Quarterbacks provide hope in 49ers-Vikings opener
All the attention will be on the quarterbacks when the San Francisco 49ers play the Minnesota Vikings in the season opener on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
It will be the Minnesota debut for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who signed a three-year, $84 million contract with the Vikings as a free agent after playing his first six seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Cousins replaces Case Keenum, who led the Vikings to the NFC championship game before losing the Philadelphia Eagles. Minnesota is counting on Cousins to take them one more step, to the Super Bowl.
Cousins will be working under John DeFilippo, who is in his first season as the Vikings' offensive coordinator, so it may take some time for the offense to adjust. The offense showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason but it was a bit erratic. DeFilippo was the Eagles' quarterbacks coach a year ago.
The 49ers are also thinking big with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback to start his first full season with San Francisco. He is 7-0 as a starter in the NFL, and that includes 5-0 with the 49ers, turning the team's 1-10 start into a 6-10 finish.
Garopollo will have his hands full with the Vikings' defense, which returns 10 starters for a unit that led the NFL in scoring defense and total defense a year ago.
He will try to make use of wide receivers Pierre Garcon (40 catches in eight games last season) and Marquise Goodwin (56) often, because the 49ers may not have much of a running game.
But the 49ers must neutralize Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen, who had 13 sacks last season, and defensive end Danielle Hunter, who had seven. They will be a challenge for 49ers offensive tackles Joe Staley and first-round pick Mike McGlinchey. The 49ers' offensive line should be better, but it remains to be seen whether it is good enough to hold its own against Minnesota.
The Vikings' key defensive back is safety Harrison Smith, who intercepted five passes and had 70 tackles while being named All-Pro.
Matt Breida and veteran Alfred Morris will try to provide a running threat for San Francisco after Jerick McKinnon suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice Saturday.
He signed a four-year, $30 million deal in the offseason and was expected to be an every-down back and was an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
Breida rushed for 465 yards last season, but has never started an NFL game. Morris, 29, was signed late in the preseason.
The Vikings are hoping running back Dalvin Cook can return to top form after showing potential in an abbreviated rookie season. He ran for 354 yards and added 11 receptions for 90 yards in the first four games last season before he suffered a torn ACL that ended his season.
He may find some running room against a San Francisco defense that ranked 24th in total defense last year and 22nd in rushing defense.
The 49ers' middle linebacker position is a concern with Reuben Foster being suspended.
But more eyes will be focused on Cousins as he tries to connect with wide receiver Adam Thielen, who ranked second in the NFL last season in receiving yardage with 1,276, and Stefon Diggs (eight TD catches in 2017).
Will Cousins try to attack 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who will be making his debut with San Francisco? Sherman is a three-time All-Pro selection, but is coming off a torn Achilles tendon that ended his 2017 season after nine games.
Ahkello Witherspoon is the other 49ers cornerback after starting nine games last season.
The 49ers need to find a pass rush somewhere. Elvis Dumervil, who led the team in sacks last season with 6.5, has retired, leaving defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner as the top returning sackers with three apiece a year ago.
However, the offensive line may be the Vikings' biggest weakness. Center Pat Elflein started 14 games as a rookie last year but didn't play in the preseason or practice throughout as he makes his way back from offseason shoulder and ankle injuries. Nick Easton, the starting left guard and backup center, is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a bulging disk in his neck.
The Vikings lead the all-time series 21-19-1 and have won three of the past four meetings. San Francisco won their most-recent matchup 20-3 in 2015.
Updated September 5, 2018