The 49ers once had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, but they have since lost a ton of talent, either through retirement or free agency or guys either getting injured or suspended. As a result, they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the past 2 seasons, going a combined 7-25 in 2015 and 2016 and finishing 32nd and 30th respectively in first down rate differential in those 2 seasons. This off-season, they hired ex-Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as head coach to inject some life into this offense and preside over this rebuild. Shanahan has always gotten the most out of his offensive talent as a coordinator, though it remains to be seen whether or not that can continue with him as head coach and not having as much day-to-day interaction with the offense.
With Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick both leaving as free agents this off-season, their biggest task this off-season was to find a quarterback. They had a bunch of cap space and the #2 pick in the draft, but instead of spending big money on a quarterback like Mike Glennon in free agency or reaching for a quarterback like Mitch Trubisky at the top of the draft, they signed a veteran stopgap in Brian Hoyer and did not address the quarterback position until the end of the 3rd round, when they drafted Iowa’s CJ Beathard.
It’s not the flashy move many of their fans would have liked, but it makes some sense. Next off-season is going to be a much stronger quarterback class both in the draft or in free agency and this is going to be more than a one-year rebuild. Why not focus on other positions this off-season, especially when they seem to be the favorite to sign Kirk Cousins if he ever hits the open market. Cousins would be owed 34.5 million if he was franchised a third time by the Redskins next off-season and Shanahan is familiar with Cousins from his time in Washington. Cousins could always end up agreeing to a long-term deal with the Redskins, but then the 49ers could still sign someone like Jimmy Garoppolo or Sam Bradford in free agency or draft a quarterback high in the draft.
In the meantime, Hoyer is a capable low level starter who knows this offense from when he was in Cleveland with Shanahan. Beathard, meanwhile, was not a highly touted prospect, but Shanahan seems to like him and it wouldn’t surprise me if he developed into a solid backup long-term. The 49ers also signed ex-Bear Matt Barkley this off-season, though he flopped in the first starting action of his career last season (59.7% completion, 7.46 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions), so he isn’t anything more than a backup for Hoyer.
Hoyer, meanwhile, is onto his 4th team in 5 seasons, but he has made 30 starts over those 4 seasons. There’s a reason he keeps bouncing around the league, but there’s also a reason he keeps ending up starting games for someone. He’s not good enough that anyone would commit to him as their starter for a long period of time, but he’s still good enough to be starting somewhere. He’s completed 59.6% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 42 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions over the past 4 seasons. He’s one of the worst starting quarterbacks in football, but he fits this offense well and could end up being an upgrade on what the 49ers have had over the past 2 seasons.
As mentioned, the 49ers had a lot of cap space this off-season. They used a big chunk of it to sign Pierre Garcon from the Redskins, bringing him in on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal that guarantees him 23 million in the first 2 seasons. Like Hoyer, he has experience in the Shanahan offense and gives this offense a desperately needed boost at wide receiver. Garcon spent 5 seasons in Washington and finished about average or better on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons.
His biggest statistical season came in 2013, when he caught 113 passes for 1346 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he needed 184 targets to do so, so last season was actually his highest rated season. He caught 79 passes for 1041 yards and 3 touchdowns on 116 targets and finished 8th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. His age is a bit of a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he’s the type of receiver who should age well because his game is more about making tough contested catches than it is about blowing defensive backs away with athleticism.
He gets a downgrade in quarterback play going from Cousins to Hoyer, but should get more targets now that he isn’t competing with guys like DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, and Jamison Crowder for targets. Now with the 49ers, there’s barely any depth at wide receiver behind him on the depth chart, which is both a good and bad thing for Garcon. He’ll get the ball often, but could see more double teams than he’s used to. He could easily be targeted 130-150 times as the #1 receiver in this offense and have another 1000-yard year, but he’ll find life tougher on San Francisco’s offense than on Washington’s, especially given the downgrade at quarterback.
