It's hard to think of a NFL franchise with more off-season turnover than the 2014-'15 49ers. This team, which finished 8-8 last season (the first non-winning season in Jim Harbaugh's tenure) watched Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio depart to other teams; saw starting linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, defensive tackle Justin Smith and right tackle Anthony Davis retire; lost guard Mike Iupati, cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Frank Gore to free agency; and released offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and receiver Stevie Johnson. For good measure, the 49ers traded punter Andy Lee, who tied for third-best yards-per-punt average in 2014, to the Browns for a seventh-round pick in 2017 ... because general manager Trent Baalke decided to take a punter, Clemson's Bradley Pinion, in the fifth round of the draft.
All this change can be seen as a major political victory for Trent Baalke and team CEO Jed York. Since Harbaugh was hired in 2011 and turned the fortunes of the franchise around with his great coaching and admittedly difficult attitude, he found himself more and more at odds with Baalke, whose recent draft history didn't help his cause. Full-time starters are tough to find among the team's recent high picks. In the end, coach and team made the call to "mutually part ways" on December 28, paving the way for a whole lot of questionable change.
The 49ers promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to the head coach position on January 14, an interesting hire for a guy whose only head coaching experience at any level of football came at the end of the 2010 season, when he was named interim head coach for the final game of the 2010 regular season following the firing of then-head coach Mike Singletary. (Oh -- there was the 2006 season as head coach for the Rhein Fire of NFL Eurpoe). That Baalke and York couldn't see past their belief in Tomsula could speak to his qualifications, though the general consensus seems to be that the front office wanted a guy who would be grateful enough for the job that he'd leave the personnel decisions to others.
Tomsula's early interactions with the media didn't do much to dissolve the thoughts that he was put in place because he was less of an agitant than Harbaugh, as opposed to any qualifications he might hold—this was a man who appeared to be completely out of his depth. To be fair, Tomsula could turn out to be a brilliant head coach, and it wouldn't be the first time a great coach had little to say to the press. But between Tomsula's lack of experience in this position and the insane roster churn this team has undergone in the last six months, it's tough to expect anything but a "rebuilding" season.
And with York making public comments about the way the 49ers should devise their offensive strategy—something that would never have happened in the Harbaugh era without a fight—there's a legitimate question about too many cooks, and just how qualified those cooks actually are.
New offensive coordinator Geep Chryst will have a few interesting weapons to use. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick can throw to ex-Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, brought in with a five-year, $40 million contract to expand San Francisco's vertical passing game. Reggie Bush will provide an element of versatility to the powerful style of Carlos Hyde, who's clearly the primary back with Gore out of the picture. Veteran defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will help new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini if he can stay healthy, which he wasn't in 2014 (Dockett missed the entire season for the Cardinals with a torn ACL). Other additions, like cornerback Shareece Wright, linebacker Philip Wheeler and guard Erik Pears, are veteran stopgaps at best unless they far exceed their recent NFL performances.
In the 2015 draft, Baalke started out by taking a fairly big risk on Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead, a physically freakish player who still needs to learn a bit about the subtleties of the game. Second-round pick Jacquiski Tartt from Samford has impressed against bigger competition in short sports, but he's most likely on a similar developmental curve. And in the end, that may be the story of the 2015 49ers: they destructed to reconstruct at a level we can't remember any team doing in the course of a single season, and it's all on Baalke if it doesn't work out. He's the guy who won in the short term, but what exactly are the spoils?
Best acquisition: Torrey Smith, WR
In 2014, Colin Kaepernick completed 22 of 69 passes 20 or more yards in the air for 689 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. That's a big drop in deep efficiency from his 2013 campaign, in which he completed 21 of 57 such passes for 683 yards, six touchdowns and two picks. Last season, Brandon Lloyd and Michael Crabtree tied for the team lead with 16 deep targets each, and each receiver caught five passes for one touchdown. Hardly earth-shattering numbers, and the lack of a true deep threat has affected San Francisco's offense for years. Meanwhile, Smith caught eight deep passes in 21 targets for five touchdowns in Baltimore's offense. Yes, he also dropped five deep passes, and drops are an issue with Smith, but he'll unquestionably give the 49ers a new vertical threat.
Smith, by the way, is not at all disturbed by his new team's roster turnover.
“To me, it kind of reminds me of when I first came to the Ravens," said Smith, who was drafted by Baltimore in the second round of the 2011 draft. "They lost [receiver] Derrick Mason, [running back] Willis McGahee, [tight end] Todd Heap, a bunch of veteran players who were great within the organization, but we found a way to keep pressing on. And it’s that ‘next man up’ philosophy and that’s everywhere on every team. So, I’m sure they’ve grown the right people to be ready for the opportunity. They had a lot of injuries last year, so clearly a lot of people were able to get some experience. So, I feel comfortable from the outside in and I have absolutely no clue the insides. You all might know a little more than me, but I’m sure they’ll be ready.”
