Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene in 2012. A 2011 2nd round pick, Kaepernick played well enough in a spot start in relief of an injured Alex Smith that he got Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage at that point, benched and proceeded to start the rest of the season, easily head coach Jim Harbaugh’s most controversial decision in San Francisco, but also his most signature decision. Kaepernick started the final 7 games of the regular season plus three playoff games en route to a Super Bowl loss in which they were a few yards away from winning. Kaepernick finished the 2012 season with a combined 62.1% completion, 8.77 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions between the playoffs and regular season, while rushing for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns on 88 carries (7.72 YPC). Smith was traded to Kansas City for a pair of 2nd rounders and Kaepernick was the undisputed starter going into 2013.
The 2013 season was more of the same. The 49ers didn’t return to the Super Bowl, but made the NFC Championship for the 3rd year in a row, losing a close one in Seattle. Kaepernick completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while rushing for 524 yards and 4 touchdowns on 92 carries (5.70 YPC). Of course, all good things must come to an end and the hype train about Colin Kaepernick being the next big thing came to a crashing halt over the past year or so.
Kaepernick became much more expensive, signing a 6-year, 126 million dollar extension ahead of a 2014 contract year, which inevitably came with more responsibility and greater expectations. The 49ers would not be able to keep all of their talent under the cap long-term with Kaepernick’s contract eating up so much of the cap and, after 3 straight fantastic seasons that failed to yield a Super Bowl ring, the 49ers’ championship window seemed to be getting tighter in a hurry.
A year later, that window seems to be shut. The 49ers went 8-8 in Kaepernick’s first season on the extension. Kaepernick gets a lot of the blame, rightfully so coming off of down season performance wise, but the reality is that Kaepernick was just what he always was, an average to above average quarterback that can win the Super Bowl, but needs help, the kind of guy you have to pay top quarterback money to keep, even though he’s not necessarily a top quarterback. Kaepernick completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 639 yards and 1 touchdown on 104 carries (6.14 YPC). Those were similar to his career numbers, as he’s completed 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while rushing for 1576 yards and 10 touchdowns on 261 carries (6.04 YPC) in his career. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th, 18th, and 28th ranked quarterback in 3 seasons as a starter.
The fact that he hasn’t really progressed as a pocket passer, particularly in terms of his accuracy, is concerning and the flaws that dropped him to the 2nd round are still present and probably permanent at this point, as he heads into his 5th year in the league, his age 28 season. But the biggest issue with San Francisco isn’t Kaepernick; it’s that they don’t have the dominant supporting cast around him anymore. And how that supporting cast deteriorated so fast is the particularly fascinating part of this team.
Last season, the problem for the 49ers was injuries as they finished with the 5th most adjusted games lost in the NFL. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story as that doesn’t take into account that Aldon Smith missed 9 games with suspension and that the players they lost to injuries weren’t all just average starters. Smith is their best pass rusher and Patrick Willis (10 games missed) and NaVorro Bowman (16 games missed) were among the best middle linebackers in the NFL.
The 49ers should have fewer injuries this year, but, that being said, that won’t necessarily translate into the win column. The 49ers finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential, even worse than their 8-8 record would have suggested, and it’s hard to argue that the 2015 49ers, when healthy, are more talented than the 2014 49ers were last year, even with all the injuries. The 49ers had an off-season full of losses on both sides of the field and at head coach, as Jim Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan, leaving first time head coach (minus one interim start in 2010) Jim Tomsula in charge.
Say what you want about Jim Harbaugh’s big personality clashing with management and sometimes players, but there’s no denying he’s an amazing offensive mind who injected life into this franchise and that he’ll be sorely missed, especially on the offensive end. Jim Tomsula, while well liked, is strictly a defensive minded coach and the top offensive mind on the staff is Geep Chryst, who has very limited experience as a playcaller. It won’t help Kaepernick’s development that he’ll be learning a new offense for the first time in his career, coming off of the worst season of his career.
Meanwhile, some of those players who suffered injuries last season will not return this year because they’ve retired. Right tackle Anthony Davis is one of them. One of four 49er starters from 2014 to retire this off-season, Davis’ retirement might be the most interesting of them. Davis was limited to 7 games by injury in 2014 and graded out below average, but he graded out 9th in 2012 and 29th in 2013, so he was still a player that could have helped them this season. Even more interesting is Davis, a former 1st round pick, was only going into his age 26 season and was scheduled to make 3.65 million.
