The San Francisco 49ers had a slew of advantages when it came to the way their roster was constructed in 2019, which helped them steamroll through the playoffs and come within a quarter of winning the Super Bowl.

Some of their best players, like George Kittle, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Fred Warner, were playing on affordable rookie contracts. Even Richard Sherman, who earned All-Pro honors, was on a below-market deal with a $9.9 million salary cap hit, less than half of Rams’ star cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s $20 million average annual salary.

Ahead of Sunday’s season finale against the Seattle Seahawks, capping San Francisco’s injury-ravaged campaign, 49ers players believe the team will be back in Super Bowl contention next season, when their star players are healthy enough to contribute.

After all, the 49ers (6-9) haven’t had Bosa since the first quarter of Week 2, Kittle missed half the season with knee and foot injuries and Sherman was out for 10 weeks with ongoing calf soreness.

Not to mention starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who sprained his ankle twice and appeared in just six games, with his only healthy outing coming in the opener. And running back Raheem Mostert, who had a record-setting performance in last season’s NFC title game, appeared in only eight games this season because of knee and ankle ailments.

And Dee Ford, the team’s most expensive defender in 2019, didn’t play after Week 1’s loss to Arizona. Deebo Samuel, top two centers Weston Richburg and Ben Garland, and safety Jaquiski Tartt all missed significant time with injuries. The list goes on.

“I know it sucks losing games and it sucks that we got a Super Bowl roster and it hurt,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “It sucks that we weren’t able to put those guys on the field together, as many times as we needed to have a successful season.”

On its face, the idea the 49ers could return to championship contention in 2021 with their healthy stars back and healthy is sound. The team dealt with its share of injuries in 2019, but none were crippling. Bosa, Garoppolo, Sherman and Kittle combined to miss three starts. After Sunday, they will have missed 43 this season.

But replacing 2019’s success won’t be easy, at least without fortifying the roster with cheap draft picks. Kittle is making $15 million per season, up substantially from his $719,574 cap hit from 2019. Warner, who made the Pro Bowl for the first time this season, is due for a market-setting extension this offseason that could cost about as much as Kittle. Warner counted for $915,684 in 2019, though he’s in line for a Bobby Wagoner-like deal paying $18 million per year.

And Williams’ looming free agency is a significant question for San Francisco this spring. He could command a contract in the $20 million per year range, making it likely his contract, paired with Warner’s, eats up most of the team’s projected $30 million cap space. That’s before accounting for any other free agents, like fullback Kyle Juszczyk, cornerback Jason Verrett and talented nickle K’Waun Williams. Sherman has already made it clear he doesn’t expect to be back.

There won’t be much financial wiggle room to address key areas of need in the secondary (the team has no corners signed for next season and Tartt, their strong safety, is also a free agent), interior of the offensive line (center and right guard were problem areas throughout the season) and defensive end opposite Bosa (the team’s sack leader, Kerry Hyder, might have priced himself out of San Francisco’s range). The team could enter the upcoming draft with 10 picks, including a third rounder if defensive coordinator Robert Saleh becomes a head coach. They wound need to hit on a majority of them, like they did with Bosa and Samuel in 2019.

It won’t be easy for San Francisco to recreate that magic. With Buckner starring for the Indianapolis Colts, Javon Kinlaw will have to make a big jump in his second season. Arik Armstead enters Week 17 with just 3.5 sacks after leading the team with 10.0 last year. He’ll need to bounce back to justify the five-year, $75 million pact he signed in the spring.

Kittle this week said something similar to a theme that arose from 2018 when injuries also derailed that season. That team went 4-12, but a slew of young players were able to play and develop before contributing to the Super Bowl run a year later, Kittle and Warner included. That same concept could apply to 2020.

“The guys that stepped up got great reps, got quality reps,” Kittle said. “They got to get better every single day. Because of that, we got young guys that were put in a position they would not have been in had they not had that opportunity.

”And I think that our team definitely took a step forward when it comes to young guys getting reps on the field, especially since we didn’t get OTAs or training camp, really.”

Just about everything that could have gone wrong for the 49ers this season did. They lost a slew of their most important players by the second game of the season, they had an MRI truck break down on their way assess injuries while the team was staying in West Virginia between Week 2 and 3, and they’ve spent the last month in Arizona because Santa Clara County (and later the entire state of California), banned contact sports.

But head coach Kyle Shanahan thinks all that happened in 2020 will make his team stronger for 2021.

“Every time we get a little bit of juice, it seems like two things are taken away. I think that’s what’s been the challenge, just for the coaching staff and for the players, for everyone in here,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I’ve been real proud of the players and the way they’ve acted, the way they’ve handled themselves and that’s why I’m truly not going to count this year as a negative.

“It wasn’t fun. It’s not what we or our fans wanted, but I believe the way we went through it, if you go through things the right way, I think it hardens you and makes you stronger and makes you better. I feel like, from an individual standpoint, I feel like that’s how almost everyone in the building did that. When you do that individually, it makes your building a lot stronger.”

There’s no doubt the strength of Shanahan’s team will be tested in 2021, because while many of the players will be the same from the Super Bowl run in 2019, the situation will be significantly different.

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Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.

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