The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 8. Today, the San Francisco 49ers.
Last year’s record: 4-12
Head coach: Chip Kelly
Core players: NaVorro Bowman (LB), Joe Staley (LT) Carlos Hyde (RB), Arik Armstead (DL), Torrey Smith (WR)
2016 is about… Finding some sort of direction. It was striking to see former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo to go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, considering where San Francisco is at right now as an organization. The 49ers used to be the NFL’s model franchise back in the 1980s and 1990s and now might be the most dysfunctional organization in pro sports. Ownership doesn’t have a clue (forcing out Jim Harbaugh to promote Jim Tomsula is an all-time bonehead decision), GM Trent Baalke isn’t as smart as he thinks he is and his draft record has been rather lousy, and the roster has taken a dramatic dropoff since the club was in Super Bowl contention from 2011 through 2013 under Harbaugh.
After one abysmal season under Tomsula, Chip Kelly was brought in as the new head coach to right the ship after a tumultuous year in Philadelphia where he butted heads with management and went power crazy. So all is well, right? Between the lack of talent at QB, the Colin Kaepernick Saga and an ugly pre-season, Kelly’s first season has gotten off to a tough start. The whole organization is hoping the former star college coach can live up to his potential and get the once-dominant franchise back on track.
They lost… Tomsula, who was a quality defensive line assistant earlier in his career, but maybe the least-qualified head coach in recent NFL history. In terms of on-field personnel, the club saw a couple of veteran players depart over the off-season, including receiver Anquan Boldin and guard Alex Boone. Boone was a five-year starter at guard (and briefly tackle) for San Francisco and a grinder up front, but he wanted to move on from San Francisco and landed a massive deal with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency. Boldin, 34, recorded two straight 1,000-yard seasons as a rock-solid possession receiver after joining the 49ers in 2013 but his numbers declined last year in terms of catches, yards per catch, touchdowns and total yards. He landed a deal with the Detroit Lions just before the start of training camp.
But they got… Even with a boatload of cap room, the 49ers did almost nothing in free agency. Maybe that’s the club admitting that they’re in need of a long-term rebuild or maybe Kelly was hesitant to make moves after aggressive free-agent spending burned him with the Eagles. Either way, they made no notable veteran additions outside of backup guard Zane Beadles.
The 49ers’ biggest pick-ups came via the draft as they landed monster defensive lineman DeForest Bucker with the No. 7 overall pick and later traded into the back end of the first round to draft guard Josh Garnett out of Stanford. The club also saw Anthony Davis, who surprisingly retired prior to last season, return to football, and the former starting right tackle is expected to shift over to guard this year and be a regular starter on the right side.
Growing from within… The 49ers have not drafted well since the 2011 season, but there are still some ascending young players on the roster. Safety Jaquiski Tartt showed some flashes last year and projects as a future starter while the defensive line offers the most upside with Buckner and his former college teammate, Arik Armstead, headlining a rebuilt unit that features three first-round picks.
On offence, the 49ers will be hoping Carlos Hyde can stay healthy because there isn’t much talent at the skill positions otherwise. The Ohio State product has the potential to be a game breaker in Kelly’s scheme, assuming he stays on the field. Also, fourth-year tight end Vance McDonald began to come on late last season with QB Blaine Gabbert under centre and McDonald has looked very good throughout pre-season. He could be the team’s best red-zone weapon in the passing game.
Why this team? Umm… umm… All jokes aside, the 49ers have enough young talent on defence, especially up front and in the secondary, to stay in games if Kelly can scheme his offence to moderate production. Gabbert wasn’t a total disaster and Kelly’s offence is built to protect quarterbacks as long as Hyde can pull his weight in the running game.
Why not? Gabbert, while improving, is still one of the least-accomplished starting QBs in the NFL with a roster that severely lacks talent at receiver. Overall, the club lacks front-end talent, and any progress from Kelly could be stunted by all the dysfunction from the ownership and management level. Just ask Harbaugh. Maybe the whole plan is gearing for the No. 1–overall pick in 2017.
How much hope? 3/10. There are some players here to be excited about, but if you’re expecting this team to be in contention for a playoff spot, well, you might be the most optimistic person in the world.