Garcon should be a huge upgrade on Torrey Smith though, after Smith caught just 20 passes in 12 games last season and finished 2nd worst among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Smith was cut this off-season, saving the 49ers 8 million in cash, an obvious move. Quinton Patton is also gone, so the 49ers have just one of their top-3 receivers from last season left. Patton wasn’t good either, so he also won’t be missed, but they didn’t do much to replace him. They signed ex-Buffalo receiver Marquise Goodwin to a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, but I also expected them to draft a receiver high and they didn’t.
Goodwin will compete for playing time with the one lone holdover wide receiver from last season, Jeremy Kerley. Kerley was easily their best receiver in 2016, leading the team with 64 catches for 667 yards and catching 3 touchdowns. He finished slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, 49th among wide receiver. Kerley is an unspectacular player, but he has graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons in the league and is better than Goodwin, a one dimensional speedster who struggled mightily in Buffalo last season when forced into the starting lineup for the first time in his career.
A 2013 3rd round pick, Goodwin had one career start going into last season and caught just 3 passes in 2014 and 2015 combined, but ended up playing 641 snaps and making 9 starts in the thinnest receiving corps in the league in Buffalo. He caught just 29 passes for 431 yards and 2 touchdowns and finished 94th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He caught just 42.6% of his targets. Kerley could beat him out for the #2 job, but Kerley is best on the slot, so Goodwin is considered the favorite for the #2 job outside opposite Garcon. He’s a very underwhelming option and would be one of the worst starting wide receivers in the league.
Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald were their top-2 tight ends last season, playing 605 and 446 snaps respectively, but the new regime doesn’t seem sold on either of them, adding veteran blocking tight end Logan Paulsen, who is familiar with this offense from when he was Washington in the Shanahans, using a 5th round pick on Iowa’s George Kittle, and signing pass catching fullback Kyle Juszczyk to a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal.
The 49ers actually tried to trade Vance McDonald this off-season, even though he was entering the first year of a 3-year, 19.65 million dollar extension that the old regime already paid him a 7 million dollar signing bonus on. That extension was a mistake, but McDonald is a solid blocker who can be useful for this team and his guaranteed 2.1 million dollar salary isn’t cost prohibitive (he can make up to 2.75 million after bonuses). He’s owed 4.6 million non-guaranteed in 2018 and that’s a different story, but McDonald should still have a role on this offense in 2017.
It’s surprising the 49ers didn’t try to move Garrett Celek too, after he finished last season 60th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Celek has looked better in the past, but the 605 snaps he played last season were more than he played in his first 4 seasons in the league combined. Owed a non-guaranteed 1.9 million, he could easily be let go before final cuts. He’ll compete with Paulsen for a role. Paulsen is a strong run blocker, but has just 82 catches in 91 games in 7 seasons in the league and caught just 3 passes last season. Now in his age 30 season, he’s not a pass catching threat. None of the 49ers top-3 tight ends really are.
For that reason, Kyle Juszczyk figures to have a big role as a pass catching fullback. Juszczyk has 78 catches for 587 yards and 4 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons and has finished #1 in pass catching grade by a fullback in both seasons. He’s also a good run blocker and pass blocker and led all fullbacks with 465 snaps played last season. He’ll act as their pass catching tight end. George Kittle also has good pass catching upside because of his athleticism and could carve out a role in passing situations by the end of the season. This offense really lacks receiving options behind Garcon.
I also thought the 49ers would use a relatively early pick on a guard, but they didn’t draft a single offensive lineman. They mostly focused on defense in the draft, especially early, using their first 3 picks on defensive players before selecting Beathard at the end of the 3rd round. They filled needs with all of their picks, but figure to have major problems on offense again this season. At guard, left guard Zane Beadles and right guard Joshua Garnett return, but they finished 71st and 70th respectively among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus last season, in 16 starts and 11 starts respectively. The only guard who wasn’t bad was Andrew Tiller (5 starts), who signed with the Chiefs this off-season.
Garnett was the 28th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he was considered a reach and a 2nd round prospect at best, so there’s no guarantee he ever develops into the player they are expecting him to become. His career is certainly off to a bad start. If he’s better in 2017, it could largely be by default, as it would be hard for him to be worse than he was as a rookie. Beadles, meanwhile, is going into his age 31 season and has finished below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, including back-to-back terrible seasons. He’s made 110 of 112 starts in his career and has never missed a game with injury, but wasn’t that good in his prime and now it seems like his best days are behind him. He could easily struggle again in 2017.
