As Carlos Hyde goes, so does the Niners offense. Plus, why Gabbert is the obvious choice at QB, the trouble with Chip Kelly’s receivers, and why NaVorro Bowman’s 2015 performance wasn’t as good as you might have thought
1. The decision to start Blaine Gabbert ahead of Colin Kaepernick is the biggest no-brainer in the NFL this season. Starting Gabbert is like choosing to eat a charred, misshapen hamburger. But starting Kaepernick is like choosing to eat a totally uncooked one. He’s raw enough to give Chip Kelly’s offense E. coli. Yes, Kaepernick is mobile, and in theory that’s a plus in Kelly’s scheme. But more important is a quarterback’s decisiveness. Kelly’s up-tempo and intertwined route combinations engender a quarterback getting the ball out promptly. Kaepernick has never shown the field-reading skills to do this. Gabbert, after replacing Kaepernick last season, showed these skills off and on. The concern with him is pocket poise. He doesn’t do well when things break down—and after a few breakdowns, he’s liable to start anticipating pressure that’s not there. Kelly’s scheme can naturally curtail some of this, though it’s on Gabbert to improve.
2. The foundation of Kelly’s offense is its perimeter running game. In his system, the key blockers are usually the guards and centers, which is unique. You must have great feet and quickness to play this position for Kelly. The Niners were atrocious at these spots a year ago, so it’s no surprise they traded into the back of the first round to draft Josh Garnett about a month after signing veteran Zane Beadles. Neither is a sure thing, but both offer much, much more hope than incumbents Andrew Tiller, Brandon Thomas and Ian Silberman.
3. Carlos Hyde is the most important player in this offense. (After all, a perimeter-based rushing attack requires a quality outside runner.) Hyde dropped from 235 to 220 pounds last season and showed flashes before being shelved after Week 7 because of a foot injury. If he doesn’t average 18 touches and at least 80 yards rushing a game, the Niners have no chance.
4. In his first season with the Eagles, Kelly was supposedly surprised by the amount of man coverage his Eagles faced. He shouldn’t have been. Not only is man coverage the simplest way to handle Kelly’s torrid play-calling tempo, it was also the best way to defend a group of Eagles wideouts who couldn’t separate off the line. Now in his first season with the 49ers, Kelly is going to experience this all over again. None of San Francisco’s wideouts are good press-man separators. And sadly, the worst of the group might be its figurative No. 1, Torrey Smith. Stiff in his breaks and in his stop/start, Smith has a limited route tree and disappears against upper-echelon corners. His saving grace could be that Kelly’s scheme features less isolation routes than San Fran’s previous offensive play-caller Geep Chryst’s.
5. New 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has an excellent opportunity on his hands. With Kelly so offensive minded, O’Neil is essentially a czar of this defense. He’s been an NFL defensive play-caller for two years, though that was under defensive-minded head coach Mike Pettine, who tended to get the credit (or blame). O’Neil, 37, will likely run much of what he learned under Pettine. That means aggressive, multiples defensive fronts, interchangeable blitzing linebackers and safeties and matchup zone coverage principles for the corners. Overall, it’s a more diverse scheme than the zone-based one this team ran under Eric Mangini last year.
6. The Niners’ four-man nickel pass rush is anyone’s guess. Last season, this group was much too quiet and Mangini had to rely on blitzes and disguised zone exchanges. O’Neil will have an even quicker trigger here. But in an ideal world, a defensive coordinator is not dependent on these things. O’Neil’s dependency will be determined by 2015 first-rounder Arik Armstead, ’16 first-rounder DeForest Buckner, and ’14 fifth-rounder Aaron Lynch (who will sit the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy). All are uniquely athletic but, at just 22 or 23 years old, still in the early stages of their development.
7. The Niners, who were second to last in forced turnovers last season, need to make more impact plays—and it starts with 2013 first-round safety Eric Reid. He has a superb body type and skill set for playing in today’s NFL. We need to see more of the football awareness that made him pop as a rookie and sophomore.
8. NaVorro Bowman only made the All-Pro Team last year because he was coming back from his horrific knee injury. I’m not saying voters gave Bowman sympathy votes. I’m saying voters, interested to see how he did, watched him closer than they watched other linebackers and so his positive plays stood out more. What didn’t stand out to the naked eye but did on film were the negative plays, where Bowman missed run-fit assignments or was a beat slow reacting (including in coverage). He wasn’t awful here, but he had far too many of these to warrant First-Team All-Pro consideration. In no particular order, Jamie Collins, Telvin Smith, Derrick Johnson, Sean Lee, Clay Matthews and Thomas Davis all had better seasons than Bowman last year.
9. San Francisco’s base run defense is very stout. It ranked 29th overall last year, but that was due to facing a high number of rushing attempts. On a per-rush basis, it ranked 12th. The front three has size and the flexibility to align several different players in various positions along a base front. Two very underrated players in this sense: Ian Williams and Quinton Dial.
10. It will be very interesting to see if the Niners do indeed move slot corner Jimmie Ward outside in nickel packages. That’s where he’ll play if he earns a starting job as expected. But moving him outside in nickel would diminish his contributions in blitz packages, open-field run support and zone coverage. The new coaching staff must really like former undrafted Charger Chris Davis inside.
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