When Kyle Shanahan took over as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers last year, his top priority was acquiring the type of quarterback he could try to help mold into the star this franchise of Joe Montana and Steve Young has lacked for so long.
Before the 49ers got Jimmy Garoppolo, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch had their eyes on Kirk Cousins.
Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for Cousins in the fourth-round draft pick’s first two years in the NFL with Washington, which used the franchise tag in consecutive offseasons to delay free agency when the two sides failed to reach a long-term contract agreement. Eventually, Cousins was going to be available.
”I thought we’d have a very good chance,” Shanahan said, adding: ”I think we fell into another alternative option that was pretty darn good.”
Last year, the 49ers swung a trade at the deadline with New England for Garoppolo. They won the last five games, all after Garoppolo took over as the starter, to create a groundswell of confidence they’re back on track as a contender .
Cousins took an $84 million fully guaranteed contract from Minnesota , where the 49ers will open the season on Sunday and Shanahan will surely share a warm pregame greeting with his former pupil.
”Much of the way that I play the position to this day is a result of the way that he taught me as a young player,” Cousins said.
Stuck behind Robert Griffin III his first two years, Cousins developed so well with Washington that he ultimately moved ahead of the second overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, was the head coach until his firing after the 2013 season. His successor Jay Gruden had no choice but to stick with Cousins.
”He’s the guy who gave them a chance to win for about four years,” Shanahan said. ”So I was really happy for him doing that, and I’m even more happy that he’s out of there doing it for someone else. I just hope it’s not on Sunday.”
Here are some other angles to follow for the game:
REPLACEMENT RUNNERS: The 49ers made former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon their top target in free agency, giving a $30 million contract to be the featured ball carrier.
Shanahan was excited about McKinnon’s versatility, counting on significant contributions from the fifth-year player in the passing game as well as on the ground, but McKinnon tore the ACL in his right knee in practice last week and will sit out his first season with San Francisco.
”Since the day we signed him we’ve been game-planning for Minnesota,” Shanahan said. ”So I’m not going to lie: It changes things pretty drastically.”
The roles of Alfred Morris and Matt Breida will be elevated in McKinnon’s absence. The fact that the opener is against his old team made the injury even worse.
”I was more devastated when it happened, just the feeling knowing that it wouldn’t be all right for Week 1,” McKinnon said.
COOKED TO ORDER: McKinnon’s role with the Vikings last year was elevated after Dalvin Cook tore his left ACL in the fourth game. Latavius Murray was especially productive over the second half of the schedule, too, but Cook has worked his way back to where he left off in that abbreviated rookie season.
”My knee is fine. It’s ready to go. I’m ready to play. Those carries were a plus. But I’ve been practicing the whole time, getting reps and going full speed,” he said.
GOODWIN’S GROWTH: Marquise Goodwin had 613 receiving yards over the last eight games of 2017, a breakout performance in his fifth year. Drafted in the third round by Buffalo, Goodwin never clicked there but now gives Garoppolo a potent downfield target.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer recalled being wowed by the speed of Goodwin, who made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team as a long jumper, when he was at Texas to watch another prospect’s pre-draft workout.
”He’s got such great speed, and that’s always been there, but now he’s become an all-purpose receiver,” Zimmer said. ”He goes over the middle. He catches underneath balls. He’s improved a lot.”
UNCLE SHERM: Cornerback Richard Sherman will make his debut for the 49ers, the team he tormented so often with Seattle’s ”Legion of Boom” defense. Sherman was released following a left Achilles tendon rupture that limited him to nine games last year.
After dealing with some minor injuries in training camp, the four-time Pro Bowl pick is eager to play his first game that counts in 10 months. He’ll have an immediate challenge opposite Minnesota’s wide receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who have not only been adjusting to Cousins but to new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
”We’re excited to see how he’s going to call a game,” Thielen said. ”We got a glimpse of it in preseason, but it’ll be fun to see what he does for a full 60 minutes.”
ROOKIE ROLES: The 49ers will lean heavily on two rookies: Fred Warner and Mike McGlinchey. Warner, a third-round draft pick from BYU, will play middle linebacker for Reuben Foster, who must serve a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s conduct and substances of abuse policies. McGlinchey, the first-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, will start at right tackle opposite Danielle Hunter, the rising star at defensive end for the Vikings.
”I’m just going to do my job,” McGlinchey said. ”That’s what I came here to do. There’s no pressure because that’s what I expect from myself.”
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