The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we remain in the NFC West to provide a San Francisco 49ers 2016 preview.
Here, we’ll be discussing a team that needs to find a quarterback to have success in Chip Kelly’s first season as its head coach. That and a whole bunch more below.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
San Francisco 49ers 2016 Preview
Head coach: Chip Kelly (first season)
Key arrivals: T/G Anthony Davis, G Zane Beadles, WR Rod Streater, WR Jeremy Kerley
Key departures: WR Anquan Boldin, G Alex Boone, RB Reggie Bush
1. Will a quarterback shine in Chip Kelly’s system?
Blaine Gabbert will begin the season under center in San Francisco. The embattled Colin Kaepernick will be his primary backup. Meanwhile, former first-round bust Christian Ponder will act as the third-team quarterback.
This isn’t an ideal scenario. It’s also a scenario that Kelly’s offensive scheme has been effective handling.
Here’s a guy that saw Nick Foles compile 30 total touchdowns compared to two interceptions back in 2013. That was Kelly’s first season as the Philadelphia Eagles head coach. It culminated in a playoff appearance.
While Kelly’s quarterbacks haven’t enjoyed the same success since, it’s not like they’ve been bottom-rung starters.
The combination of Foles and Mark Sanchez put up over 4,500 passing yards with 27 scores in 2014. Then, last season, Sam Bradford put up a career-best statistical performance.
What do these quarterbacks have in common with San Francisco’s trio of signal callers? None of them can be considered all that good. Still, there’s been success had here under Kelly.
The main question here is who will end up being under center for the long haul in 2016. Gabbert may begin the season as the starter, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kelly have a short hook with him.
2. How will the young but talented defense perform?
There’s not a ton of of proven talent on the defensive side of the ball here. Outside of NaVorro Bowman, leadership will likely be an issue. With that said, the talent on this unit is undeniable.
The Oregon duo of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner should scare the collective crap out of opposing NFC West quarterbacks. Here’s two green but super-talented defensive linemen that could team up to dominate over the next decade.
Buckner, a rookie first-round pick, stands at 6-foot-7 and weighs north of 290 pounds. Meanwhile, his former Oregon teammate comes in at 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds. Imagine them converging on the likes of Russell Wilson.
The secondary is also filled with untapped talent. Former first-round pick Jimmie Ward had a breakout sophomore campaign in 2015, posting 54 tackles with six passes defended and an interception.
After playing in the slot and at safety last season, Ward will now move outside to corner. It’s definitely going to be interesting to see how he performs in that role.
Playing Ward at corner was made possible by the vast amount of talent at safety. Former Pro Bowlers Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid will start with 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt acting as the third safety. Though, the hard-hitting Tartt will also see action at linebacker.
This is where the strength of San Francisco’s defense will likely be. Along the defensive line and in the secondary. Just how much these youngsters step up will dictate the success of the unit as a whole.
3. How will the Colin Kaepernick saga end?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past couple weeks, you know very well the drama surrounding this enigmatic figure.
One thing is rather clear here. The 49ers organization has stood by Kaepernick throughout the entire national anthem protest.
It would have been easy to simply move on from him, using his trade demand and on-field performance as the two primary reasons.
Instead, Kaepernick enters the season as San Francisco’s primary backup. He’ll likely see action as a starter at some point depending on how Gabbert performs out of the gate.
That’s where it gets rather interesting. Some were under the belief that San Francisco would pull an RGIII on Kaepernick. By this, the belief was it might simply keep him as a game-day inactive as a way to avoid a major payout next season.
If Kap is indeed the No. 2 on San Francisco’s depth chart, that’s not going to be the case.
The embattled quarterback is set to earn $19.4 million in 2017. It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that the 49ers are simply going to move on from him. Though, that’s going to depend more on his on-field performance than the ever-growing anthem controversy. That’s for sure.
Carlos Hyde, running back
Prior to suffering a foot injury last season — his first as San Francisco’s starter — Hyde was having a stellar campaign. He tallied 168 yards and two scores in the season opener.
Hyde then put up 122 total yards over the next two games before injuring his foot against the Green Bay Packers in early October.
Should the former second-round pick remain healthy, he’s likely going to have a breakout campaign in Kelly’s running back-friendly scheme. A downhill running style coupled with what has to be considered plus-level receiving ability are two things that Kelly loves to work with. That’s also what Hyde brings to the table here.
There’s really no reason to believe Hyde won’t see an average of 20 touches per game. If that’s the case, something to the tune of 1,500-plus total yards and double-digit scores doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Say what you want about Chip Kelly as a general manager. Criticism in that area is more than justified. But as it relates to him as a head coach, criticism just doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Back in 2013, Kelly took over an Eagles team that was coming off a four-win campaign under Andy Reid. He responded by leading Philadelphia to 10 wins and the NFC East title. And while Philadelphia did miss out on the playoffs in 2014, the team won 10 games for a second consecutive season.
It’s all about recency bias in the NFL. Kelly and the Eagles won just seven games last season, forcing him to be fired prior to the season finale. Though, that was all about Kelly’s issues with the team’s front office and his disastrous one-year run as general manager.
Coming off a one-and-done campaign under an over-matched Jim Tomsula, it’s readily apparent that San Francisco upgraded its coaching situation. It also boasts some solid talent on defense.
This might not be enough for the team to sniff .500, but it could act as the first step in what could be a successful rebuilding project in Santa Clara.
REASON TO DOUBT
Talent. If you look at San Francisco’s skill-position group, it could very well be the least-talented in the NFL.
We touched on the quarterback position above. However, the success San Francisco sees at that position is going to depend heavily on how its pass catchers perform. And that right there is the biggest issue.
Torrey Smith will now take the role as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Smith did lead the NFL averaging 20.1 yards per reception last season. That’s fine and dandy. Unfortunately, the high-priced veteran finished his initial season in San Francisco with just 33 receptions. Ouch!
Much like this entire roster, it’s all about unproven talent at receiver. Quinton Patton and rookie Aaron Burbridge will act as the team’s second and third receiving options to start the season. That’s really not good for anyone involved. In fact, Patton has recorded a total of 36 receptions in three seasons.
Internal issues at receiver also forced San Francisco to trade for Rod Streater and Jeremy Kerley. While both have had their moments in the past, they are coming off substandard 2015 seasons.
If the issues at receiver weren’t enough, San Francisco’s crop of Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Bruce Miller and Blake Bell caught a combined 74 passes last season. Is anyone going to step up there?
Kelly might have a solid offensive system in place, but the talent just isn’t there for this unit to have success. That’s the primary reason we’re projecting a last-place finish.
Prediction: 5-11, last place in the NFC West