Both guards could face competition at some point from veteran free agent acquisition Brandon Fusco. Fusco finished 8th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 2013, but has finished below average in 4 of 5 seasons as a starter overall. Last season was probably his worst season, as he finished 63rd among 72 eligible guards, which is why he was released by the Vikings. He has experience, with 64 starts over the past 5 seasons, and he has some bounce back potential, but he might not be an upgrade at either guard spot.
Their other veteran addition, Jeremy Zuttah, will be more valuable for them. He finished last season 13th among centers on Pro Football Focus and has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons (89 starts), but the 49ers were strangely able to acquire from him the Ravens for a swap of late round picks, even though he’s owed a very reasonable 3.5 million in his age 31 season. He has experience at both left guard and center, but will be tried first at center, where he will be an upgrade on Daniel Kilgore, who finished last season 30th out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 2016 in his first full season as a starter. Kilgore would likely slot back in if Zuttah moves to left guard to replace Beadles, which is definitely a possibility if Beadles continues to struggle this off-season.
Trenton Brown and Joe Staley return at right tackle and left tackle respectively. Brown, a 2015 7th round pick, started all 16 games last season, after flashing in 2 starts as a rookie. Brown wasn’t great, finishing 55th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he will get another chance at the starting job in 2017 because they lack a better option. The 49ers will hope he can take a leap forward in his 3rd season in the league, but there’s no guarantee that happens.
On the other side, Joe Staley is going into his 11th season in the league and has been one of the best offensive tackles in the league for years. Unfortunately, Staley is going into his age 33 season and showed some signs of age last season. He missed 3 games with injury, his first games missed with injury since 2010, and he fell to 25th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-6 in 4 straight seasons from 2012-2015. It’s possible he still has a couple more strong seasons left in the tank, but last season could have been the beginning of the end. They need Staley to play at a high level if they’re going to get even adequate play from their offensive line.
Carlos Hyde has been the 49ers’ starting running back for the past 2 seasons. He has a career 4.32 YPC average on 415 career carries, despite playing on some terrible offenses, but he isn’t a great fit for Kyle Shanahan’s running scheme and doesn’t catch passes (50 career catches), so the 49ers tried to add some competition for him this off-season, signing veteran Tim Hightower and drafting Utah’s Joe Williams in the 4th round.
In addition to competition for Hyde, they will also be insurance for Hyde, who has missed 14 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league. Hyde is the favorite for carries and is still their best runner (15th and 23rd in pure rushing grade among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively), but Hightower will likely play in passing situations and steal some carries, while Williams could have an immediate role as a change of pace back.
Hightower is going into his age 31 season and has had a very interesting career, missing 3 seasons from 2012-2014 with knee injuries. Hightower shockingly returned midway through the 2015 season with the Saints and rushed for 923 yards and 8 touchdowns on 229 carries (4.03 YPC) in 24 games in 2 seasons in New Orleans. He played all 16 games last season for the first time since his 3rd season in the league in 2010. He’s an unspectacular runner, but is a good pass protector and has decent hands out of the backfield, so he’ll have a role. He is also familiar with the Shanahan offense from his time in Washington in 2011. The 49ers have a decent trio of backs.
The 49ers traded down one spot from 2 to 3, so Chicago could take quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and then drafted Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas 3rd overall. Thomas has a huge upside and was one of the most talented players in the draft, but he does play pretty much the same position as their last 2 first round picks, Arik Armstead (17th overall in 2015) and DeForest Buckner (7th overall in 2016). Thomas is a base defensive end who is best rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages, while Armstead and Buckner are prototypical 3-4 defensive ends that are kind of odd fits in this new 4-3 defense.
Armstead (6-7 296) and Buckner (6-7 291) are bigger than Thomas (6-3 273), but all three of them are best at rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages. All three will play in base packages, Thomas as primarily a base defensive end and Buckner and Armstead moving all around the formation, but one of them will have to rush the passer from the edge in sub packages if they’re going to get their best 4 defensive linemen on the field at the same time.
