The Update: San Francisco 49ers 2017 Preview

The Update: Oakland Raiders 2017 Preview
July 19, 2017
The Tangible Value of NFL Holding Calls
July 24, 2017

The Update: San Francisco 49ers 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda
In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update”, which will focus on:

  1. Where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint
  2. Where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts
  3. Who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were
  4. Where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season

Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

No team in the NFL went through as much turnover this offseason as the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers only won two games last year, both against the Los Angeles Rams, but they fell only two points short of the NFC West champions, the Seattle Seahawks, in a 25-23 New Year’s Day game in Week 17.

Chuck’s Two Cents: Free Kap.

Chip Kelly’s run as a head coach in San Francisco lasted just one year, with the hiring of former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan marking the fourth year in a row that the 49ers have had a different name at the top of the chain of command. Coming in as Shanahan’s general manager is John Lynch, a former safety turned NFL analyst.

In the first offseason of the Shanahan and Lynch pairing, the team let go 15 of their 39 most-played players. On the offensive side of the ball, they let go 8 of their 18 most-played players. That level of turnover was not matched by a single team in the NFL. We know little about Shanahan as a first-time head coach. We know little about Lynch as a first-time general manager. We know little about Robert Saleh as a first-time defensive coordinator.

The only thing we know for certain is that this San Francisco 49ers team will feature plenty of names that were not on the team during the Trent Baalke-run stretch.

Offense:

Backs: The first step in this rebuild was to cut ties with the team’s former quarterbacks. Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert both started games in San Francisco last year. Kaepernick is famously unsigned, while Gabbert is backing up Carson Palmer with the Arizona Cardinals, an NFC West divisional rival.

The team then signed Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, two quarterbacks who played for the Chicago Bears last year, before swapping first-round picks with the Bears, who selected North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky with the second overall pick. There’s a lot of swapping spit there.

San Francisco also drafted Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the third round of the draft. Here’s what each of those quarterbacks looked like, from a statistical standpoint, in 2016:

Despite not possessing great offensive tackles, the Chicago Bears really kept their quarterbacks clean last season. Hoyer has a chance to be a mid-level quarterback. Barkley has a chance of being out of the league by 2018. Beathard, despite his third-round label, was wildly inefficient at Iowa. You’ve got the green light from me to put all of your eggs in the Hoyer basket.

Side note: Since Kaepernick is a hot topic, it’s worth noting that his ANY/A numbers are changed drastically by the amount of sacks he took on last season, even when compared to Gabbert, his former teammate. One would assume that if someone was going to make a case about Kaepernick’s talent on the field not being enough to warrant an NFL contract, analysts would have pointed to the amount of sacks that he took on, even relatively, but I haven’t heard that one this offseason. There are a lot of websites that mislead fans with fake analysis. We at Setting the Edge would never do such a thing.

The 49ers finished 13th in interception percentage, 25th in yards per completion, 29th in completion percentage and 30th in sack percentage, but between the large splits between Kaepernick and Gabbert, along with the fact that they’re both gone, there’s no reason for those numbers to influence 2017 predictions. Elsewhere in the backfield, the 49ers finished 4th in run percentage, 11th in yards per carry, 20th in fumble percentage and 21st in TFL percentage.

In short, Kelly ran the ball often, his offensive line did a poor job of blocking first-level defenders, but his backs made up for their offensive line talent. Carlos Hyde is really the team’s only significant returning back, and his 217 carries and 4.6 yards per carry average behind that offensive line should be looked at as a massive positive.

His competition will likely be Joe Williams of Utah, a fourth-round pick who ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the combine. The team also signed Kyle Juszczyk, formerly a Baltimore Raven, to a four-year, $21 million deal this offseason. That type of a contract is unheard of for a fullback, but if Juszczyk would have returned to Baltimore, he’d currently have the second-most returning receptions of anyone on the team.

Chuck’s Two Cents: In two seasons with Kyle Shanahan, Patrick DiMarco totaled 20 catches, 162 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Obviously DiMarco had tougher competition for targets than Jusczyk will this year, but it will be interesting to see how Juszcyzk is utilized in the passing game. 

Also of note: when Shanahan was in Washington from 2010-13, Darrel Young totaled 28 catches, 329 yards, and 4 touchdowns. 

Pass-Catchers: According to Football Outsiders, four of San Francisco’s five most-played receivers are no longer on the team in Quinton Patton, Torrey Smith, Rod Streater and Chris Harper. That leaves the team with Jeremy Kerley, who made 64 receptions for 10.4 yards per reception last season. The good news is the team signed former Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon to a five-year, $47.5 million deal and former Buffalo Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin to a two-year, $6 million deal.

The only receiver on the team with a positive DVOA grade on Football Outsiders is Garcon. One would think that this leaves open an opportunity for Trent Taylor, the team’s fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech. Taylor is more of a slot receiver than anything, but he could be the number two receiver on the team fairly quickly. There isn’t much of a ladder to climb.

The team has some depth at tight end, but they don’t have a star. Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald return, while fifth-round pick George Kittle is added into the mix. Kittle is more of an undersized flex player than a true tight end, which is an interesting pairing to go with Juszczyk.

Chuck’s Two Cents: I thought Kittle was a good blocker when he was at Iowa. His athletic testing results were also highly, highly impressive.

