In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC West, continuing with the San Francisco 49ers today.
Recap of 2015: We should all just collectively forget 2015 happened for the 49ers, because it has not been a pretty ride since the San Francisco front office decided they didn’t have enough patience for Jim Harbaugh’s winning ways. Led by first time NFL Head Coach Jim Tomsula, who you probably guessed was from Pittsburgh without me telling you, San Fran racked up a 5-11 record that put them solidly last in the NFC West. Despite a mass exodus of star defensive players before the start of the season, including Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, the team managed to come in a decidedly average 18th in points allowed. That ranking looks stellar compared to the offense which unsurprisingly was dead last in points behind quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. Both Gabbert and Kaepernick finished the season in the bottom ten in the league for both Quarterback Rating and ESPN’s QBR. The only real positives to take from the season was the continued high level of play from NaVorro Bowman and finally managing to get the better of the Baltimore Ravens.
Significant Additions: HC Chip Kelly, G Zane Beadles
Significant Subtractions: G Alex Boone, WR Anquan Boldin, RB Reggie Bush
Potential Impact Rookies: DE DeForest Buckner, G Joshua Garnett, CB Will Redmond
Team Strengths: This defense has the potential to build dramatically on last season behind NaVorro, Ian Williams, Ahmad Brooks and a slew of high upside guys. Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil will not get mistaken for Wade Phillips, but if he can be competent he has plenty of talent to work with, including several former Oregon Ducks. The 49ers smartly drafted several cornerbacks in the draft to get plenty of depth and Buckner will likely impress as he gets serious first team minutes later in the season. This is still a unit in the making, but this season should start to show a resurgence of the tough 49ers defense that will hope to keep them in close games.
Team Weaknesses: Fun fact: the 49ers’ leading receiver in 2015 was 34 year old Anquan Boldin, who now plays for the Detroit Lions. That should give everyone pause since, (a) at 34 years old, Boldin probably should not be your number one option, and (b) not only did Boldin leave for Detroit, but no one replaced him. Torrey Smith is slated to be perhaps the only realistic receiving option, but he failed to live up to expectations in 2015. It probably isn’t fair to blame Smith too much though, since the root of San Francisco’s offensive problem is still the tough reality that either Kaepernick or Gabbert is going to be throwing the ball. And yet, the fact that both of those guys are in contention to be under center is upstaged by the fact that guard Alex Boone is gone, leaving the offensive line a significant question mark. In short, the 49ers offense looks somehow worse than last year’s abysmal product. The only saving grace is that Carlos Hyde is a legitimate option and may benefit from Chip Kelly’s system.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Some people may hate kickers in fantasy, but Phil Dawson will get it done for you most weeks. On a more serious note, Carlos Hyde should enjoy great dividends playing for Chip and is a good RB2 option. It may also be worth grabbing and stashing Kaepernick if he wins the starting job, as he has the potential to thrive with Kelly letting him loose on the field. If Torrey Smith loses the bricks he usually has tied to his hands, he has in the past shown the ability to be a WR2 and will have every opportunity to be the man this season. A good sleeper pick is rookie wideout Aaron Burbridge, who impressed while at Michigan State or tight end Garrett Celek.
2016 Outlook: Chip Kelly coming into town is frankly the biggest move the 49ers have made the past two offseasons, for better or worse. Kelly’s reputation as an offensive guru may be in question after middling success in Philadelphia, but Kaepernick is the type of mobile quarterback he likes and if he can unlock a Hyde/Kaepernick one-two punch, it may not be all bad for the 49ers offense. Expectations should be kept in check, though, since this team still needs to figure out who actually will start at quarterback, who is going to catch the ball, and if the offensive line will hold up long enough for either of those things to happen. This is, at the end of the day, another rebuilding year for 49ers in their second season post-Harbaugh. If the defense can show signs of improvement and Kelly can implement his offense, that should be count as a successful season, with real potential in 2017 and beyond. Overachievement would be an 8-8 season.
Record Prediction: Even if Kelly is able to build an identity for San Fran’s wayward offense quickly, there are too many anonymous players and a giant question mark at quarterback to expect sustainable success this season. Looking at the 49ers schedule, their toughest game may be at the Panthers in Week 2 but combined with the usual conference schedule as well as a visit from the Patriots in Week 11, this is not an easy slate. This is a team destined to go sub .500, likely around the 6-10 mark.
Photo Credit: Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY Sports