Buckner figures to lead the trio in snaps played after playing a ridiculous 1002 snaps as a rookie in 2016, 2nd most in the NFL among interior defensive linemen. He also played at a high level, finishing 14th among 3-4 defensive ends. Still only going into his age 23 season, Buckner was one of the highest rated players in last year’s draft and has immense upside. If he and Thomas can achieve their potential together, they could be monsters on this defensive line long-term. They won’t be easy to deal with in 2017 either.
Armstead will probably finish 3rd in the trio in snaps played, but he still has a high upside, in his age 24 season, and will have a big role on this defensive line. Buckner flashed on 384 snaps as a rookie, but struggled on 333 snaps in 2016. He injured his shoulder before the season started, was not effective playing through the injury, and then missed the final 8 games of the season after having surgery. He could have a breakout 3rd season in the league in 2017 if he’s healthy, though I’m not as sold on his upside as I am on the upside of Buckner and Thomas.
In base packages, veterans Quinton Dial and Earl Mitchell will have a role at defensive tackle. Dial played 478 snaps last season and could see a similar role in 2017. Purely a run stuffer at 6-5 318, Dial has been about a league average defensive lineman when on the field over the past 3 seasons. Mitchell, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent from Miami, where he’s been terrible for the past 2 seasons. He was a solid run stuffer in his prime, but the 6-3 310 pounder is going into his age 30 season and seems to be past his prime. He was overpaid on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal this off-season, but figures to have a role in base packages.
In sub packages, with Thomas, Buckner, and Armstead all seeing the majority of their sub package snaps inside, Aaron Lynch and Elvis Dumervil will likely be their primary edge rushers this season. Both had miserable 2016 seasons, but both have bounce back potential. A 2014 5th round pick, Lynch finished above average in his both of his first 2 seasons in the league, but was limited to 222 snaps in 7 games in 2016 by a combination of suspension and injury. He also did not play well when on the field and was reportedly out of shape all season. Still only going into his age 24 season, Lynch still has great upside, but fell to the 5th round because of character and work ethic issues and is no lock to bounce back.
Dumervil, meanwhile, was once one of the best edge rushers in the league, but was limited to 272 snaps in 8 games last season because of a foot injury. He finished in the top-10 in pure pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus at the 3-4 outside linebacker position in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and is a perfect fit in this defense as a pure sub package edge rusher. The 5-11 250 pounder doesn’t play well against the run, but has always thrived in a pure pass rush situation. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 33 season, but he could easily have a solid season in a situational role if he can stay healthy. This is an improved defensive line with Thomas and Dumervil coming in, Armstead coming back from injury, and Aaron Lynch possibly bouncing back.
The 49ers also used a high pick on a linebacker, moving up from 34 to 31 to grab Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster ahead of the Saints at the end of the first round. In terms of pure talent, Foster was a top-10 prospect, but fell because of concerns about his character and the health of his shoulders. The 49ers apparently have none of those concerns and see him as an every down middle linebacker as a rookie. Assuming he stays healthy, he could have a real impact in the middle of this defense and could compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
That leaves NaVorro Bowman and free agent acquisition Malcolm Smith to compete for roles at the outside linebacker position, though the 49ers are reportedly trying to trade Bowman. In that case, Smith would play every down at outside linebacker and Ahmad Brooks would be the base package linebacker on the other side who would come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Bowman was a top-6 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2011-2013, but his career has been completely derailed by injuries and now moves to outside linebacker in a 4-3 for the first time in his career.
A torn ACL cost him the entire 2014 season and he was not nearly the same upon his return in 2015. In 2016, he looked much better, but his season ended after just 4 games when he tore his achilles. Owed a guaranteed 6.75 million in salary, no one will want to trade for him, so the 49ers will just have to hope he can bounce back in his age 29 season, despite the two major leg injuries he has suffered. He may be limited to base package work and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages.
The 49ers signed Malcolm Smith to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal this off-season, so he figures to be an every down player with Foster, which doesn’t leave a huge role for Bowman. Smith isn’t a good player though, so it’s unclear why he received this kind of a deal. Smith flashed early in his career as a part-time linebacker with the Seahawks, but he has struggled over 30 starts in the past 2 seasons with the Raiders, with his worst season coming in 2016, when he finished in the bottom-10 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He figures to struggle in an every down role.