Once Smith has more of a clue about the "insides," he may think differently, but kudos to him for putting a positive spin on the whole thing.
Biggest loss: Chris Culliver, CB
It's tempting to put Chris Borland here, since the rookie linebacker had an amazing season before retiring due to concussion concerns. And right tackle Anthony Davis' departure from the game for similar reasons is a similarly big hit, given that the 49ers run such a roll-right offense. But Culliver, taken in the third round of the 2011 draft, finally overcame the primary image most had of him when he made homophobic comments during the run-up to Super Bowl XLVII. In 2014, Culliver became one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL, allowing an opponent passer rating of 66.5 on 73 targets. Culliver became a free agent after that breakout season, and the Redskins swooped in with a four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed. Tramaine Brock and Sharrece Wright are San Francisco's projected starting cornerbacks going into training camp, and that is cause for concern. Wright allowed a 94.5 passer rating for the Chargers last year on 70 targets, and Brock allowed a perfect 158.3 rating on 10 targets. Perrish Cox did come up with five interceptions last season, which would be encouraging if he hadn't signed with the Titans in the off-season.
Underrated draft pick: DeAndre Smelter, WR, Georgia Tech (132nd overall pick)
Both Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas have succeeded wildly in the NFL despite their college days, in which they toiled in run-heavy offenses and had relatively small sample sizes when it came to their targets. Smelter was the next in line as the Yellow Jackets' primary receiver, and the former baseball star excelled in that capacity in the 2013 and 2014 seasons with 56 total receptions for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns. Smelter also added four rushing attempts for 115 yards and another touchdown before suffering a knee injury in December. Baalke has a history of drafting players with injuries and hoping for a high return on investment. That hasn't worked with Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore, but Smelter could be an exception.
“I don't know that 'redshirt' is the right word," Baalke said after Smelter was drafted. "He should be ready to go. It all depends what he looks like when he gets in here, what we need to do to get him rehabbed and ready to go. But it's a situation where he may not be ready for training camp, but he may be ready at some point in the immediate future after that. We just got to get our hands on him, see exactly where he's at. But feel confident that the rehab is going very well up to this point. We'll see what we're dealing with when we get our hands on him.”
As to Smelter's skill set, Baalke has nothing but confidence in the 6-2, 226-pound receiver, who showed both physicality and speed when he was healthy.
"Well, he's big. He's physical. He can block. He can run after the catch. He's got huge hands, size 11 hands. He's a physical wide receiver. One of the things that Coach [Tomsula] and I talked about through this process is we wanted to get bigger, we wanted to get faster, we wanted to get more competitive. We wanted more four-down players, guys that could go out there and compete on special teams."
Not that Smelter is going to become the next Megatron or Demaryius, but it'll be interesting to see what he does in an offense that throws the ball more than 200 times a season.
Looming question for training camp: Will scheme reverse Colin Kaepernick's regression?
One of the main things that prevented the 49ers from making the playoffs for the first time in the Harbaugh era was Kaepernick's undeniable regression. He fell from seventh in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for quarterbacks in 2013 to 29th in 2014, right between world-beaters Charlie Whitehurst and Austin Davis. One thought behind the issue is that Roman and Harbaugh tried to keep Kaepernick in the pocket too often, limiting his reads and denying him his athletic advantages. However, the numbers don't jibe. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick threw 402 passes from the pocket in 2013, completing 236 for 3,135 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In 2014, he actually threw fewer passes from the pocket: 381, completing 243 for 2,673 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven picks.
The real issue last season was Kaepernick's predilection to bail from the pocket when his reads got muddy, and he wasn't as synced up with his receivers as often. Kaepernick was pressured more often in 2014: 215 snaps under pressure as opposed to 175 the year before. But it's going to be on him to develop as a pure passer. There are no option schemes he hasn't already used that will get him to the point where he's one of the game's best quarterbacks.
“We did leave a lot out there last year, but I don’t think it’s a situation where we have to press," Kaepernick said in June. "It’s being able to execute the plays that are called and execute them more efficiently. I think with our new offensive coordinator, with our new quarterback coach, we’ve cleaned a lot of things up and made it more comfortable and friendly for players to be able to go out and make plays.”
Well, Chryst is the new offensive coordinator, but he was also the old quarterbacks coach—he served that function for the 49ers from through 2014. Steve Logan, who worked with Tomsula in NFL Europe and coached Matt Ryan at Boston College, is Chryst's replacement. The last time he worked on a coaching staff, he was fired along with the rest of Raheem Morris' staff in Tampa Bay at the end of the 2011 season. He spent the last couple years as a television and radio analyst in North Carolina.
Concerned? A lot of people are about the 49ers, and you can hardly blame them.