Last Season: 8-8, 3rd Place in the NFC West (Missed Playoffs for First Time Since 2010)
Head Coach: Jim Tomsula, 1st Season (1-0 career record)
Key New Arrivals: WR Torrey Smith (free agent), RB Reggie Bush (free agent), RB/ST Jarryd Hayne (undrafted free agent), CB Shareece Wright (free agent), DE Arik Armstead (NFL Draft 1st Round), WR Jerome Simpson (free agent), S Jaquiski Tartt (NFL Draft 2nd Round), TE Blake Bell (NFL Draft 4th Round), P Bradley Pinion (NFL Draft 5th Round)
Key Departures: RB Frank Gore (Indianapolis Colts), LB Patrick Willis (retired), DL Justin Smith (retired), LB Aldon Smith (free agent), WR Michael Crabtree (Oakland Raiders), LB Chris Borland (retired), OG Mike Iupati (Arizona Cardinals), LB Dan Skuta (Jacksonville Jaguars), CB Chris Culliver (Washington Redskins), CB Perrish Cox (Tennessee Titans), P Andy Lee (Cleveland Browns), OT Anthony Davis (retired), OT Jonathan Martin (released/retired)
Not since Georgia Frontiere stripped down the Los Angeles Rams’ roster and operations to prepare for a move to St. Louis has an NFL team seen so much change in one offseason. Let’s start with the obvious: gone is head coach Jim Harbaugh, who compiled a 44-19-1 regular season record in four seasons, took the 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship Games and a close loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Much of Harbaugh’s deep and talented assistant coaching staff is gone as well- specifically offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator extraordinaire Vic Fangio. In their place, the offense will be guided by former quarterback coach Geep Chryst, while the defense will be led by former Jets and Browns head coach Eric Mangini. Chryst and Tomsula have expressed a desire to increase the tempo on offense, with the team breaking from the huddle much more quickly than under Harbaugh. Chryst has also transitioned the Niners to a zone blocking scheme, which will require more movement and athleticism from the offensive line. Defensively, the most noticeable change will likely be an increase in blitzing under the notoriously aggressive Mangini.
On the player front, the 49ers experienced a mass exodus of longtime personnel. All-time rushing leader Frank Gore left in free agency after 10 seasons, while defensive leader and potential Hall of Famer Patrick Willis retired after a foot injury limited him in his final season. The “Smith Brothers” sack team of Aldon and Justin are both no longer with the team- Justin due to retirement, while Aldon was released after his third DUI since 2011. The 49ers also experienced the unexpected retirement of first year linebacker Chris Borland, who was expected to step into Willis’ spot, due to his concern about head injuries. Former first rounder and Heisman finalist Michael Crabtree took his talents across the Bay to Oakland, All-Pro punter Andy Lee was traded to the Factory of Sadness in Cleveland and Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati signed with division rival Arizona.
Not all the transactions were players leaving however. The 49ers signed former Ravens WR Torrey Smith, who had 2 receptions for 35 yards against the Niners in Super Bowl XLVII, to a long term contract to serve as the deep threat for Colin Kaepernick. 2005 Heisman Trophy winner collegiate legend Reggie Bush was brought in to help the running game, along with former Australian rugby league MVP Jarryd Hayne. Cornerback Shareece Wright drove up the I-5 from San Diego to help the secondary, while first round draft pick DE Arik Armstead is an athletic freak who could conceivably mitigate the losses of Aldon and Justin Smith.
QB Colin Kaepernick
Heading into his fifth season (and fourth as starter), quarterback Colin Kaepernick has several questions to answer before he can justify his $100 million contract. Last season, Kaepernick completed 60.5% of his passes for 3369 yards, 19 TDs and 10 INTs for a QB rating of 86.9, while also rushing for 639 yards (6.1 YPC) and 1 TD. Fifteen years ago, those numbers might have qualified Kaepernick as one of the top players in the league, but in today’s pass happy NFL, they leave a lot to be desired. Kaepernick showed a tendency to pull down the football and run when protection collapsed instead of sticking in the pocket or extending the play by rolling out. With a completely re-worked right side of the offensive line, Kaepernick will need to show an improved ability in the pocket.
Kaepernick’s receiving targets will also be dramatically different. Although the always dependable Anquan Boldin remains, he will need to quickly develop a rapport with Torrey Smith, while finding a way to re-integrate TE Vernon Davis into the passing game after a down 2014. Rookie TE Blake Bell displayed a natural ability to catch the football in the preseason, and could conceivably earn playing time over veteran Vance McDonald and end up one of the surprise players of the year. Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton have shown promise in their young careers, but with significantly increased playing time this season, they will need to step up and play consistently.
After ten years of Frank Gore’s sustained excellence, the running game will be the most significantly changed aspect of the offense in 2015. Carlos Hyde is expected to be the lead back, but will also share time with Bush and Kendall Hunter when Hunter returns from injured reserve. Gore was known for his power running ability, but Hyde is more of a finesse back, who is much more fleet of foot. The new zone blocking system is a staple of the spread offense, and although the 49ers will not employ a complete spread, expect to see the 49ers take more shots down the field both in the passing and ground games. The 49ers will use a lot of misdirection when running the football, and the offense will rely on Hyde, Bush, Hunter or whoever is carrying the ball to make quick reads and exploit holes in the defense.
The Niners were only 25th in scoring offense in 2014, 20th in total yards, 30th in passing yards while excelling in the running game and finishing 4th in rushing yards. Expect to see much of the same in 2015, with an emphasis on the running game, even with Gore’s departure. Hyde showed promise in limited action, and while Bush hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations of being the second overall pick, he has been consistent throughout his career. If Kaepernick can increase his accuracy and patience in the pocket, the 49ers have enough talent on offense to find their way to a middle of the road performance. Finishing above 20th in overall offense should be considered a definite win for first year coach Jim Tomsula.
