NFL season preview 2017: San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, left, and Matt Barkley throw during practice. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the San Francisco 49ers.

Head coach: Kyle Shanahan
Last season’s record: 2-14
Playoff result: Did not come remotely close to qualifying

Key free agent gains: Everything starts at quarterback, and the 49ers brought in two uninspiring options in Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley in the off-season. Hoyer figures to be the Week 1 starter, which sums up what we can expect in the Bay Area in 2017.

Defensively, the 49ers added five-time Pro Bowler Elvis Dumervil, who battled injury in his final season with the Baltimore Ravens a year ago. Dumervil has impressed his new team in training camp thus far and could be due for a bounce-back season.

The signing of longtime Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon should at least give Hoyer a reliable target through the air. The veteran passed the 1,000-yard mark in 2016 but failed to eclipse 800 in either of the two seasons prior. San Francisco also made Kyle Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in the league to help pave the way for Carlos Hyde in the ground attack.

Key free agent losses: Polarizing quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who remains unsigned, opted out of the final year of his deal to test free agency. Pivots Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder also departed, opening the door for Hoyer and Barkley.

The losses of Antoine Bethea and Glenn Dorsey hurt the most on the defensive side of the ball while 42-year-old immortal kicker Phil Dawson was replaced by veteran Robbie Gould on special teams.

Key draft picks: Third-overall selection Solomon Thomas, a defensive end out of Stanford, should be a difference-maker right away in the front seven. Thomas registered 8.5 sacks and made 14 tackles for losses for Stanford in 2016, and gives the 49ers a force on the D-Line for the present and the future.

San Francisco also drafted linebacker Reuben Foster with the 31st pick in the draft. Foster won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker while playing for Alabama last season and earned SEC Championship MVP honours as well. The 23-year-old did raise some red flags prior to the draft as he had surgery on his shoulder, got kicked out of the NFL combine and also failed a drug test after one of his urine samples was reported as diluted.

Still, the talent was too enticing for John Lynch to pass up. Now Foster could step right into the starting spot vacated by free-agent acquisition Malcolm Smith, who is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

X-factor: It’s not every day you can call a four-time First Team All-Pro player an X-factor, but linebacker NaVorro Bowman fits the bill. The 29-year-old had his 2016 season cut short due to a torn Achilles, but has clearly been one of the NFL’s best when he’s healthy. How will he perform coming off an injury of that magnitude? The 49ers could use a lift from Bowman on the field, but will also be hoping he can groom Foster into a fellow Pro Bowler.

2017 will be a success if: They can double their win total. This accomplishment wouldn’t actually be all that impressive considering the 49ers only need four wins to make it happen. Still, it’s hard to imagine this San Francisco team hitting that mark. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, and supporters of the team appear to be in for a long journey back to contention.

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