WELCOME BACK: San Francisco quarterbacking excellence. Not since the 20th century—with Joe Montana and Steve Young—have Niners fans been so giddy about the man calling the signals. Here's what's to love about 26-year-old JIMMY GAROPPOLO: He has a quick, compact release; he can get the ball out extra early, or extra late, in the down. He's steely enough to hang tough in a collapsing pocket, and mobile enough to escape. Also, there's his football IQ. He was acquired from the Patriots last Oct. 31 and started his first game 33 days later, not enough time for any QB to master KYLE SHANAHAN'S scheme and its verbiage. But Garoppolo grasped the route combinations and basic designs so well that he was able to make plays as he went, going 5--0 as a starter. Imagine what he'll accomplish with a full offseason of preparation.

Shanahan's scheme is the NFL's most envied. It features presnap shifting and motioning that help reveal a defense's intentions, and pass plays designed to exploit those intentions. Running backs who can catch are key, which is why in March the 49ers signed Vikings free agent JERICK MCKINNON to a four-year, $30 million deal.

The most critical D-line position in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's scheme is the 3-technique, manned by explosive, long-armed DEFOREST BUCKNER. The 6'7", 300-pound sensation is a dark-horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

The lack of a true edge rusher is a concern. Buckner and SOLOMON THOMAS, last year's No. 3 pick, are potentially dominant inside, but fourth-year end ARIK ARMSTEAD needs to bring more pressure from the outside. At 6'7" and 292 pounds, Armstead is long and talented, but he's really more of an interior 3--4 end than the pure 4--3 end, which is how he'll line up in San Francisco.

Much rides on the performance of three-time All-Pro cornerback RICHARD SHERMAN, 30, signed from the Seahawks this offseason after he ruptured his right Achilles last November. Other than AHKELLO WITHERSPOON, who showed flashes as a third-round rookie last year, the Niners have no proven entities at corner.

2017 RECORD 6W 10L

SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 9W 7L

2018 SCHEDULE

SEPT.

9th @VIKINGS

16th LIONS

23rd @CHIEFS

30th @CHARGERS

OCT.

7th CARDINALS

15th @PACKERS [Monday]

21st RAMS

28th @CARDINALS

NOV.

1st RAIDERS [Thursday]

12th GIANTS [Monday]

18th BYE

25th @BUCS

DEC.

2nd @SEAHAWKS

9th BRONCOS

16th SEAHAWKS

23rd BEARS

30th @RAMS

Monday

Thursday

Position Rankings

QB

11

RB

24

WR/TE

28

O-LINE

16

FRONT 7

22

DB

31

Weakness

MARQUISE GOODWIN and PIERRE GARÇON are a good start for this unit, but the other receiver spots are question marks. It will help, though, that coach KYLE SHANAHAN is a master at getting receivers matched up against linebackers.