Davis says he’s just giving himself a year for his mind and body to recover and he did suffer a serious concussion in 2014. That suggests he could be back in 2016 ready to pick up where he left off under the same contract. I’m inclined to believe that story, but that doesn’t help them in 2015. Davis was smart waiting until after the draft to announce this so the 49ers couldn’t draft his replacement and his job would still be there in 2016, but that really leaves the 49ers in a pickle. That’s what makes Davis’ retirement so interesting.
Jonathan Martin started at right tackle in Davis’ absence last season, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible, which got him waived this off-season, so he isn’t even there anymore. In his absence, it’ll likely be veteran Erik Pears, with 7th round rookie Trent Brown as the backup. That’s not good news because Pears is not a starting caliber player in the NFL anymore. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season and is going into his age 33 season. Borderline unworthy of a 53-man roster, Pears represents a steep downgrade on Davis. He’s one of the worst starters in the NFL.
The 49ers could and should look for alternatives on the open market, as the rookie probably isn’t ready, but Davis coincidentally also waited until after Joseph Barksdale left the open market, leaving the right tackle market very thin. The 49ers could also move either right guard Alex Boone to right tackle or left guard Brandon Thomas to right tackle. However, Boone is a solid right guard so they might not want to mess with something that works, while Thomas has still never played a snap in the NFL. Besides, either of those two moving outside would force either Joe Looney or Marcus Martin to start at guard and both of those two players were horrible last season.
The most likely scenario is that Pears or a free agent starts at right tackle, with Thomas and Boone starting at left guard and right guard respectively. Thomas hasn’t played an NFL snap, going in the 3rd round in 2014 and missing his whole rookie year with a torn ACL, but, if not for the ACL tear, he would have likely been a first round pick. He’ll replace Mike Iupati, who was Pro Football Focus’14th ranked guard in 2014 and who signed a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Cardinals this off-season. Thomas is unproven, but there is upside here with a first round talent. A collegiate offensive tackle, he’s a better fit inside at guard in the NFL.
Boone, meanwhile, is much more experienced. He hasn’t been as good as he was in his first year as a starter, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2012, but he’s been solid, grading out 39th in 2013 and 18th in 2014. On top of that, he’s made 46 out of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons combined (one of which was at left tackle), after the 2009 undrafted free agent was able to get over early career alcohol problems that dated back to his time at Ohio State. Another collegiate offensive tackle who is a better fit at guard in the NFL, Boone is the 49ers 2nd best offensive lineman.
At center, it’ll be a battle between Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin. Kilgore should win the job, but Martin, a 2014 3rd round pick, was drafted to be the starter at this point. Kilgore won the starting job over Martin when he was a rookie last year, but he proved to be better than just a stopgap, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked center, despite being limited to 463 snaps in 7 games by injuries. Through week 7, prior to his injury, Kilgore was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked center. Martin took over and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked center out of 41 eligible. From week 8 on, he ranked 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, a steep drop-off from Kilgore. Kilgore, assuming he’s healthy, should be the week 1 starter again. Inexperienced with 7 career starts since going into the 5th round in 2011, Kilgore has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL. His return will help this line.
The only offensive lineman who is locked into a position right now is left tackle Joe Staley, who fortunately remains as one of the best offensive linemen in football. A remainder of their previously dominant seasons, Staley is just one of 4 players on either side of the ball that are starters now that were also starters in 2011 (Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman are the other 3). A 2007 1st round pick, Staley has started 114 games over the past 8 seasons, grading out above average in every season except 2010. Since 2012, Staley has graded out 1st, 5th, and 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, the only offensive tackle in the league to finish in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game. He’s the saving grace of a crumbling offensive line.
Not only do the 2015 49ers have just 4 starters in common with the 2011 team, but they actually have 2 starters at wide receiver in common with the 2012 Ravens team that beat them in the Super Bowl, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. I guess if you can’t beat them, sign them. Smith was their big free agent acquisition this off-season and he’ll actually be an upgrade over the departed Michael Crabtree (who graded out 95th out of 110 eligible wide receivers last off-season), but the 49ers did overpay him on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. The 49ers would have been better off keeping Crabtree on a cheap 1-year deal (he signed with the Raiders for 3 million) and using that money to re-sign Mike Iupati or add at another position.
