2017 NFL Preview: Shanahan-Lynch face a tall task building 49ers

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The San Francisco 49ers’ reboot feels like many others before it around the NFL.

There have been significant changes to the roster. Many stories were written about how players will fit in new schemes. There has been talk about changing the culture. A lot of talk about changing the culture.

And optimism. Always the optimism.

The 49ers should be used to big changes. Kyle Shanahan will, amazingly, be the 49ers’ fourth coach in four seasons. San Francisco blew everyone away by hiring John Lynch out of the broadcast booth to be its new general manager. It’s as much of a fresh start as you’ll find.

When there are wholesale changes, fans want to believe. Especially with the 49ers, a once-proud franchise that made the obvious mistake of pushing Jim Harbaugh out and are paying a rough price for it. But while there has been the predictable excitement about this new regime, it ignores a lot of risk.

Maybe Shanahan’s offensive brilliance carries over to the 49ers. Perhaps Lynch’s football acumen translates seamlessly to his first front office job. But we don’t know. Shanahan is a first-time head coach, and just a year ago some Atlanta Falcons fans wanted Shanahan fired. There’s no way of knowing if Lynch can handle the job, and it’s not comforting when the best comparison is Matt Millen.

Everyone lined up to praise the duo this offseason, but it’s probably best to not go overboard yet. Plenty of reporters reacted to Lynch’s fairly standard draft-day trade with the Chicago Bears like he was Ron Wolf landing Brett Favre in 1992, and prepare for more of that. Lynch is smart, a great leader and he’s also tremendously engaging with the media – I know from experience, covering him for four seasons as a beat reporter – so he’ll get every benefit of the doubt and a lot of positive press. Maybe he’ll deserve all the praise he’ll get. But it’s not like the first offseason of Lynch/Shanahan was a certified success:

• Their biggest free-agent acquisition was 30-year-old receiver Pierre Garcon, who got $20 million guaranteed. He has averaged 857 yards per season the past three seasons with the Washington Redskins while playing in all 48 games, in a much better offense than San Francisco has.

• They paid fullback Kyle Juszczyk $21 million, making him the highest paid fullback in the NFL when many teams are phasing out fullback completely. Juszczyk will presumably have an important role, especially in what figures to be a quick-passing game with Brian Hoyer at quarterback. That’s still a big contract at fullback, a position in which cheap assets are plentiful.

• They addressed the quarterback position by signing journeyman Hoyer and disappointing Matt Barkley, then drafting Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the third round. You’d have to look far and wide to find anyone who thought Beathard would be a second-day pick.

• They moved up to draft linebacker Reuben Foster with the No. 31 overall pick, after off-field concerns and questions about the health of his shoulder caused many linebacker-needy teams to pass. Lynch later told The MMQB’s Peter King the 49ers would have felt comfortable drafting Foster third overall … when no other team in the top 30 used its pick on him. There have been questions if Foster’s shoulder will be healthy enough for him to play this season.

• The 49ers were praised over and over for getting two third-round picks and a fourth-round pick from the Bears for moving back from No. 2 to No. 3 in the draft. Nobody said a thing when the 49ers sent a 2018 fourth-round picks to the Denver Broncos for third-string tailback Kapri Bibbs, a 2014 undrafted player with 129 career rushing yards. The 49ers also picked up a fifth-round pick in the deal so the price wasn’t too steep, but it was still a head-scratcher.

All of these moves might turn out. Garcon might have a revival. Juszczyk might provide more value than any other fullback in the NFL. Shanahan might look like a genius for valuing Beathard far more than anyone else. Foster might be the next Patrick Willis. Bibbs could be a key contributor. But for a team that hasn’t beat anyone other than the Los Angeles Rams since Dec. 6, 2015, there’s no reason to believe there’s some big improvement coming this season.

This won’t be an easy job for Lynch or Shanahan, never mind that it’s their first time in their respective roles. The roster has very little talent, and it showed last season as the 49ers went 0-14 against everyone except the Rams. The quarterback situation will have to be figured out, though the 49ers were probably smart to not panic with that this season. Still, many GMs and coaches have failed as they go on a never-ending quarterback search. Even defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is a first-time coordinator who has never called plays before. Everyone will be learning as they go.

But you need hope as an NFL franchise. Shanahan and Lynch are smart guys and there are good reasons to believe in them. They each have six-year contracts, a sign of ownership’s commitment.

Hopefully they can figure out how to turn the flailing 49ers back around.

John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are trying to rebuild the 49ers. (AP)
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are trying to rebuild the 49ers. (AP)

Even though the 49ers had plenty of cap space, their top five free agents – receiver Pierre Garcon, linebacker Malcolm Smith, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and quarterback Brian Hoyer – aren’t stars. Those five got a combined $123 million. Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was a good pick at No. 3, and Foster is a top-10 talent the 49ers grabbed at No. 31. The trade with the Bears wasn’t the genius stroke it was made out to be, but it was a good move. Then again, C.J. Beathard might be a wasted pick in the third round and sending a fourth-round pick for Kapri Bibbs was odd. GRADE: C-minus

It’s possible Kyle Shanahan is the next star coach in the NFL. We know he can devise an offense. His Atlanta Falcons attack last year was a joy to watch. He won’t have Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman, but he is a master of Xs and Os. It’s fair to believe that whatever talent is on the 49ers roster, Shanahan will get the most out of it.