LB Navorro Bowman
The 49ers possibly suffered more injuries on the defensive side than any other team in 2014, but were still able to finish as one of the top five units in the league. This year will present yet another challenge for Mangini in his first year leading the defense. Justin Smith was quietly one of the best players in the NFL the past few years, and replacing him will be no easy task. Rookie Arik Armstead will need to learn quickly to replace his production, and needs to show a better ability to get after the quarterback than he did while totaling only 2.5 sacks in his final season at the University of Oregon. The team clearly thinks he has the ability to do so however, taking him 17th overall. Ian Williams, the nose tackle, will return as a starter as well, allowing some continuity on the line. Tank Carradine and Glenn Dorsey also return, giving the line acceptable depth.
The linebacking corps will be relatively different in 2015. Gone are starters Willis, Borland and Aldon Smith. That said, the team returns 2013 team MVP Navorro Bowman after his devastating knee injury in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Bowman looked outstanding in his three plays during the preseason, and if he can return to form, he will provide a huge boost to the team. Ahmad Brooks, who has started 62 games since arriving in San Francisco in 2009, will also likely start. Another returning rotation player is Aaron Lynch, who racked up 6 sacks in his rookie campaign. Michael Wilhoite and Corey Lemonier also return, but will have to dramatically step up production.
The 49ers’ secondary is possibly the biggest question mark on the team. The cornerback position will likely roll with Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright to start the year, but the starters are not set in stone and solid performances from any of the other players, including 6’2’ 200 lb Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser or even safety Jimmie Ward, could easily change that. The 49ers also stashed preseason standout Marcus Cromartie (cousin of Antonio and Dominique) on the practice squad. The safeties without a doubt will be Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea after both had good seasons last year, but how Ward or 2nd rounder Jaquiski Tartt earn playing time will be of interest. Tartt is one of the hardest hitters on the team, and could find time with physical play.
The defense could go either way this year. Last year, despite being decimated by injuries, they still performed with the best in the NFL. The sheer amount of talent lost could be too much to overcome, though. Despite retaining a lot of talent, it would be hard to envision the defense repeating last year’s performance. Although it is likely the team will still be a stingy run defense, the pass defense has the potential to be a complete mess. Without the pass rush of Justin and Aldon Smith, and a very shaky and unproven cornerback stable, opponents should be able to throw the ball at will. Expect the defense to shine at times, while being painfully bad at others. The Niners look to be a very average defense, likely to finish anywhere between 12th and 24th in overall defense.
Phil Dawson was an underrated pickup several years ago, as he has provided a steady foot for the team after the maddening inconsistency of David Akers. With the likelihood of a low scoring offense, expect Dawson to get plenty of opportunities to kick field goals, often from significant distance.
It is not often you hear of punters being fan favorites, but Andy Lee is one of the rare ones. He was the franchise all-time leader in punting yards, and even set a NFL record with a 44.0 net yards punting average in 2011 (which was broken several years later by Johnny Hekker). Despite this, the team felt the aging Lee was too expensive at $2.6 million and was replaced by rookie Bradley Pinion, who played his collegiate ball at Clemson. Pinion averaged 42.6 yards on average with a 4.1 second hang time his senior year, while forcing opponents into fair catches 44% of the time.
Perhaps the most exciting addition to the team was Jarryd Hayne. Hayne is one of the best rugby league players in the history of the Australian NRL, earning the Dally M Medal (equivalent of the MVP) twice in his nine year playing career. The 27 year old was ostensibly signed as a running back, but will see most of his impact as a returner. And what a returner the Aussie appears to be, dazzling the entire country with his electrifying punt returns. With his world class athleticism, brute strength and surprising vision, Hayne will be one of the most thrilling players in the NFL. He even has a chance to earn playing time on offense after several impressive runs in the preseason.
The 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL under Jim Harbaugh, earning three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game to go along with a Super Bowl appearance in 2012. In Harbaugh’s final season, they took a step back to 8-8 while missing the playoffs, due to several factors including injuries and in-fighting among management. Expect the team to once again take a step back after an incredible loss of talent in all aspects of the game. Thanks to the impressive depth and coaching ability of Harbaugh, the team still has enough talent to avoid the basement of the entire league, but those expecting the Niners to contend for a Super Bowl again will need to wait a few years. A joke just a few years ago, the NFC West is by far and away the best division in football, and the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams can all easily argue they are better than the 49ers. With a tough out of division schedule that includes 2014 playoff teams Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions. Additionally, the 49ers will have to face vastly improved teams in the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.
Most prognosticators have the 49ers finishing with 5-7 wins, including most statistical analyses. It is quite possible the only “gimmes” on the schedule are the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns. Despite the exodus, the team does retain a significant level of young talent, and a unique level of playoff experience, including a quarterback who knows what it takes to get to the Super Bowl. It is entirely conceivable the 49ers could surprise league followers and fans everywhere.
Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in NFC West, Miss Playoffs
Sept. 14: vs Minnesota
Sept. 20: at Pittsburgh
Sept. 27: at Arizona
Oct. 4: vs Green Bay
Oct. 11: at New York Giants
Oct. 18: vs Baltimore
Oct. 22: vs Seattle
Nov. 1: at St. Louis
Nov. 8: vs Atlanta
Nov. 22: at Seattle
Nov. 29: vs Arizona
Dec. 6: at Chicago
Dec. 13: at Cleveland
Dec. 20: vs Cincinnati
Dec. 27: at Detroit
Jan. 3: vs St. Louis