Linemen: San Francisco’s offensive line was not good last year. They ended up finishing 30th in sack percentage and 21st in TFL percentage. The team returns Trent Brown, Zane Beadles, Joe Staley, Daniel Kilgore and Josh Garnett, though the squad did trade for center Jeremy Zuttah.

Unless you expect some of the Shanahan magic to rub off here, the team needs to view this unit as a need going into next offseason.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: The 49ers are in the middle of a transition from the truest form of a 3-4 defense that was around in the NFL in 2016 to the modern 4-3 under defense that the Seattle defensive coordinator tree is spreading across the league. There are going to be some players who are lost in the shuffle, namely on the interior defensive line.

No one can figure out how DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, two 3-4 defensive ends who would traditionally play the “big end” role in a 4-3 under, can see the field at the same time, while also living up to their first-round contracts. Some have said that Armstead will play 3-technique. Some have said that he’ll play defensive end. Some have said that he’ll somehow play linebacker, even though he wasn’t even a plus athlete as a defensive tackle coming out of the draft. (Defensive line athleticism needs to be measured by density, and Armstead, like Buckner, is tall and light.)

The best move next offseason may be to move one of those players, but let’s give this defensive staff the benefit of the doubt heading into the year. The other “traditional” interior defensive linemen on the team are Quinton Dial and Ronald Blair, with Glenn Dorsey and Mike Purcell exiting. The team also brought in nose tackle Earl Mitchell on a four-year, $16 million deal to make him the team’s likely starter at nose tackle, with D.J. Jones of Mississippi, a late-round pick, backing him up.

At defensive end, there’s a lot of names. You have the returning 49ers in Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Tank Carradine and Aaron Lynch, as they’ve all played some form of pass-rushing role in either the NFL or college. The team also drafted Stanford’s Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick, Utah’s Pita Taumoepenu in the seventh round and signed long-time pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil on a two-year, $8 million contract.

Quietly, the 49ers had a decent pass-rush in 2016, with the 12th-ranked sack percentage in the league. The problem was that 2-14 team couldn’t get teams into passing situations, as they finished 18th in fumble percentage, 22nd in tackle for loss percentage, 31st in yards per carry and 32nd in run percentage. Teams knew that they were bad on the ground, and virtually no one floated from the game plan.

Chuck’s Two Cents: I don’t think the 49ers defensive line situation is as complicated as people are making it out to be. In the “base” Under formation here’s how I would align them:

Strongside Linebacker: Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch, Pita Taumoepenu

Strongside End: Arik Armstead, Quinton Dial, Ronald Blair

Nose Tackle: Earl Mitchell, Quinton Dial

Three Technique: DeForest Buckner, Chris Jones, D.J. Jones

Weakside End (LEO): Solomon Thomas, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Pita Taumoepenu

There are names that repeat. I think these players can play both positions. Remember in this defense the strongside linebacker is essentially an EDGE player that has occasional coverage responsibilities.

In nickel sets it gets a bit murky, but the addition of Solomon Thomas gives them some versatility. Like Atlanta and Seattle, look at the players in two categories: players that can rush inside and players that can rush outside.

Here’s how I see it:

Inside: DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, Earl Mitchell, Ronald Blair, Quinton Dial, Chris Jones, D.J. Jones

Outside: Solomon Thomas, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Ahmad Brooks, Pita Taumoepenu 

Backs: At off the ball linebacker, the team is losing Nick Bellore, Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite, their three most-played linebackers from last season. Still, with NaVorro Bowman, the signing of Malcolm Smith and the drafting of Reuben Foster in the first round, their starting linebacker unit seems to be made up. Considering how many defensive end bodies that the team has, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brooks, Harold, Dumervil or Taumoepenu end up playing linebacker in base looks this season. Larger off the ball linebacker roles shouldn’t hurt on of the worst run games in the league.

If you threw out San Francisco’s passing game numbers, you would assume that they were a poor man coverage team in 2016. They finished 12th in sack percentage and 12th in completion percentage, but 21st in interception percentage and 31st in completion percentage.

In terms of personnel, their biggest names at the moment are their three safeties: Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. At cornerback, they return Rashard Robinson and Keith Reaser, with the potential of Will Redmond, a 2016 third-round pick, Akhello Witherspoon, a 2017 third-round pick, and Adrian Colbert, a 2017 seventh-round pick, making an impact this year. Ward could play a safety-corner-slot role in this new scheme, but we won’t have definitive answers on that until September.

2017 Preview: San Francisco’s best player right now is probably DeForest Buckner, who was a better fit in the 49ers’ 2016 defense than any other scheme in the league. After Buckner, the second name on the list becomes a debate.

This is Year 1 in a rebuilding stretch. Getting to five or six wins should be viewed as a win, even under offensive guru Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan can call in plays, but he can’t make any of the quarterbacks currently on the roster into above-average passers. He can’t will the 49ers’ receivers, other than Garcon, into being efficient players. He can’t ask the offensive line nicely to be significantly better at their jobs than they were a year ago.

It’s going to take some time, and that’s okay. The 49ers are now a secure franchise that won’t flip head coaches every season. They just won’t be stepping onto the field for a playoff game this year either.