Everybody and their mother is predicting a catastrophic meltdown for the San Francisco 49ers this season. It seems nothing has gone right since they moved from their namesake city of San Francisco to the South Bay to start the 2014 season. In January 2014, the 49ers entered Seattle with the hopes of returning to the Super Bowl and completing their Quest for Six.
They left with their superstar linebacker injured, their No. 1 receiver embarrassed, and their dreams crushed.
It’s been all downhill from there. The 49ers finished 8-8, a far cry from the 12 win seasons they had enjoyed under Jim Harbaugh. And now, on the surface, with the mass exodus of quality veteran starters from San Francisco, it would appear that they are on pace for perhaps not even half their 2014 win total.
However, that is an inaccurate assumption.
For starters, the Niners could easily have gone 12-4 last year. In a home game against the Rams, had 1st down and goal in the final minutes needing only a field goal to tie and Colin Kaepernick did pretty much the worst thing possible, turn the ball over. Then there was the unacceptable and pathetic performance against the far inferior Oakland Raiders, an anomaly that they should be eager to avoid repeating. They also blew a 17 point lead against the Chicago Bears in Week 2, a team that finished 5-11. And finally, there was the Chargers game that appeared to be well on its way to a victory before a fourth quarter defensive implosion. Point is, the 49ers had trouble finishing games. Even if they had won just two of those easily winnable collapses, they would have been in a nice wild card position at 10-6.
It will not be easy to replace the litany of off-season losses suffered by the 49ers. But it can be done. Impact players that started 2014 as 49ers and no longer are include Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, Aldon Smith, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis. Did I miss anyone?
The Drop-off rankings are based on replacing 2014 production.
Patrick Willis: It’s never easy replacing a franchise legend. Willis was the best linebacker in the NFL for a better part of a decade, and his decision to hang ’em up seemingly still in his prime shocked many. Still, Willis is human. He played only six games last year, most of them with a debilitating toe injury that led to his eventual retirement. Replacing a prime Patrick Willis is next to impossible. However, replacing six games worth of production while injured should be doable. Number 52 will be missed, but he was really already gone after the 2013 season. Drop-off, scale of 1-10: 3
Chris Borland: Then again, a major reason why the 49ers were able to win eight games without their captain was the emergence of rookie Chris Borland, a third round pick that earned Defensive Player of the Month honors among others and merited strong consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Borland shockingly retired just six days after Willis at age 24, citing concerns over the long term effects of concussions. No one saw this coming, and it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The good news is the 49ers have two players who look to be capable starters competing for Borland’s vacated spot. Michael Wilhoite has appeared in all 16 games the previous two seasons, and Nick Moody is an athletic young linebacker with upside. Drop-off: 6
Justin Smith: Cowboy, as he was known, was one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive linemen for over a decade with the Bengals and 49ers. An imposing figure on the field and a veteran leader off it, Smith was invaluable to the 49ers defense that went to three straight NFC Championship Games. In 2014, Smith dealt with injuries and advancing age, and unlike Willis and Borland, his retirement was not a surprise to anybody. Trent Baalke has drafted with an eye towards Smith’s eventual retirement, and the 49ers have two young stud defensive linemen in Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine ready to contribute even more this season. It would appear unwise to mess with anybody named “Tank.” Drop-off: 3
Ray McDonald: McDonald was a good defensive linemen on the field, but he was an unsavory character off of it, and the 49ers’ decision to let him play under a domestic abuse investigation was a black eye to the organization and a slap in the face to Jed York’s “Win with Class” mantra. Dial and Carradine are younger and superior players, and the 49ers signed veteran interior linemen Darnell Dockett as well. Dockett is coming off an injury but was a terrific player for the Arizona Cardinals for a long time. It’s a good thing for everyone that McDonald is gone. Drop-off: 1
Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox: Replacing both starting corners is a tall task, but Trent Baalke has done a fair job of mitigating the damage. To start off, Cox was replacing Tramaine Brock, who was the 49ers number one corner before the season started and was subsequently injured. As long as Brock stays healthy, the secondary shouldn’t be awful. On the other side veteran Shareece Wright and second year player Keith Reaser are battling it out for the starting job. Wright started last year for the San Diego Chargers but graded out poorly on most metrics, while Reaser has been turning heads in camps but has yet to take the field in an NFL game.This one really depends on Brock’s ability to stay healthy. Drop-off: 5
Aldon Smith: Sigh. The most recent and perhaps most disappointing loss this off-season was Smith, who the 49ers cut after yet another DUI. Smith had all the talent in the world and set the world on fire with 14 sacks his rookie year and 19.5 during the 49ers’ Super Bowl run. Smith needs to focus on fighting his inner demons rather than offensive tackles, and the Niners promised him support even though he is no longer a member of the organization. It’s a sad story, but Smith didn’t do much on the field last year. Playing in just 7 games due to a suspension, he recorded just two sacks and he was invisible on the field at times. Replacing his production should be no problem for the Niners, with perennial starter Ahmaad Brooks, talented second-year pass rusher Aaron Lynch, and highly touted rookie Eli Harold out of Virginia. Drop-off: 2