Kyle Shanahan has his work cut out for him, because the skill-position group will again be one of the worst in the NFL. The top three receivers are likely to be Pierre Garcon, Bruce Ellington and Marquise Goodwin. Yikes. The top tight end might be Vance McDonald, who the 49ers openly shopped for a trade with no takers. Then again, McDonald might get cut. Carlos Hyde might be the most talented player on the offense, and there have been many poor reviews on him this offseason. Observers have wondered if rookie Joe Williams could end up starting. And it’s not like the quarterbacks are going to make everyone around them better.

Brian Hoyer is better than he’ll ever get credit for (25 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a rating above 90 over the past two seasons) but you know what you’re getting. He’ll turn 32 in October. He’s a fine stop-gap option who can man the position as the 49ers wait for a permanent solution. Matt Barkley had a few good moments with the Chicago Bears last season as he saved his dying career, but it’s hard to see him being a viable starter at any point. C.J. Beathard could end up being the 49ers’ version of Kirk Cousins if they never ultimately close the deal on their barely-hidden pursuit of Cousins, but Beathard has a long way to go before anyone buys into him as a solution at quarterback. The 49ers should be in the market for a quarterback in next year’s draft. The good news is they should have a high pick.

DeForest Buckner, amazingly, played 1,006 defensive snaps last season. That led all NFL defensive tackles, even though Buckner missed a game. The 49ers have talked about cutting back on the 2016 first-round pick’s workload, because they understand less could mean more with him. Buckner is arguably the most valuable young player the 49ers have. He can be an elite defensive lineman, although he’ll be fitting in a new scheme. He should be just fine.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The last time we saw Pierre Garcon and Kyle Shanahan together, four years ago, a glorious 113-1346-5 season went down in Washington (WR14 in standard, WR13 in PPR). Now they’re reunited in San Francisco. The value of opportunity versus the value of protection is often a chicken-egg argument; Garcon is the only name receiver in town (we dare you to list, from memory, the rest of their WR depth chart). But when push comes to shove, give us the expected target hog, defensive attention be damned. New quarterback Brian Hoyer isn’t going to make the Bay Area forget Montana and Young, but he should be good enough to steer Garcon to another 1,000-yard season. Garcon’s early Yahoo ADP is outside the Top 50 at the position, which shows how unappreciated he is. Scoop up the bargain.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for more on the 49ers’ fantasy outlook.]

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The 49ers defense ranked 32nd in the NFL last season in yards allowed, points allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed and yards per rushing attempt allowed. Whew. The 49ers weren’t great against the pass either, giving up the sixth-highest passer rating in the NFL (96.9). Had teams needed to pass more often, the 49ers might have broken NFL records for yards and points allowed in a season, but thankfully (?) San Francisco’s offense was so bad opponents didn’t have to pass to win. Part of the solution is eliminating Chip Kelly’s fast-break style of offense, which forces defenses to be on the field too long. Perhaps NaVorro Bowman’s return from injury will help too. But the defense has a long way to go to be competitive.


When the 49ers moved quickly to shoot down a rumor they were trying to trade Bowman, it sent a message about how much they valued their star linebacker. They obviously like him as a player, and as a leader too. Still, it’s fair to wonder about the future. Bowman is 29. He had a devastating knee injury that cost him a full season. Last season, he tore his Achilles tendon. Even if he’s able to make it all the way back (again), he still might have more value to the 49ers as a trade chip than part of their rebuilding project, especially given Bowman’s 2018 cap number of almost $12 million and the team drafting linebacker Reuben Foster this year. While there will be value in keeping Bowman going forward, it will be interesting to see what the team’s ultimate plan is with him.

Anything that leads to stability within the organization will be a positive step. The 49ers have to hope No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas looks like a future star, fellow first-round pick Reuben Foster is healthy, and some other young players stick. There’s a lot of work to do and this is a multi-year project, but signs of progress will be welcomed.

It could get really bad. This is a team that went 2-14, with their only wins against the Rams, and didn’t add much high-end talent in the offseason. It’s a staff with a first-time head coach and a first-time defensive coordinator, leading a roster that isn’t deep and has one of the league’s worst quarterback situations. While it seems like there’s nowhere to go but up after 2-14, that’s not guaranteed. While it’s incomprehensible to think ownership would make yet another coaching change in a few months, you’d rather not head into the offseason with doubts about the new regime.

It’ll be a mostly ugly season, but I believe in Kyle Shanahan as an offensive coach. I think he’ll lead an offensive improvement, and additions to the defense (count NaVorro Bowman in that) will help the defense. So there will be a few wins, and that’s much needed. Then we’ll see if the Shanahan-John Lynch combination can truly turn the franchise around in years to come.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!