Unless Bowman gets traded, Ahmad Brooks is probably the odd man out in this linebacking corps, despite playing 918 snaps in 2016. Brooks was a very useful player in his prime, but has finished below average in each of the last 4 seasons and struggled mightily in 2016 as a 15-game starter at 3-4 outside linebacker in the 49ers’ old 3-4 defense. Now in his age 33 season in this new 4-3 defense, his easiest path to playing time might be as a sub package rusher off the edge. Owed a non-guaranteed 5.3 million in 2017, Brooks could also easily be released before the season starts. It’s an overall underwhelming linebacking corps that needs the rookie Foster to have a big rookie year.
The 49ers also drafted a cornerback early in the draft, taking Colorado’s Ahkello Witherspoon 66th overall at the top of the 3rd round. The 49ers got solid cornerback play last season, with starters Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward both finishing above average, but Brock was released this off-season after being suspended for domestic violence, while Ward is moving to safety to replace departed veteran Antoine Bethea. As a result, Witherspoon has a chance to play immediately in a cornerback depth chart that is completely up for grabs.
Rashard Robinson is their leading returning cornerback in terms of snaps played last season, as he played 543 snaps as the 3rd cornerback as a 4th round rookie in 2016. He was overwhelmed as a rookie, finishing 80th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but the 49ers are hoping he can take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. He’s penciled in as one of the starting cornerbacks. Robinson was one of two cornerbacks the 49ers drafted in 2016, as they also used a 3rd round pick on Will Redmond. Redmond missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, but will compete for a role in 2017. He has upside, but is completely unproven at the NFL level.
K’Waun Williams is probably their most proven cornerback, but the 5-9 183 pounder is only an option on the slot and also missed all of last season with injury. Undrafted in 2014, Williams played well as a slot cornerback in Cleveland for the first two seasons of his career, finishing above average on 351 and 516 snaps respectively, but was let go last season by the Browns when he got hurt. Assuming he’s healthy, Williams is likely the favorite for the slot cornerback job. Still only going into his age 26 season, the Browns’ loss is the 49ers’ gain.
Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser are the relative veterans of the bunch. Johnson was a 4th round pick in 2013, while Reaser went in the 5th round in 2014. They have just 6 career starts and 0 career starts respectively and neither has ever finished above average on Pro Football Focus, but they are in the mix for snaps nonetheless. Neither are locks for the final roster though, which shows you how open things are at the cornerback position for the 49ers. They desperately need someone to step up.
As mentioned, Ward will move from cornerback to safety with a new defensive coaching staff coming in. A 2014 1st round pick, Ward has finished slightly above average among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, playing well at both outside cornerback and slot cornerback, but his collegiate position was safety and he could have his best season yet at safety in 2017, still only his age 26 season. The one concern with him is his injury history, as he’s missed 13 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league.
Given how thin they are at cornerback, it’s possible that Ward spends some time at cornerback covering the slot in either nickel or dime packages. The 49ers are deeper at safety than cornerback and Jaquiski Tartt, a 2015 2nd round pick, could see a role in sub packages. Tartt has potential, but has struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league, finishing 80th out of 89 eligible safeties on 721 snaps in 2015 and 73rd out of 90 eligible safeties on 612 snaps last season.
He could also push Eric Reid for his starting job, but Reid figures to open the season as the starter. A 2013 1st round pick, Reid was about a league average safety for the first 3 seasons of his career, but fell to 70th out of 90 eligible safeties in 2016. He has bounce back potential, but he could be on a short leash. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could easily be his final season in San Francisco. They need him to play well because they have one of the thinnest groups of cornerbacks and one of the worst secondaries in the league.
The 49ers started their rebuild this off-season and did some nice things, but they are a long way away from being competitive. They currently lead the league with 66.9 million in unused cap space and it shows when you look at how little talent this roster has. Their defensive front 7 is improved and could play well, but they have one of the worst secondaries in the league and their offense figures to struggle to move the ball once again. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.