A (Mostly) Unbiased Preview of the San Francisco 49ers by a (Mostly) Biased Fan

49ers Black Uniforms

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)

What’s New?

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.

Offense

QB Colin Kaepernick

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.

Defense

LB Navorro Bowman

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 overallIan 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 campaignMichael 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.

Special Teams

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.

Jarryd Hayne

Jarryd Hayne

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.

Overall Outlook

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

2015 Schedule

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

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Cowboys’ Rookie Hazing Demonstrates Everything Wrong With the NFL

Dallas Cowboys’ rookie WR Dez Bryant has shown promise on the field this year, catching for at least 50 yards in all three of Dallas’ games this year. Bryant, taken 24th overall in the draft this year, was a superstar at Oklahoma State, whose only controversy was a misguided conversation with former NFL star Deion Sanders which unfortunately landed him a season long suspension.

But since entering the NFL, Bryant has made headlines off the field. Not necessarily for his own behavior, but rather for being the target of the man he’ll likely replace on the Cowboys, Roy E. Williams. It started in August, when Bryant refused to carry Williams’ pads after practice. A simple “right of passage” that Bryant probably should have done, but harmless in the fact that he didn’t.
But Williams did not stop there. It came out last week that Williams invited the entire Cowboys offense out to an expensive steak dinner, then left the tab with Bryant. The bill? $55,000. There are reports that players were walking out of the restaurant with bottles of wine.
The dinner showcases everything that is wrong with the NFL today. As we approach a potential labor stoppage in 2011, NFL players’ main issue appears to be compensation and pension. Players complain that owners are not fairly sharing the money from what is by far and away America’s most profitable sports enterprise. Players also point to statistics that overwhelmingly show that players are going broke after leaving the NFL due to little job training and lack of pension.
These are all valid points, but it’s hard to garner sympathy when things like this come out. When you’re teaching 21 year old rookies like Bryant that you can stick teammates with a dinner tab worth more than most people make in one year, you’re highlighting that these problems are more due to players’ financial irresponsibility than owner greed. How are we supposed to be feeling sorry for players going broke when they’re wasting ungodly amounts of money on steak dinners, and raining down hundred dollar bills at strip clubs in Las Vegas?
When players are routinely spending more in one night than the average American yearly income, the problem is clearly not how much they are being paid, or a lack of pension. As we move towards a potential labor stoppage, look for owners to increasingly point towards public displays of players blowing cash. Also look for no one to point towards the real solution: financial planning. If Williams had been taught Bryant to put that $55,000 into something more valuable than dinner and booze for 20 or so multimillionaires, perhaps it could mature into something that could sustain him after his body gives in and he can no longer play football. Of course, that would make entirely too much sense, now wouldn’t it?

Potential vs. Production: The NFL Scouting Combine

In recent years, the NFL Scouting Combine has become one of the biggest offseason events outside of the draft itself, with live coverage on NFL Network, and extensive analysis on ESPN. College players from BCS conferences, powerhouse Division 1-AA schools and Division III afterthoughts alike come together to showcase their athletic ability for scouts from all 32 teams. Teams look for 40 yard dash speedsters, bench press studs and broad jump surprises. Inevitably, every year a player wows everyone with a standout performance, jumping their stock from mid-round pick to can’t miss first rounder.

But is this really the best way to evaluate draft prospects? After all, athleticism is only one aspect of the game. A wide receiver may be able to run a 4.2 40, but not be able to catch the ball or run a route (Darrius Heyward-Bey, I’m looking at you). A quarterback may be able to fire a ball 70 yards, but that doesn’t mean he can throw it on target from 15 yards (cough, JaWalrus Russell, cough). A defensive end may put up 35 bench reps and still have no clue how to get to the quarterback (Vernon Gholston was unavailable for a comment).

Even the position specific drills intended to get some sense of on-field abilities have shown to be unreliable. There is a difference between being able to hit a receiver without pads or a defense and being able to hit a receiver in stride in a game.

Modern players also spend hours upon hours prepping for the combine. And why not? If a mediocre college player can bump their stock just by putting in a few months training to improve a few athleticism tests, why waste your time on more difficult things like learning how to read NFL defenses?

So why do football’s greatest minds appear to put so much stock into an apparently worthless exercise? The answer comes down to a single word, one that elicits different responses from all sports fans: potential. The combine allows executives to justify their seemingly questionable picks by slapping the label of potential stars onto their newest players. Yeah, he’s going to sit on the bench and not contribute for a few years, but he could potentially be great in a few years! Just look at his bench press!

But if the draft combine isn’t the best way to evaluate players before you invest millions in them, what is? Simple: executives have increasingly moved beyond watching film. That’s right: the best way to tell if a player has talent is to watch him play football! What a revelation, huh?

Scouts will tell you how undersized, unathletic players can dominate against college competition but won’t be able to handle the NFL.They’ll tell you how players are bigger, better and stronger. But what they fail to realize is that there is no test for the most important intangible in football: heart. You can’t use a stopwatch to measure it.It’s only visible in game tapes. Players like Elvis Dumervil, Drew Brees and T.J. Houshmandzadeh lack prototypical NFL size and/or athleticism, but they make up for it with their work ethic and desire to be the best players on the field. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something you just can’t put a number on.

What’s the real story behind agents in college football?

Everywhere you turn in the college football world this offseason, it seems like you’re hearing about agents more than ever. It started in June, when the NCAA handed down an unprecedented punishment to USC for violations involving Reggie Bush and an agent in 2005. Next came allegations that North Carolina tackle Marvin Austin and South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders (among others) had attended a pool party in Miami, Florida which was funded by agents. Then came the rants from Alabama coach Nick Saban and LSU coach Les Miles about how agents are everything that is wrong with college football today. And of course, to top it all off, in typical fashion, Bob Ley and Outside the Lines followed suit with a overly dramatic fluff piece that was replayed on every ESPN show at least 15 times.

But the real question is: why is this such a big story all of a sudden? Is it because agents have suddenly seized upon these poor, innocent college student-athletes? This would seem to be the case, if it weren’t for the fact that agents have been in contact with college athletes for decades (see: Cris Carter in 1987).
So what’s the real story? Well, it may start on the infamous blue turf of Boise State’s Bronco Stadium, or under the big blue sky at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium. As midmajors such the Broncos and Utes have become consistent football powerhouses, the “issue” of college athletes has similarly rose.
That’s right- agents and college athletes are simply a cover for college football’s biggest problem: it’s lack of a postseason. Whoever is directing the marketing department at the NCAA should get a promotion. The 2009 college football season presented a huge problem for the NCAA and its’ BCS system. Two non-BCS schools (Boise State and Texas Christian University) finished undefeated, presenting a major dilemma. The masses of college football fans wanted (rightfully) a shot for them to earn a national championship. But this would disturb the longstanding system of BCS domination. So, the NCAA stuck them into another BCS Bowl, and decided to put the issue off until the offseason.
At first, they tried conference realignment. But when this failed to divert the media and fan’s attention from the lack of a playoff, the NCAA knew they needed to try something else. So, the USC investigation, long on the backburner due to its relatively minuscule importance, became the number one topic at the NCAA offices. It was as if an epidemic had been born overnight. Because it had.
Don’t get me wrong, agents should not be having contact with amateur athletes. Although it ultimately isn’t as morally wrong as the media has made it out to be, it is still illegal, and the agents know they are jeopardizing these athletes’ futures. But the issue of agents is one that can be put aside until we solve the real problem with the NCAA.