San Francisco 49ers 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Colin Kaepernick’s career got off to a good start. The 2011 2nd round pick didn’t play much as a rookie, but took over as the starter midway through the 2012 season when Alex Smith got hurt and led a very talented 49ers team to the Super Bowl, finishing 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. In 2013, he finished 18th on a team that just came up short in the NFC Championship against the Seahawks and was given a 6-year, 114 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie contract the following off-season.

However, things got bad in a hurry for Kaepernick and the 49ers. He fell to 28th among quarterbacks in 2014 on an injury plagued team that finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs and then, after a mass exodus of talent around him in the off-season, Kaepernick finished 37th among 38 eligible quarterbacks in 2015. He completed just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.62 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions in 8 starts before getting benched for backup Blaine Gabbert and then being shut down for the season with injuries. Kaepernick’s deteriorating play is not the only reason why the 49ers have so quickly fallen from glory and they don’t have a ton of talent around him, but it’s a very problematic situation.

Just one year and 25 million dollars into that extension, the 49ers desperately tried to trade Kaepernick this off-season, but could not find a taker for his 11.9 million dollar salary for 2016, so he’ll return to the 49ers for another year with his 3rd head coach in as many seasons coming in, ex-Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly. Gabbert actually outplayed Kaepernick in 2015, finishing 27th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, and seems to be the favorite of the new coaching staff, so he’ll begin the season as the starter. He completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in 2015.

As mediocre as Gabbert was last season, that was still easily the best season of his career. A massive bust as the 10th overall pick by the Jaguars in 2011, Gabbert lasted 3 seasons in Jacksonville, winning just 5 of 27 starts and completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 5.61 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, before getting shipped to the 49ers for a 6th round pick last 2 off-seasons ago. He didn’t see action as Kaepernick’s backup in 2014, before showing signs of life down the stretch last season.

He’s still unlikely to ever be a capable starting quarterback, but the 49ers don’t have a better option. They were widely expected to use an early pick on a quarterback in the draft, but, after Los Angeles and Philadelphia moved up for the #1 and #2 quarterbacks in the draft class, the 49ers settled for 6th round pick Jeff Driskel. Despite being a late round pick and not even making the final roster, Driskel might be more likely than Kaepernick to see starts for this team this season, assuming the 49ers can stash him on the practice squad. Kaepernick’s 14.5 million dollar 2017 salary is guaranteed for injury only and the 49ers don’t want to risk him getting injured and getting that money. They also owe him a prorated portion of 2 million dollars every game he’s on the active roster this season. The 49ers also could just cut him and hope someone else signs him because he has offset language in his contract, meaning the 49ers wouldn’t have to pay his full salary if he signed elsewhere. It’s the worst quarterback situation in the league.

Their offense finished 31st in rate of moving the chains last season and the team as a whole finished dead last in rate of moving the chains differential. Making matters worse, the 49ers didn’t really add much in free agency and enter the 2016 season with close to 47 million in available cap space remaining. Their roster looks like it needs another 45-50 million dollars worth of talent on it, as it’s one of the weakest in the NFL, but they had a very hard time getting anyone to want to sign with them this off-season. The 49ers figure to be in a position to take a quarterback early in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Grade: F

Offensive Line

Many thought that the 49ers, armed with a ton of draft picks, would move up back into the end of the first round to take this draft’s 3rd quarterback, Paxton Lynch. Instead, it was Denver (originally a possible trade destination for Kaepernick) moving up to grab Lynch, leaving the 49ers with the quarterback situation they have now. However, the 49ers did still use their arsenal of picks to move back up into the end of the first round, taking Stanford right guard Joshua Garnett, a surprise pick at 28 overall. He was expected to be a 2nd round pick and was probably a reach in the end of the first. As of this writing, he’s still working with the second team at left guard and right guard, so he may have to wait into the season to get a starting job.

Veteran Zane Beadles is currently penciled in as the starter at left guard, after being signed to 3-year, 11.75 million dollar deal in free agency, while Andrew Tiller is penciled in on the right side. Tiller, a 2012 6th round pick, flashed in the first significant action of his career last season, finishing 18th among eligible guards on Pro Football Focus on 615 snaps (7 starts). Beadles has made 94 of 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he finished 64th among eligible guards in 81 starts with the Jaguars, leading to his release. Garnett should take one of their jobs sooner rather than later. Beadles is likely the most vulnerable.

Marcus Martin also can play guard, but his best chance at playing time is still at center, where he’s spent most of the first 2 seasons of his career. The 2014 3rd round pick has been horrible thus far in his career though, finishing 36th out of 41 eligible centers as a rookie and 36th out of 40 eligible centers in 2015. He’ll face competition from Daniel Kilgore, who struggled on 268 snaps last season. Kilgore actually graded out above average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league from 2011-2014, but has just 10 career starts in 5 years in the league, so he’s far from proven. He may be a better option than Martin, but only by default.