Frank Gore: The franchise’s all-time leading rusher and most consistent offensive performer through abysmal and auspicious years is beloved the the 49er faithful. He defied father time and injuries again and again, showing he could still hang with the young pups even at the ancient running back age of 32. Yet this past season marked the end of the line for Gore in San Francisco. Although he was productive as ever last season, his loss may end up being more sentimental than anything. Age will eventually catch up with Gore, with all signs pointing to severe statistical drop-offs for running backs of his age. The 49ers are well prepared to replace him as well, having known for years that one day the 5 time Pro-Bowler would ride off into the sunset. The Niners drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014, possibly the best running back in college football during his senior season at Ohio State, where he averaged over seven yards per carry. Those aren’t numbers you see every day. In addition, Hyde showed that he could play in this league during limited action this past season. Throw in the speedy Kendall Hunter, rookie Mike Davis, and intriguing former rugby megastar Jarryd Hayne, and the Niners have a pretty good looking cast of tailbacks to work with this season. Drop-off: 3
Michael Crabtree: Michael Crabtree was one of the best receivers in College Football history at Texas Tech, and the 49ers were positively giddy when he dropped into their lap at Number 10 in the 2009 NFL draft. Crabtree eventually developed into the guy they were hoping for in 2012, when he caught 9 touchdowns and went over 1,000 receiving yards. Unfortunately, he tore his Achilles in mini-camp the following season, and was never the same. Additionally, he was a poor fit opposite of Anquan Boldin in the 49ers offense. Neither were especially fast in NFL terms, and both were third down possesion receivers, with Boldin clearly the superior player. Crabtree’s replacement, Torrey Smith, is a perfect compliment to Boldin and the two won a Super Bowl together (at the 49ers’ expense) in the 2012 season. Crabtree had great potential and is a fine receiver, but Smith is a far better fit in San Francisco’s offense and. Drop-off: 2
Mike Iupati: Iupati, a first round draft choice of the 49ers in 2010, was a key cog in the dominant offensive line that laid the foundation for the three year run of dominance the Niners enjoyed in their trip to three straight NFC Championship games. Iupati was an absolute mauler in the run game, among the league’s elite, but he was below average in pass protection. Iupati will most likely be replaced by Brandon Thomas, a third round pick in 2014. Thomas was a great linemen at Clemson, but he tore his ACL during a pre-draft workout with the New Orleans Saints. Thomas certainly has the potential to be a quality starter in the NFL, but asking a second year player who has never played an NFL snap coming off an injury to replace Iupati is asking far too much. Drop-off: 7
Anthony Davis: Davis was drafted just a few picks before Iupati out of Rutgers, and developed into an above average right tackle. Davis unexpectadly quit football in June over concerns over the effect of concussions. Davis recently promised to return in 2016, but that doesn’t help the 49ers this year. This one is a doozy. The 49ers have to choose from Erik Pears, a 33 year old veteran, and Trenton Brown, a 7th round rookie. Both stand an imposing 6 foot 8, but Pears’ track record is unimpressive and Brown is unproven. Both have reportedly been dominated by linebackers during camp. Hopefully that says more about the linebackers than it does about Pears and Brown. Because Davis’ sabbatical came out of the blue and after the draft, the 49ers were effectively sucker punched (ha-ha, sorry Geno Smith) by Davis’ decision. This could end up being a real problem for San Francisco. Drop-off: 8
Of course, the 49ers also lost Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman, and Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio.
Losing Harbaugh is tough because he instantly revitalized a downtrodden organization. His grating style and extreme methods worked for a while, but eventually wore players down and his departure was inevitable with the egos in an NFL locker room. He is much better suited to be a college coach. His replacement, former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, is unproven as an NFL head coach, but is uniquely loved and respected by his players. The only thing that is for certain is that his players will play hard for him. By all accounts, he appears to be a good man. Hopefully Jimmy T is a good coach as well.
Last year’s offense was excruciating to watch. Defenses were able to time the snap count because it took so long to execute the excessively intricate playcalls. Kaepernick struggled to make reads and the offense appeared woefully out of sync. New offensive coordinator Geep Chryst has a good relationship with Kaepernick, having previously worked with him as the team’s Quarterbacks coach, and has sought to rectify all of the issues with the offense last year. The offense was the team’s biggest problem last year, and losing Roman may end up being an addition by subtraction.
Vic Fangio was the mastermind behind the 49ers elite defense and he merited strong consideration for the head coaching job vacated by Harbaugh. You’d be hard pressed to find a superior defensive coordinator in the league. Eric Mangini was Baalke’s choice to replace Fangio, meaning all three major coaching vacancies were replaced by in-house candidates. Mangini might not be up to Fangio’s standard, but it’s the players who make a defense and if Mangini is wise he’ll listen to the opinions of NaVorro Bowman and won’t try to mess with a good thing. Mangini has previous experience as a head coach in the league, and he wouldn’t have stuck around so long unless he had some semblance of what he was doing.
So all is not lost for the Red and Gold this season. Nothing will come easy in the NFC West. The Seahawks remain the NFL’s best team. Who knows what the Arizona Cardinals would have done in the playoffs with a real quarterback? They had the best record in the league last year when Carson Palmer was healthy. The Rams boast a ferocious defense and are seen as a young up and coming squad throughout the league.
It’s unrealistic to predict a sixth Super Bowl this season. But 10-6 isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. And if the whole thing crumbles like a Nature Valley bar, they can’t do worse than 6-10 or 5-11. So cool it with the 3-13 talk. The Niners have something to prove this year. Most of their success hinges on Colin Kaepernick. If he can up his game, maybe we’ll be talking playoffs. A repeat of last year’s cringe-worthy showing, and they’re probably bound for another 8-8.
The exodus was shocking, but it has not left the 49ers bereft of talent. It’s all speculation at this point. Everyone will have to put their money where their mouth is September 14th.
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