Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Today we examine the 49ers, whose off-season should begin and end with determining their plan at quarterback. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
WR Anquan Boldin, G Alex Boone, RB Reggie Bush, TE Garrett Celek, K Phil Dawson, LB Michael Wilhoite (RFA), NT Ian Williams
Players that must be re-signed
Boone, Dawson, Wilhoite, Williams: Putting Boone here even though he’s likely gone—he’s wanted a contract extension for the past couple seasons but San Francisco refused to oblige, and now he will be the top free-agent guard available. Losing him will put the 49ers behind the 8-ball.
Williams figures to be the priority otherwise. There are not a lot of impactful nose tackles out there, and the 26-year-old was steady across 16 games last year. The 49ers ranked just 29th against the run last season, but keeping Williams and LB NaVorro Bowman together up the middle is key to improving the mark.
Speaking of Bowman, the 49ers would have preferred to have him in 2014 or to have Patrick Willis and Chris Borland last season, but circumstances dictated Wilhoite pick up a combined 28 starts over the two years. With Bowman back and Gerald Hodges coming over via trade last season, Wilhoite probably should return to backup status. Given that he is an RFA, retaining him as an in-case-of-emergency option makes sense.
Dawson just turned 41 and has been in the league since 1999, so sooner or later his career will reach its end point. It didn’t happen last season, when he connected on 24 of 27 field goals and 20 of 21 extra points. He even snapped off a 48-yard punt in a pinch.
Most important position to improve
Quarterback: At the combine, GM Trent Baalke said that he expects Colin Kaepernick back in a 49ers uniform next season, and even confirmed that the team would guarantee his $11.9 million. Kaepernick’s agent then asked for a trade about 24 hours later. So we may never know if Chip Kelly viewed Kaepernick as his answer at QB, the way most assumed. The door is at least slightly ajar for Kaepernick’s return as the starter, but odds are it won’t happen.
Behind him is Blaine Gabbert, who played well enough in Kaepernick’s place last season to earn himself a 2016 roster spot somewhere, if not as the backup in San Francisco. Kelly is not going to tie his second coaching gig to the former first-round pick.
So, that leaves San Francisco in a bit of a predicament. It should get a stab at one of the top two or three QBs come draft time, although few (maybe no) options there have the look of a rookie starter. Free agency is even thinner, with Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick at the top of the heap. If both re-sign with their current teams, the options are even more limited.
Kelly made a mountain out of a tall, gangly molehill when Nick Foles hit a hot streak in Philadelphia, but results since have been decidedly less positive. The 49ers need at least one and potentially multiple quarterbacks before Week 1.
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Other positions to improve
Cornerback, defensive lines, guard, linebacker, wide receiver: Assuming Williams returns, the 49ers actually could have a decent base on defense. The optimism depends on the continued progress of young OLBs like Aaron Lynch, Eli Harold and Corey Lemonier. Veteran Ahmad Brooks turns 31 this month, but he did tie Lynch for the team lead in sacks last season with 6.5.
The 49ers still could grab another pass-rusher, just in case they don’t get the results they want from those youngsters. There’s also the possibility Kelly and O’Neil swap San Francisco into a 4–3, which would change the situation completely. If an upgrade is there to be had at inside linebacker, neither Hodges nor Wilhoite nor Shayne Skov is a lock to start next to Bowman.
San Francisco also finds itself crossing its fingers a bit at cornerback. Are 2014 draft picks Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson key parts of the nucleus moving forward? Or are they bit players who should be deeper down the depth chart?
The guard need mostly comes down to Boone’s departure, but the 49ers have little depth or noteworthy youth there. Getting Anthony Davis back from semi-retirement at right tackle would shift Baalke’s gaze entirely on the interior line.
Kelly drafted multiple wide receivers during his time in Philadelphia, with varying degrees of payoff. Torrey Smith and a handful of unproven options are under contract for 2016, with Boldin an impending free agent. Boldin could be back if Kelly deems hit a fit for the offense, but if not, the 49ers could be very, very young at the position.
Overall priority this offseason
Decide on the long-term plan at QB: Kelly helped turn the Eagles into a 10–6 playoff team during his debut season there. The 49ers cannot be considered for any such turnaround—especially in the brutal NFC West—until they find a QB.
If they cannot answer the question in the next two months, then they may have to chalk up 2016 as a rebuilding year and look to ’17. Maybe that means using Gabbert for a bit and drafting someone further down the board (Dak Prescott? Cardale Jones? Vernon Adams, who said he already has a grasp on Kelly’s offense thanks to his Oregon time?).
What Kelly and the 49ers cannot afford to do is readdress this problem on a year-to-year basis. They don’t need to find a future Hall of Famer immediately (and probably won’t), but there needs to be a plan in place.