Torrey Smith has played all 64 games since he’s been in the NFL, starting the last 62 of them, and he’s been decently productive with 213 catches for 3591 yards and 30 touchdowns. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is a fantastic deep threat, but he’s not particularly good at anything else. He’s still an inconsistent route runner and has caught just 117 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in 4 seasons. He’s also never graded out higher than 37th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in any of his 4 seasons in the league. The 49ers are playing too much money for someone of Smith’s skill set as he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 guy.
He’ll be the #1A receiver to Anquan Boldin’s #1B (or vice versa), much like was the case in Baltimore. The problem is that Boldin is now several years older than he was when he played in Baltimore, going into his age 35 season. The 49ers are putting a lot of faith in an aging receiver. He’s been very productive in two seasons in San Francisco, topping 1000+ yards in both seasons and totaling a combined 168 catches for 2241 yards and 12 touchdowns, all at the price of a 6th round pick and 12 million dollars over 2 years (he’ll take home another 6 million this season, in the final year of his current contract). Boldin has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 12,406 receiving yards currently, 19th all-time.
However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin may have had his last 1000+ yard season ever in 2014 and could easily see his abilities fall off a cliff in his contract year in 2015. That’s not good news, especially with how thin the 49ers are at wide receiver, after losing #3 receiver Steve Johnson this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver on just 305 snaps last season, averaging 2.14 yards per route run, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the wide receiver position.
With Johnson and fellow veteran Brandon Lloyd gone, it’ll be a 3-way battle for the #3 job between Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, and DeAndre Smelter. Patton is a 2013 4th round pick who has played 151 underwhelming career snaps, while Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick, grading out slightly above average on 96 snaps as a rookie. Smelter, a 4th round rookie, is a long-shot at this point. Whoever wins that battle, it’ll be tough to count on them to be as productive as Johnson was last season. Also, if Boldin’s abilities fall off a cliff or either Boldin or Smith suffer an injury, whoever wins that battle will be tough to trust in a larger role.
Without much depth at wide receiver, the 49ers could opt to use a bunch of two-tight end sets this season. However, despite the fact that they’ve put a lot of resources into the tight end position, the 49ers aren’t very good there. The 49ers kept Vernon Davis this off-season, even though he was scheduled to make a non-guaranteed 4.9 million and even though he was coming off of a career worst season, out of desperation at the position.
Not only was Davis’ 2014 26/245/2 slash line his worst production since his rookie year in 2006, but he also struggled as a run blocker, an area he’s generally been very good in. Davis had that minimal production despite 47 targets (55.3% catch rate) and 417 routes run (0.59 yards per route run) and was Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. The 49ers are banking on a bounce back year (he graded out above average in every season from 2010-2014), but, in his age 31 season, Davis might not be able to deliver.
Vance McDonald, a 2013 2nd round pick, is going to be the #2 tight end again. McDonald hasn’t shown anything as a pass catcher in two years in the league, catching 10 passes in 23 games and grading out below average in both seasons as a pass catcher, but the 6-4 267 pounder is a phenomenal run blocker, grading out above average in that aspect in both seasons in the NFL. He only played 218 snaps in 2014, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking tight end if he were eligible. He should have a bigger role in 2015 in a make or break 3rd season for the youngster. The 49ers would obviously really like him to come around as a pass catcher, but there are no guarantees he ever develops into anything more than a 6th offensive lineman.
The 49ers also use a fullback a fair amount as fullback Bruce Miller played 473 snaps last season, most in the NFL by a fullback. He graded out 3rd at his position, adding 18 catches for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns, and has graded out 10th, 7th, 5th, and 3rd in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, since being drafted in the 5th round in 2011. The problem is he could be facing a suspension after domestic violence, though his spousal abuse charges did get dropped to misdemeanor vandalism. The 49ers also used a 4th round pick on Blake Bell, a collegiate quarterback turned tight end, but he probably won’t have a big role until 2016 at the earliest. It’s a weak and thin receiving corps beyond Smith and Boldin.