At right tackle, Anthony Davis returns from his one year “retirement,” but is still listed with the 2nd team behind first team starter Trent Brown, who flashed on 187 snaps as a 7th round rookie in 2015. Given that Davis didn’t play at all last season and didn’t report until the end of July, that could remain the case into the season, giving the 2nd year player the opportunity to take the job and run with it. Davis has more upside than anyone on this offensive line. He’s only going into his age 27 season still and finished 9th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 29th among offensive tackles in 2013, before a disappointing 2014 season and a 2015 season spent out of the league. Owed 3.625 million in 2016 on an overall weak offensive line, you have to figure he’ll get in the starting lineup at some point. He’s reportedly volunteered to play guard if it increases his chances of getting on the field and has begun taking reps there in practice.

The saving grace of this offensive line is left tackle Joe Staley, who has been with the team since they drafted him in the first round in 2007. Staley has been with the team through a lot, struggles early in his career, 3 straight NFC Championship game appearances, followed by struggles again, but has always been a great player for them. He’s the only offensive tackle in the league to finish in the top-6 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons and one of 3 starters from the 49ers’ 2011 team that still remains (linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks are the other two). He single handedly boosts an offensive line that has a lot of problems around of him.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Ex-Raven Torrey Smith was the 49ers’ big signing of last off-season, coming over on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal, but he hasn’t panned out yet, grading out below average in his first year in San Francisco in 2015. He’s unlikely to ever be worth his contract, as he’s never finished higher than 37th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 5 years in the league. He’s a nice complementary deep threat and a capable #2 receiver, but the 49ers need him to be the #1 guy in the passing game and that’s just not the type of player he is.

With veteran Anquan Boldin, last year’s leading receiver with a 69/789/4 slash line, still unsigned as a free agent ahead of his age 36 season, snaps are very much up for grabs behind Smith. Like at quarterback, the 49ers surprisingly did not draft anyone at the wide receiver position before the 6th round, making last year’s 3rd receiver Quinton Patton the favorite to start opposite Smith. A 2013 4th round pick, Patton was underwhelming on 151 career snaps prior to last season and finished just below average on 424 snaps in 2015. Unless he has a breakout year in his 4th year in the league, he’s nothing more than a capable 3rd receiver and a weak starting option.

Veteran Jeremy Kerley is expected to be the 3rd receiver, but he just came over via trade from the Detroit Lions in late August, after 3rd year slot receiver Bruce Ellington went down for the season with injury. Kerley isn’t terrible, but has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and was limited to mediocre 223 snaps in 2015. Also just coming over via trade is Rod Streater, previously of the Chiefs, who is also in the mix for snaps. Streater, a 2012 undrafted free agent, was a league average receiver for the first 2 years of his career, catching 99 passes for 1472 yards and 7 touchdowns in 32 games with the Raiders. However, he’s been limited to just 10 catches in 4 games over the past 2 seasons by a combination of injury and poor performance. There’s some bounce back potential here, but they can’t rely on him.

The tight ends are not much better. Garrett Celek, Vance McDonald, and Blake Bell all saw playing time there last season and figure to split time again in 2016. Celek was the best of the bunch last season, grading out above average on 399 snaps, and figures to get the first shot to start in 2016 after getting a 4-year, 14 million dollar extension this off-season. However, last year was the first significant action of his career since going undrafted in 2012, so he’s probably not a great starting option.

McDonald actually led the position in snaps played last season with 473, but he graded out below average. McDonald has never graded out above average in 3 years in the league as a pass catcher, but has graded out above average as a run blocker in 2 of 3 seasons, since going in the 2nd round in 2013. Bell, meanwhile, was the worst of the bunch last season, finishing 65th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 353 snaps as a 4th round rookie. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league though, especially since the converted quarterback is still just going into his 3rd year as a tight end. He has good upside, but may never reach it. It’s a very weak receiving corps.

Grade: D

Running Backs

Carlos Hyde missed 9 games with injury, but still led the 49ers in carries with 115. He was playing well prior to going down, rushing for 470 yards and 3 touchdowns on those carries, a solid 4.09 YPC average despite a weak offense around him, and finishing 19th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. The 2014 2nd round pick is unproven with just 198 career carries, but his 4.06 career YPC average is solid all things considered and he has a chance to have a breakout year on an otherwise poor offense in 2016 if he can stay healthy. He’ll be a welcome re-addition.

