It’s been a wild three years in San Francisco. Who can forget losing to the Super Bowl to the Ravens in February 2013? Or three Colin Kaepernick turnovers in the fourth quarter of the January 2014 NFC Title game in Seattle, culminating with Richard Sherman’s memorable interception in the end zone? The Jim Harbaugh-Trent Baalke standoff ruined the entire 2014 season, and the lack of talent – and out-of-his-league coach Jim Tomsula – made the franchise a laughingstock in 2015.
But the with one aggressive hire – Chip Kelly – the last two years have been completely forgotten and 49ers fans are dreaming of a return to the glory of the Jim Harbaugh years. That is, assuming this time, Baalke is going to be OK when his head coach gets the bulk of the credit.
So how quickly can the 49ers turn things around? Let’s analyze the situation:
Colin Kaepernick will be the big story. Half the audience: He sucks! Look at his last 25 games! Poor accuracy, too many turnovers, and he’s overpaid! The other half: So 29 games from 2012 and 2013 meant nothing? Did the early success go to his head? Once his Rabbi (that’s Harbaugh) had issues, the trickle down affected Kap, and he couldn’t recover. He just needs a new Rabbi.
The guess here: Baalke and Kelly will have to sit down with Kaepernick, and see if he’ll restructure his contract to make the yearly cost more team friendly. Tom Brady did it! (Kap: I’m not married to a Supermodel worth millions.) Hey, there’s always RGIII in free agency. And Blaine Gabbert, who got a career restart after the disaster in Jacksonville and looked capable in eight games. If Kap won’t play ball, and RGIII goes elsewhere, the 49ers have the 7th pick in the draft, and every QB except Jared Goff is likely to be available.
Carlos Hyde was a star at Ohio State, looked promising as a rookie (behind Frank Gore), and then started 2015 with a 168-yard effort in a win over Minnesota. He didn’t crack the 100-yard barrier in the other six games he played in. He couldn’t stay healthy. Hyde’s only 24, and there are plenty of other young or untested RBs dotting the roster. Mike Davis (4th round pick from South Carolina) played sparingly. Ditto Kendall Gaskins and DuJuan Harris. Reggie Bush‘s 1-year deal ended in injury. He turns 31 soon and after a strong 2013 (1,006 rushing yards, 506 yards receiving), he keeps getting hurt. Could Chip Kelly revive his career in a Darren Sproles-type role?
Anquan Boldin is sure-handed … but 35. It’s unclear if he’ll return. Torrey Smith averaged 20.1 ypc but most games he was invisible. Quinton Patton (30 catches, 4.48 40 speed) seems like an explosive weapon Chip Kelly will have fun with. Same with Bruce Ellington, the diminutive (5-foot-9, 195-pounds) South Carolina star who can line up just about anywhere.
One of the worst groups in the NFL. Left tackle Joe Staley leads a unit that ended the season with three undrafted guys starting on the line. This is a must-upgrade position for the 49ers. When Kaepernick thrived in 2012, they had the #1 ranked offensive line, and then #9 in 2013. Either through free agency or the draft (or both), the 49ers need to make some moves.
Ranked near the bottom in most categories. They were 27th in yards per play allowed (5.7); 30th in opposing QB completion percentage (68%), 30th in opposing QB yards per attempt (8.0) and on and on. Now, the good: NaVorro Bowman is one of the best MLBs in the NFL. As a result, the team’s run defense was rated 5th best in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Don’t worry too much about the 126.3 rushing yards per game allowed; many of those were accumulated in blowouts.
Aaron Lynch was a 5th round draft steal in 2014 and appears to be a budding star at OLB. Eli Harold, a rookie, showed potential at OLB, and he could supplant Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier quickly, as they had rough seasons. Rookie defense end Arik Armstead was the 13th rated 3-4 defensive end according to PFF, ranking ahead of Sheldon Richardson of the Jets. Nose tackle Ian Williams was rated 9th at his position, ahead of guys like Marcell Dareus (Bills), Bennie Logan (Eagles) and Michael Brockers (Rams). It’s not quite as much talent as Kelly had in the front seven in Philly, but not that far off.
The secondary is the weakest link to the defense. Sixth round pick Kenneth Acker had his moments – both high and low (benched in Seattle). Dontae Johnson replaced him late in the season. Tramaine Brock is the other corner. The 49ers don’t have a #1 cornerback. Former LSU safety Eric Reid is the best player they’ve got in the secondary, and Jimmie Ward could be right there with him next year. Almost certainly in play with the 7th pick in the draft (Kaepernick-pending): Jalen Ramsey of FSU and Vernon Hargreaves of Florida.
A question that must be asked: With the up-tempo offense, will the 49ers be able to build depth on defense? Because it killed the Eagles in 2015.
Three starters are up. Boldin has great hands and has had a great career, but you know Chip Kelly’s theory on receivers, dating back to Oregon: Anyone can play the system. Guard Alex Boone is a free agent. He ended the season on IR, but played well (compared to his fellow linemen), and you’ve got to bring him back. Starting ILB Michael Wilhoite – who also ended the year on IR; sensing a pattern? – is a free agent, too. He wouldn’t have started last year if Chris Borland hadn’t retired.
A few ideas, keeping a few things in mind: 1) According to science, it’s better to build through the draft than free agency, 2) Bad teams have to overpay, 3) The 49ers have money to spend.
You could back up the brinks for Josh Norman – the best cornerback in the NFL – and that’d be a home run. Go all out and get Norman or Sean Smith of the Chiefs and you’re in business. The 49ers have to face two of the best QBs in the NFC, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson, twice. You’ve got to upgrade cornerback.
There are a handful of good centers on the market – any of which would be an improvement over Marcus Martin, who was rated 38th out of 40 in the NFL by PFF. Kind of an important position. Daniel Kilgore was supposed to be the starting center two years ago, but he has played 12 total games the last two years.
I’d say go out and grab Mike Daniels from the Packers, but it’d be a stunner if Green Bay wasn’t able to keep him, because they draft well and keep everyone. [UPDATE: The Packers extended Daniels.] Miami probably won’t be able to afford defensive end Olivier Vernon, though the Dolphins’ sack leader is going to attract a lot of attention. Jerrell Freeman of Indianapolis would fit nicely next to Bowman in the 3-4.
Can you tell I’m excited by the Chip Kelly acquisition? GM Trent Baalke has been a punching bag since he got rid of Jim Harbaugh. I’ll lay off and give him a shot now that he’s brought in Kelly. But Baalke couldn’t handle a strong personality like Harbaugh, what makes you think he’ll be able to handle Kelly?
The non-Division schedule isn’t brutal. A visit to Carolina. Hosting the Patriots. So six of 16 games against 2015 playoff teams. But the AFC East is difficult – Jets, Bills, Dolphins – and they get the Cowboys and Saints at home.
But let’s be honest – this is all going to be about Kaepernick. Will they keep him? It’s difficult to project anything this team will do until Kaepernick’s fate is determined. Assuming he’s kept, and they can spend big money on a #1 CB and upgrading the OL, and they can get Ramsey/Hargreaves with the #7 pick, and I don’t see why .500 in the first year isn’t attainable.