Another starter the 49ers lost this off-season was Frank Gore, who signed with the Colts on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Frank Gore had a fantastic 10-year run with the 49ers, rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2442 carries, playing all but 12 games at one of the most physical positions in the NFL. He added 342 catches for 2883 yards and another 11 scores through the air, while being one of the best pass protecting running backs and one of the best teammates in the NFL. He was everything the 49ers could have asked out of the 2005 3rd round pick, talented, complete, durable, and a great teammate. His rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. He’s definitely bound for the 49ers’ Ring of Honor.
However, all good things must come to an end. Gore is going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. The 49ers were wise to move into the future at the position, rather than signing him to a multi-year deal with 7.5 million guaranteed like the Colts.
In his absence, the 49ers will use a committee at running back, with 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde as the clear lead back. Hyde rushed for 333 yards and a touchdown on 83 carries (4.01 YPC) as a rookie as Gore’s primary backup, grading out above average as a runner, but below average in the passing game, an issue he’s had dating back to his collegiate days at Ohio State (34 career catches in 3 seasons). He’s definitely unproven as an NFL player, but he was drafted with this situation in mind.
To help mask Hyde’s deficiencies as a pass down player, the 49ers signed the veteran Reggie Bush to be the primary passing down back. Bush came cheaper than Gore, 2.5 million over 1 year, but he’s not nearly as good. Bush became a solid starter from 2011-2013 with the Dolphins and Lions, averaging 222 carries for 1026 yards and 5 touchdowns and 44 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns over that time period. Those days appear behind him now though, as he heads into his age 30 season, coming off of a season where he was more of a complementary back behind Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries (3.91 YPC) in 11 games and caught 40 passes for 253 yards.
Aging and injury prone throughout his career, Bush could be pushed for his role by 4th round rookie Mike Davis or Kendall Hunter, who will also compete to be Hyde’s primary backup. Hunter, a 2011 4th round pick, has rushed for 1202 yards and 7 touchdowns on 262 career carries (4.59 YPC), adding 27 catches for 268 yards. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL though and isn’t built to be a feature back at 5-7 199. Davis is obviously less proven, but built better at 5-9 217 and caught 66 passes in his final 2 seasons at South Carolina combined.
As I mentioned, the 49ers had 4 players retire this off-season, 3 of whom were defensive starters last season. On the defensive line, the 49ers lost Justin Smith to retirement, though that should not have been seen as a surprise as he was going into his age 36 season. Still, it’s a big loss because Smith proved last season that he could still play, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 16 starts. Also gone is Ray McDonald, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 14 starts last season, before being released late in the season, following rape allegations.
In their absence, the trio of Tank Carradine, Arik Armstead, and Darnell Dockett will rotate at the position. Carradine and Armstead are both very athletic and have huge upsides, but neither one of them is proven. Carradine was a 2013 2nd round pick and would have been a lock 1st rounder if he hadn’t torn his ACL late in his final collegiate season. Carradine sat out his whole rookie season with that ACL tear and then played just 146 snaps as a deep reserve last season. He’s completely unproven and entering a make or break 3rd season in the league. Armstead, meanwhile, was their first round pick in this past draft and the rookie is incredibly raw. He has athleticism and upside, but his production and tape at the University of Oregon do not suggest someone that should have been a 1st round pick.
Armstead might spend his rookie year behind the veteran Dockett, especially since Armstead is missing valuable off-season practice because of a late graduation. That isn’t good news because Dockett was massively overpaid on a 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Anything more than a minimum deal with incentives for Dockett would have been too much. Dockett is going into his age 34 season after missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL, but that’s not the only problem. He wasn’t that good before the injury either as he was perennially one of the NFL’s most overrated players, particularly struggling mightily against the run. From 2007-2013, he graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last among eligible in 2012.
Glenn Dorsey returns from injury, after missing all of 2014 with a torn biceps. Where he plays remains a mystery. Dorsey played at nose tackle in 2013 with the 49ers, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle, including 9th against the run. However, in his absence last season, Ian Williams played very well. He only played 219 snaps in 9 games before going down for the season with an injury, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle last season if he had been eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. It’s a concern that Williams has been limited to 11 games over the last 2 seasons with ankle problems but, Quinton Dial, who was the nose tackle down the stretch in Williams’ absence, also graded out above average last season.
