Off-season report card: San Francisco 49ers
2016: 2–14, fourth in NFC West
Significant additions: GM John Lynch, Heach coach Kyle Shanahan, QB Matt Barkley, RB Kapri Bibbs, OLB Brock Coyle, WR Pierre Garcon, OT Garry Gilliam, WR Marquise Goodwin, K Robbie Gould, RB Tim Hightower, QB Brian Hoyer, FB Kyle Juszczyk, DT Earl Mitchell, TE Logan Paulsen, WR Aldrick Robinson, OLB Malcolm Smith, C Jeremy Zuttah, DL Solomon Thomas (R1), LB Reuben Foster (R1), CB Ahkello Witherspoon (R3), QB C.J. Beathard (R3), RB Joe Williams (R4), WR Trent Taylor (R5), TE George Kittle (R5)
Significant losses: S Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, K Phil Dawson, RB Shaun Draughn, LB Gerald Hodges, QB Colin Kaepernick, OL Marcus Martin, WR Quinton Patton, WR Torrey Smith
The 49ers have not exactly been a model of stability recenty, so making any long-term assumptions about the organization may be a mistake. Nevertheless, one could assume that rookie GM John Lynch and rookie coach Kyle Shanahan will be afforded a little leeway as they attempt their rebuild of a struggling team.
Two storylines central to that project’s rate of completion are underway: 1) What Lynch has done in an attempt to fix the league’s worst defense; 2) What he does next to address the 49ers’ quarterback position. At of the start of free agency, the 49ers had exactly zero quarterbacks on their roster—Colin Kaepernick opted out of his contract, and Lynch chose not to re-sign Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder or Thad Lewis.
“A lot people look at it like, ‘Oh my gosh. You don’t have any quarterbacks,’” Lynch said at the time. “But that also is somewhat liberating in that you can create this thing in that position, that is so critical, in the way that you want it.”
The immediate path he and Shanahan took: signing Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley out of free agency, then trading up in Round 3 of the draft for Iowa’s C.J. Beathard. The plan as of now is for Hoyer—most experienced of the three with 31 career starts—to handle the No. 1 gig, followed by Barkley and Beathard, in that order, on the depth chart.
That’s an acceptable strategy if Lynch already has his sights set on 2018 quarterback targets, be they Kirk Cousins (who played under Shanahan from ’12–13) or an intriguing crop of potential draft picks. It is less encouraging if the 49ers believe they are in solid shape at QB for the long term. To that end, Shanahan raved to The MMQB’s Peter King about Beathard: “He processes the game so well,” Shanahan said. “Tough as s---. Got a chance. He reminds me a lot of Kirk Cousins.”
A GM can tweak a roster as many times as he’d like, but there is little success to be had without getting things right at the quarterback spot. Hoyer did hold his own as a starter for the Browns during the 2014 season, with Shanahan as his coordinator. He at least offers experience in Shanahan’s system, an element that should ease the transition into 2017. Eventually, though, the 49ers likely are going to need an upgrade at the game’s most important position.
They’re not exactly set throughout the rest of the offensive roster, though, hence Hoyer’s status as an adequate "bridge QB." San Francisco trotted out arguably the NFL’s worst collection of receivers last season, a group that should be better in 2017 thanks to the arrivals of Garcon, Goodwin and Taylor. Shanahan will try to recreate some of the magic he revealed in Atlanta’s attack last year, but he of course does not have Matt Ryan or Julio Jones (among others) at his disposal.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is facing a similar challenge. He spent three seasons as a Seahawks assistant and then another three under Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, and the 49ers are planning to implement a version of the Bradley-inspired Seattle defense. But Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman aren’t walking through that door.
Which brings us back to point No. 1: Lynch’s moves to repair the defense. A year ago, the 49ers were ghosts when the opposition had the football, allowing a ludicrous 165.9 yards per game on the ground.
So, Lynch spent his first three draft picks on that side of the ball: DL Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster and CB Ahkello Witherspoon. It’s not fair to say the success of Lynch’s tenure hinges on Thomas and Foster—it would be more fair to say the quarterback situation will be the driving force. However, for Saleh and the 49ers to take steps forward on defense, both Thomas and Foster need to be everything they’re promised to be.
Thomas stands to occupy a critical inside-out role along the defensive line, perhaps not all that dissimilar from how Seattle has used Michael Bennett. Foster, meanwhile, could be the fast-flowing anchor of San Francisco’s linebacking corps. If he’s healthy, that is—shoulder surgery has his 2017 status in limbo.
If Thomas and Foster are All-Pro talents, the defense could be formidable in short order. If Foster labors in getting on the field and Thomas’s development plateaus, well ...
The 49ers do appear to have a plan in place, which is more than could be said for the ill-fated Chip Kelly era. The results probably won’t come in 2017—the roster Lynch inherited was a mess. Whether or not the turnaround takes hold in ’18 or ’19 hinges in large part on the Thomas/Foster tandem and what else Lynch has planned at QB.