Hyde’s return is especially important because 49er running backs other than Hyde rushed for just 621 yards on 196 carries last season (3.14 YPC). Shaun Draughn was the starter down the stretch with Hyde out and finished 2nd on the team in carries with 76, but turned them into just 263 yards (3.46 YPC) and 1 touchdown and finished well below average as a runner on Pro Football Focus. He did flash as a pass catcher, catching 25 passes for 175 yards and finishing 17th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade, so he figures to see passing down snaps in 2016, as Hyde has just 23 career catches. However, Draughn has had just 202 touches in 5 years in the league, so he’s not a reliable option.

Despite the 49ers’ issues at running back without Hyde, they still finished with a respectable 3.96 yards per carry average as a team, but that was mostly because quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert both did a good job on the ground. Kaepernick rushed for 256 yards and 1 touchdown on 45 carries (5.69 YPC), while Gabbert rushed for 185 yards and 1 touchdown on 32 carries (5.78 YPC). Quarterback runs have always been a part of Chip Kelly’s offense as long as he has a mobile quarterback. Everyone knows about Kaepernick’s abilities as a runner, but Gabbert has underrated athleticism as well, so whoever wins the starting quarterback job should have plenty of opportunity to take off and run, especially on a team with few other ways to move the ball.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The 49ers were obvious losers when Los Angeles and Philadelphia moved up to take quarterbacks, but they still got a great player 7th overall, taking Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner, who seemed like a likely top-3 pick before the trades. Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked overall prospect in the 2016 NFL draft class, Buckner figures to be an every down starter from the word go. At 6-7 291 pounds, he’s a perfect fit for the 49ers’ 3-4 defense and compares favorably to Calais Campbell long-term. He might not be great right away as a rookie, but he should certainly be a contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He’ll start opposite last year’s 1st round pick, another ex-Oregon defensive end, Arik Armstead. The 17th overall pick in 2015, Armstead was not as good of a prospect as Buckner, but he flashed on 384 snaps as a rookie, finishing 28th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, and has proven himself worthy of a larger role. He has breakout potential in his 2nd year in the league and he and Buckner have the potential to form a formidable duo for years to come. There may be growing pains in 2016 though.

Nose tackle Ian Williams was their best defensive lineman in 2015, finishing 18th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus on 659 snaps, excelling as a run stopper, finishing 11th at his position in pure run grade. The 49ers were set to re-sign him to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season, but he ended up failing his physical and needing off-season ankle surgery. He was still kept on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal with incentives worth up to 6 million, but ultimately ended up being put on injured reserve, ending his season before it started.

Fortunately, the 49ers do have decent depth on the defensive line. Glenn Dorsey returns from injury, after missing 22 games over the past 2 seasons combined, and he can play both nose tackle and defensive end in base packages on this 3-man defensive line. However, he’s going into his age 31 season and has graded out above average just twice in 7 seasons in the league. On top of that, he’s missed a total of 34 games with injury over the past 4 seasons, so he’s no lock to be healthy either. If he is, he’s better off as a versatile starter than a starter.

Quinton Dial is another player who can play either inside or outside in base packages who figures to see at least a rotational role. Dial graded out above average in 6 starts in 2014, the first significant action of his career, then led the 49ers’ defensive line with 662 snaps played last season, finishing just below average in the process. He won’t see nearly that many snaps in 2016 with Buckner coming in, but he’s still a valuable reserve who figures to have a role. This is the 49ers’ strongest unit, even though it has problems inside and inexperience outside.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks are the only other starters remaining from the 49ers’ breakout 2011 team. A 48-game starter from 2011-2013, Bowman finished in the top-6 among middle linebackers in all 3 seasons, but suffered a devastating knee injury in the 49ers’ loss to the Seahawks to the NFC Championship, which cost him his entire 2014 season. Bowman returned to start all 16 games in 2015, but was not the same, finishing below average. He posted impressive tackle stats and did well against the run, but was not nearly the coverage athlete he used to be. Another year removed from the injury, still only going into his age 28 season, there’s bounce back potential for Bowman in 2016, but it’s also possible he’s never the same after the injury.

Brooks, meanwhile, has also declined, though age is the biggest factor with him, as he heads into his age 32 season. Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012, Brooks has finished below average in 3 straight seasons, including 88th out of 110 eligible edge defenders in 2015. He’s still penciled into a starter role, but he’ll face competition from 2nd year player Eli Harold and converted defensive end Tank Carradine. Harold flashed against the run on 344 total snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015, but didn’t show much pass rush. He’s likely in for a bigger role in 2016 regardless of whether or not he wins a starting job.

Carradine, meanwhile, was a 2013 2nd round pick, but has been limited to 367 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. That’s partially because of injury, but largely because the coaching staff didn’t trust him enough to play him much. He’s always flashed as a pass rusher, but didn’t have the strength to hold up against the run as a defensive lineman in a 3-man front. He’s slimmed down to around 6-4 265, closer to his collegiate weight, to play outside linebacker for a make or break 4th year in the league, the final year of his rookie contract.