With the 49ers seemingly set at nose tackle without Dorsey and issues at 3-4 defensive end, Dorsey could see the majority of his on the outside, after spending the first 5 seasons of his career as a 3-4 defensive end in Kansas City. However, Dorsey graded out below average as a 3-4 defensive end in every season in Kansas City, except 2012, when he played just 4 games. He’s also missed 28 games with major injuries over the past 3 seasons combined. Without McDonald and Smith, this defensive line doesn’t look nearly as good.
The 49ers also had retirements in their linebacking corps as two players retired at middle linebacker and both of them were surprises. Patrick Willis was the first one to retire, cutting his Hall-of-Fame career short ahead of his age 30 season, after recurring foot problems caused him to miss 10 games the previous season. Willis was a top-3 player on Pro Football Focus in every season from his rookie season in 2007 to 2013 before the injury plagued 2014 season. Even during that injury plagued final season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker through 5 weeks.
That being said, the 49ers were shockingly fine without Willis last season thanks to the emergence of 3rd round rookie Chris Borland. Borland started for Willis down the stretch and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker on just 487 snaps, with no one playing more snaps and grading out higher at the position. From week 6 on, Borland was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, only behind New England’s Jamie Collins. However, Borland shocked the football world by announcing his retirement this off-season as well, after just one season in the league, citing long-term health concerns.
As shocking as guys like Jake Locker, Patrick Willis, and even Anthony Davis retiring early was, all of those guys had noticeable injury woes and Davis even said he’d be back when he was healthy. Borland didn’t seem to, which would make him comparable to only Jason Worilds, another player who shockingly retired this off-season. The difference is Worilds has already made a lot of money. Borland comparatively didn’t make much and much of what he did make was his rookie signing bonus, a large portion of which he had to pay back when he retired. Borland just wanted to do something else.
As strange as this might sound, the 49ers are still in solid position at linebacker without Willis and Borland, as nice as it would have been to have both of them. NaVorro Bowman returns at middle linebacker, after missing all of last season with multiple ligament tears in his knee. There’s concern about whether or not he’ll return to form, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and he’ll be about 19 months removed from the devastating injury by week 1. Even if he’s less than 100% in his first year back, he’ll still be a huge asset to them. A 2010 3rd round pick, Bowman ranked 1st, 6th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Michael Wilhoite, who started 16 games in Bowman’s absence last season, returns as the starter next to him. He graded out below average, ranking 37th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, but you could do a lot worse than him and he has the ability to play every down.
At outside linebacker, Aldon Smith has stayed out of trouble and seems poised to play his first 16 game season since 2012, which will also be a big boost to this San Francisco defense. Smith missed 5 games in 2013 while attending rehab and then missed 9 games in 2014 with suspension, but the 49ers have stood by him and believed in him, largely because of his immense talent. Now it looks like they’re going to be rewarded. Smith ranked 2nd and 3rd in 2011 and 2012 respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers, after going 7th overall in 2011. In 2013, he ranked 5th despite missing 5 games and #1 during the time he actually played. In 2014, he ranked 11th from week 11 on, after his return, and 20th overall on the season, despite missing 9 games with suspension. Smith has the potential for a huge 2015 season and he has every incentive to make good on that potential, going into a contract year with a potential 10+ million dollar annual salary on the line. The 49ers used a 3rd round pick on Eli Harold in case anything goes wrong with Smith.
Opposite Smith, it’ll be a battle between Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks. Lynch seems like the heavy favorite in that battle and many expected he’d be an every down player this season, with Dan Skuta leaving as a free agent and Brooks likely getting cut. Skuta is gone, but Brooks still remains, despite a non-guaranteed 7.3 million dollar salary and a declining game. Still, I expect Lynch to once again outplay Brooks and get him cut going into 2016. Lynch, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 521 snaps last season in the absence of Aldon Smith, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite the limited playing time. Meanwhile, Brooks was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker as recently as 2012, but he graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014. Now he’s going into his age 31 season. Simply put, Brooks is a descending player, while Lynch is an ascending player on the outside. Lynch’s potential, along with the full-time returns of both Smith and Bowman keep this a strong position group.
