Standing in a corridor at 49ers headquarters before a mid-August practice, Ian Williams did his best to list the ex-Niners gone from last year's squad. When the fifth-year nosetackle was finished, he'd named fewer than half of his old teammates. Then again, Williams had to get to a meeting in 25 minutes. The man was pressed for time. "Losing Crab, Frank, Justin, Ray, Patrick"—wide receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Frank Gore, defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, linebacker Patrick Willis—"it weighs on you," said Williams. "But at the same time, you gotta remember we were blessed to have had a few years with them."
Call it Team Silver Lining. So grim have the tidings been out of Santa Clara, so steady the drumbeat of bad news, culminating in the Aug. 6 arrest for DUI of Aldon Smith—the sack artist's fifth arrest in less than four years; San Francisco released him the next day—one might expect to find first-year coach Jim Tomsula and his players in a depressive funk. The opposite seems true. Yes, the NFL's fifth-ranked defense has lost, in addition to the above-named players, promising linebacker Chris Borland and starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. But these 49ers prefer to dwell on the players who are coming back.
They may have a point. Joining the exodus, which included coach Jim Harbaugh's ouster last December, was highly regarded defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. His replacement: erstwhile wunderkind Eric Mangini, who surfaced in the Niners' organization in 2013, having been fired from two head coaching jobs. After toiling for two seasons as an offensive "consultant," then an assistant, the prodigy once nicknamed Mangenius—a moniker that has faded from use—has returned to his defensive roots, this time as a coordinator.
September 7, 2015
Mangini, now 44, acknowledges his team's extraordinary off-season tumult and turnover, but in the next breath points to reasons for optimism. Back in the lineup, their injuries mended, are defensive end Glenn Dorsey (left biceps) and three-time All-Pro insider linebacker NaVorro Bowman (left ACL), who each missed all of 2014, and Ian Williams (broken left leg), who missed the last seven games. The departures of Justin Smith (retirement) and McDonald (released while under investigation for sexual assault) were offset in part by the off-season acquisition of former Cardinal and three-time Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett. At the back end, Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid form one of the NFL's elite tandems at safety. And while the 49ers are thin at cornerback, fans can take comfort in the knowledge that for three of the Patriots' Super Bowls (following the '01, '03 and '04 seasons), Mangini was their defensive backs coach.
While both Mangini and Fangio run 3--4 defenses, their schemes diverge dramatically. Fangio favored a more vanilla, straightforward approach: "Vic's defense was going to play what it was going to play; we were just going to be better than opposing offenses," says Bethea, last season's team MVP. "We didn't do much that was too crazy, we just did what we did."
Under Mangini, though, "there's going to be a lot more pressure, a lot more confusion for opposing teams." It's been the new DC's style to send blitzers from all over the field. The loss of an elite pass-rusher like Aldon Smith will only magnify that tendency: Sacks must now be manufactured. Under Fangio, says D-end Tony Jerod-Eddie, "We were gonna set the edge and stop the run with a seven-man box. There's a lot of that in Mangini's system, but he's also got all these exotic pressures and blitzes that allow everybody to fly around and have fun. You've got DBs getting sacks, joining the party."
As offensive tackle Joe Staley noted early in camp, he and his fellow hogs had to cope with more blitzes in one week than they had in the previous six camps. That could explain why the O-linemen lagged behind their defensive counterparts early this summer. Staley and Alex Boone, who has moved from right to left guard, are the sole full-time holdovers from last year's unit. Adding to the unfamiliarity: Under departed OC Greg Roman, this unit gained renown for its brutish effectiveness in the power running game. Now, under the tutelage of line coach Chris Foerster, it will try its hand at zone blocking.
The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick--quarterbacked offense was frequently bailed out last season by Fangio's defense. If those struggles continue, and Mangini's charges keep the Niners in games, the former Mangenius might just get his old nickname back.
SI'S PREDICTION: 9--7
ANDY BENOIT ON THE 49ERS' KAEPERNICK PROBLEM
After 45 career starts, including his six playoff appearances, it's clear what Colin Kaepernick is. At 27, Kaepernick (above) remains ingrained in the same habits that he exhibited at 25. He's an electrifying runner, but he's not elusive or particularly dangerous when throwing on the move. This is problematic because he rarely plays from the pocket. If Kaepernick's initial read is not open, he's liable to break down and flee, even before completing his drop-back. The 49ers must figure out whether they can continue to work with and around this; they must call plays where it's immediately clear if the primary target is open or not. GM Trent Baalke made off-season moves that will aid this by giving the Niners' offense more dimension: Free-agent receiver Torrey Smith might be only a straight-line speedster, but he can at least hold a safety deep, which clarifies a coverage for the QB. Reggie Bush, even at 30, brings short option routes and more screen concepts to the backfield and slot. And last year's fourth-round pick, Bruce Ellington, a shifty gadget player, could see a bigger role. These are all types of weapons that you design specific plays for—and that's conducive to defining a quarterback's read.