Both Carradine and Harold could see significant snaps early in the season as Aaron Lynch, the other starting outside linebacker, was suspended for the first 4 games of the season for failing a test for performance enhancing drugs. Lynch will be a big loss for the 49ers early in the year, as he was one of their best defensive players last season. He finished 29th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and was easily the 49ers’ best pass rusher. A 2014 5th round pick, Lynch has graded out above average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league and could have a big year in his 3rd year in the league, only his age 23 season, but he’ll have to wait for week 5 for his season to start.

At the other middle linebacker spot next to Bowman, Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite will compete for the starting job. Wilhoite has made 28 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has graded out below average in both seasons, including dead last out of 97 eligible linebackers in 12 starts in 2015. Hodges, acquired from Minnesota mid-season via trade, made 4 starts in Wilhoite’s absence and was better, but only by default, finishing 75th at the position on the season. Still, while Wilhoite has never graded out above average in his 5 year career, since going undrafted in 2011, Hodges flashed on 495 snaps in 2014, finishing 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers with the Vikings that season, so he at least has upside. Hodges seems like the obvious choice, but it’s reportedly a tight battle, so it’s unclear what direction they’ll go in. There’s some talent in this linebacking corps, but not a ton.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Cornerback Tramaine Brock was another one of the few bright spots on this San Francisco defense last season, making a team high 15 starts and finishing 36th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He was even better in 2013, when he finished 14th at his position on 678 snaps in 16 games (7 starts), with an injury plagued 2014 season (3 games) in between. The 2010 undrafted free agent only has 24 career starts in 6 years in the league, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and, as long as he’s healthy, he should be locked into one of the starting cornerback jobs in 2016.

The other cornerback jobs are up for grabs, but Jimmie Ward is the favorite to start opposite Brock. Ward was actually the 49ers’ highest ranked cornerback last season, finishing just one spot above Brock in 35th, though he made just 8 starts in 16 games. A 2014 1st round pick, Ward struggled mightily on 270 snaps in 8 games in an injury plagued rookie season in 2014, but had a bit of a breakout year in 2015 and could take another step forward in 2015. A converted safety, Ward is now a full-time cornerback and likely the 49ers’ #2 cornerback in his 3rd year in the league in 2016.

That would leave Dontae Johnson and a pair of rookies competing for the 3rd cornerback job. Johnson didn’t see much action in 2015 as the 4th cornerback for most of the season, but graded out above average on 367 snaps. He also played 512 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out right around average in both seasons. He’s likely the favorite for the job and would play outside opposite Brock in sub packages, with Ward inside to cover the slot, where he’s at his best.

As mentioned, the 49ers also drafted a pair of cornerbacks, taking Mississippi State’s Will Redmond in the 3rd and LSU’s Rashard Robinson in the 4th. Neither Redmond nor Robinson figure to be much of a factor as rookies though. Redmond is coming off of an October torn ACL and might have essentially a medical redshirt rookie year, while Robinson didn’t play football at all last year after being kicked off of the team at LSU for a violation of team rules and had just 8 collegiate starts. Both are much more long-term picks than anything.

Along with Brock and Ward, the 49ers have another solid starter in this secondary in 4th year safety Eric Reid. A 2013 1st round pick, Reid hasn’t become a star or anything yet, but has made 47 starts in 3 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons, including a 36th place finish in 2015. The 49ers made the obvious decision to pick up his 5th year option for 2017 and will work to try to re-sign him over the next calendar year. He’s someone they couldn’t afford to lose, as he’s one of their best defensive players and could have a breakout year in his 4th year in the league in 2016.

Antoine Bethea returns to start opposite Reid, after missing 9 games with injury in 2015. Bethea played poorly on 443 snaps, but was actually a little bit better than backup Jaquiski Tartt, who finished 80th out of 89 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus on 721 snaps. Bethea was a solid player in his prime, but is going into his age 32 season and has graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. Owed a non-guaranteed 5.75 million in his age 33 season in 2017, this could easily be his final year in San Francisco. Tartt, as poorly as he played last season, is still the future starter at the position, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2015. It’s a secondary with some young talent, but still noticeable flaws.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

This is once again one of the least talented teams in the league. They finished dead last in rate of moving the chains differential in 2015 and, in a league with few truly bad teams, are the favorite to finish dead last in that metric again in 2016. They managed to win 5 wins in 2015, but might not be so lucky in 2016. Just 1 of their 5 wins came by more than 6 points, with 2 coming in overtime, while just 2 of their 11 losses came by 6 points or fewer and their average margin of defeat was 16.45 points per game. With 46 million in used cap space and no real impact additions this off-season, 2-4 wins and high draft pick seems like the most likely outcome of this season. 

Prediction: 4-12 3rd in NFC West

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