At cornerback, the 49ers lost both starters this off-season, as Chris Culliver (14 starts) signed with the Redskins and Perrish Cox (15 starts) signed with the Titans. They both graded out above average and ranked 15th and 35th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, so it’s hardly a small loss. The good news is that Tramaine Brock, a starter in 2013, returns after missing 13 games with various injuries last season. Brock was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback on 678 snaps in 16 games (7 starts) in 2013, causing the 49ers to lock him up long-term on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, which had the potential to be a long-term steal if Brock could stay healthy. Now he returns and, while he’s still a one year wonder, as the 2010 undrafted free agent had played 145 career snaps from 2010-2012 prior to his 2013 breakout year, his return should still help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver.
He’s really the only one who will help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver. Shareece Wright, who they signed from San Diego to be the other starter, has been atrocious as a starter over the past 2 seasons. Wright was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and barely played in his first 2 seasons in the NFL, playing a combined 124 snaps in 2011-2012, but he’s been a starter over the last 2 seasons. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. Going into 2014, the Chargers brought in Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and Brandon Flowers through free agency to send Wright to a #3 cornerback role, but an injury to Verrett forced Wright to play 853 snaps and make 14 starts. He once again struggled, grading out 105th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. I’m shocked he’s getting a 3rd chance to be a starter.
Jimmie Ward will once again play in as the 3rd cornerback, primarily on the slot. He started there week 1 last year, but the 2014 1st round pick had a rough rookie year overall, being limited to 270 snaps in 8 games by injuries, going down for the season week 10, and struggling mightily on the occasions where he did play. His foot problems are reportedly lingering into the off-season. The 49ers don’t seem worried about him missing any time to start the season, but he’s missing valuable practice time. If Ward or Brock misses any time again or Wright needs to be benched, Dontae Johnson is the 4th cornerback and the backup at all 3 spots. He was forced into action as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out only slightly below average on 512 snaps. He could be an upgrade over Wright, but Wright’s 3 million dollar salary suggests the 49ers want him to be the guy.
Things are fortunately better at safety. Eric Reid, their 2013 1st round pick, will start at one spot. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety in 2013 as a rookie and, though he took a step back as a sophomore, grading out slightly below average, he’s still a solid starter with upside going into his 3rd year in the league. He’ll once again play opposite Antoine Bethea, who was a bright spot for the 49ers in 2014.
The veteran looked like he was on the decline last off-season, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013, after grading out above average from 2007-2011. Bethea proved he still had something left in the tank though last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should be dependable again and he hasn’t missed a start in 7 years, since 2007. The 49ers weirdly used a 2nd round pick on Jaquiski Tartt to be Bethea’s long-term successor when they had other pressing needs. Dumb moves like that are part of the reason why this team has quickly gone from one of the league’s best to one of the league’s worst.
The 49ers’ season in 2014 was ruined by injuries, as they had the 5th most injuries in the league, including 22 games lost by the best inside linebacker duo in the country, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, not including 9 games lost to suspension by one of the best edge rushers in the game, Aldon Smith. They should have better health in 2014, but they won’t be a better team. Bowman is back, but Willis retired, along with Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland, who was in line to be Willis’ long-term replacement.
On top of that, the 49ers lost Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Ray McDonald, Perrish Cox, and Chris Culliver this off-season. Their efforts to replace all of their lost players in free agency did not go well as the 49ers were only able to overpay Shareece Wright, Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush, and Darnell Dockett. Their draft didn’t go much better as the 49ers used their 1st round pick on a player who isn’t ready and their 2nd round pick on a clear backup that won’t be able to get onto the field as a rookie. The 49ers are unlikely to get much impact out of their rookie class as a result.
One of their biggest losses was head coach Jim Harbaugh, who dragged this team out of irrelevance over his first 3 seasons with the team from 2011-2013 before injuries hit in 2014 and who only was allowed to leave to go to the University of Michigan because he was clashing with management. Also gone are talented coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, leaving ex-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as the head man. Tomsula is reportedly loved by his players, but his head coaching experience consists of one interim start in 2010 and his top offensive mind is Geep Chryst, who hasn’t called plays since 2000. That won’t help Colin Kaepernick, who is coming off of a down year and doesn’t have anywhere near the supporting cast he once had. This team was even worse than their 8-8 record last season and should be even worse this year. In a tough NFC West, the 49ers could easily come in last. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the 49ers after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 4-12 4th in NFC West