.
Wilson missed the eight starts of 2021 on the injured reserve list (IR) after suffering a bizarre knee injury during the offseason while getting up from a chair inside the Niners’ locker room.
The Twitter account belonging to 49ers Webzone posted the news of Wilson’s imminent return to game action on social media Friday morning, November 12.
Wilson Could Compete for Starting, or RB2, Minutes Right Away
If healthy, Wilson likely would have started for the first time this season in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The week prior against the Detroit Lions the Niners lost Raheem Mostert, the team’s consensus No. 1 running back, to a season-ending knee injury. While Mostert was the go-to guy in 2020, as well, he missed eight starts due to injury that season, which opened the door for Wilson.
The talented fourth-year back sprinted through it, leading the Niners in rushing with 600 yards and 7 TDs on the ground, according to statistics provided by ESPN. Wilson also caught 13 passes for 133 yards and 3 TDs.
But with Wilson already injured before kickoff in Week 1, Mostert’s departure made way for two rookie rushers to showcase their skills during the early portion of the season — fifth-round selection Elijah Mitchell and third-round pick Trey Sermon.
Mitchell proved out and nabbed the starting job in San Francisco. Save for a minor shoulder injury he suffered against the Eagles in Week 2, he has yet to surrender the top spot on the depth chart. Mitchell has amassed 469 rushing yards and 3 TDs in five starts (six total appearances) over the course of his rookie season, per ESPN.
The Niners’ No. 2 RB entering this weekend is JaMychal Hasty, who played behind Mostert and Wilson last year. However, both Mitchell and Hasty are listed as questionable this week, with Hasty missing practice Friday due to an ankle issue, while Wilson is a full-go.
Shanahan guaranteed Wilson will see snaps against the Rams, meaning he will begin competing for the starting job, or at least the role of backup, come kickoff Monday.
Ward Will Help a Defense That Struggled Against Cardinals’ Backups
Matt Barrows, of The Athletic, reported that Ward was back at practice Friday along with Wilson, noting that the Niners’ defense will benefit substantially if the safety can get back onto the field this weekend.
“Jimmie Ward and Jeff Wilson are in uniform for the start of today’s practice,” Barrows wrote online. “Defense suffered without Ward’s speed tackling vs. Cardinals.”
San Francisco was dealt an embarrassing 31-17 defeat last Sunday at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals, who were without starting quarterback Kyler Murray and top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Even despite those absences, the Cards ran circles around the Niners on their way to an NFL-best 8-1 record.
The Rams (7-2) are almost just as good as Arizona, at least record-wise, and just added former Pro-Bowler Odell Beckham Jr. to an already prolific offense. The Niners can use all the help they can get on both sides of the ball Monday night, and Ward and Wilson are a good start.