2016 NFL Preview: What happened to the 49ers?

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.


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Quick quiz: Which player can the San Francisco 49ers build around?

Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is a fine answer. He’s great and looked like his old self by the end of last year. But he’s also 28 and maybe on borrowed NFL time after a gruesome leg injury that kept him out the entire 2014 season. Yet, I won’t argue with that pick.

Who else? Who are the 49ers’ building blocks? Rookie DeForest Buckner, a great defensive line prospect who has never played an NFL game? Carlos Hyde, who has one career 100-yard game? Joe Staley, who will be 32 this year? Safety Eric Reid or defensive end Arik Armstead? Solid pieces but nobody stands out as a true cornerstone.

The fact is this: The 49ers aren’t a bad team with a lot of obvious promise. They’re just a bad team. It’s astonishing how quickly that happened.

Two years ago I picked San Francisco to win a Super Bowl. I thought the Niners were hungry after barely losing a great NFC championship game at Seattle. The talent on the roster was undeniable (I chose to ignore how the drama between the front office and coach Jim Harbaugh could torpedo it all, which was obviously my mistake). On Jan. 19, 2014, San Francisco was 18 yards from going to a second straight Super Bowl. Now the 49ers are one of the worst teams in the NFL. Incredible.

We’ll look back years from now and still not comprehend how an NFL team could push out Harbaugh and hire Jim Tomsula, but the 49ers’ decline was more than that. There have been missteps (and that has continued this season, with the mismanagement of the Colin Kaepernick situation) and unavoidable bad luck. A lot went into a horrible 2015, when the 49ers had the worst offseason in NFL history. The 2016 offseason hasn’t been very good either.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Chip Kelly replaced Tomsula, and he comes with his own baggage as the NFL coach everyone wants to see fail. Still, he has a 26-21 NFL record. There will be a lot of work for him to do in San Francisco, especially considering the 49ers did almost nothing to improve the roster.

There are reasons for hope with a young defense, and maybe Kelly can work some magic on the offense. But in a tough division, it looks like another rough year for the 49ers. When Richard Sherman tipped that pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the NFC title game and it was picked off by Malcolm Smith, nobody could have imagined the 49ers’ subsequent fall would be so swift.

Chip Kelly hopes to turn around the 49ers (AP)
Chip Kelly hopes to turn around the 49ers (AP)

The 49ers had about $53 million in salary cap space heading into the offseason. That included $12.2 million in unused cap space they carried over from last season, fifth most in the NFL. They still have about $49 million remaining, according to OverTheCap.com and Spotrac. They gave guard Zane Beadles a three-year deal worth $9.75 million and spent $760,000 on quarterback Thad Lewis, according to Spotrac. That was it for outside free-agent signings.

Even when the 49ers tried to spend money re-signing defensive tackle Ian Williams, they had to redo the deal because of Williams’ ankle injury. It has to be frustrating for 49ers fans to see a team with $53 million in cap room and a new money-making stadium acquire Beadles and basically call it an offseason. The 49ers look cheap. The offseason inactivity was more nuanced than team owner Jed York squeezing pennies, and the thought of gaining a compensatory pick in 2017 had to be a factor (OverTheCap says the Niners are in line to get a fourth-round pick for guard Alex Boone signing with the Minnesota Vikings). Still, it was amazing that a team with $52 million in cap space signed a solid guard (who’s not an upgrade over Boone) and that’s pretty much it. The grade gets a tiny bump because Buckner was a heck of a pick at No. 7. Grade: F+

Go back to Week 1 last year. Against the 2015 NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers played great defense, got Carlos Hyde going early and won easily. That’s the blueprint. The defense still has some good pieces. Kelly got an MVP-type season out of Nick Foles once upon a time, so maybe he can scheme up a decent passing game to go with Hyde, who needs to stay healthy. A tough defense and good running game can at least keep games close, although you always have to wonder if a fast-tempo Kelly offense will wear out the defense by the end of this season.

It’s a passing league and the 49ers’ pass offense is shockingly thin. San Francisco seems set to go with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, and he’s throwing to … Torrey Smith? Anquan Boldin is unsigned (again, $49 million in unused cap space). Vance McDonald is an intriguing, young tight end option but unproven. It would be a surprise if the 49ers are in the middle of the pack among NFL teams in passing offense.

The 49ers flubbed the Colin Kaepernick situation. They should have figured out quickly and quietly they couldn’t get a good trade return for Kaepernick and embraced his return. Instead, the situation was unsettled until the Denver Broncos drafted Paxton Lynch, eliminating the final possible trade partner (the Broncos’ actions indicate they were never serious about Kaepernick anyway) to set up an uncomfortable reunion. So they alienated their young, once-promising quarterback and have to pay him about $12 million this season after failing in their public attempts to trade him. Fun.

It seems like Gabbert is the favorite to start, which is curious. Gabbert briefly looked OK last season but his overall resume is terrible. Kaepernick has an upside that Gabbert doesn’t, but the 49ers seem to prefer Gabbert. Unless Kaepernick gets another chance and recaptures his 2012-13 form, this situation isn’t good.

Remember that conversation we had before, about the 49ers lacking building blocks? DeForest Buckner could be one. He’s a mountain of an end who dominated at Oregon, and the 49ers had to be thrilled he fell to them. Even if Buckner needs some time to adjust to the NFL, it would be a win if the 49ers feel by the end of the season that they drafted a future defensive star.

Cosell: “There were some games early in the season where I didn’t think he looked like the NaVorro Bowman that was an All-Pro. I think he just improved as the year progressed. I would expect him this year to be back to being himself, another year removed from the injury.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the 49ers and the rest of the NFC West]

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “The one clear intriguing option on the roster is Carlos Hyde, who has shown flashes of being a star before and has little competition for touches in San Francisco’s backfield. Hyde’s current average draft position is 36.4, but even a late third-round price might be high, given his situation.

“San Francisco has an over/under win total of 5.5 (with the under laying the juice), projects to have a poor offensive line, and management for some reason is rooting for Blaine Gabbert to beat out Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. Also, Hyde has totaled 23 catches in two seasons and the 49ers are unlikely to produce many red-zone opportunities. This all means Hyde has an uphill battle to produce big stats, even if he’s able to stay healthy (while getting more work than ever in an uptempo Kelly system).”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Last season, according to Football Outsiders, the 49ers had the second-toughest schedule in the NFL. According to Warren Sharp’s strength of schedule rating (Sharp used Vegas’ over/under win totals to determine SOS, which is smart and much better than using 2015 records), the 49ers have graduated to the NFL’s toughest schedule in 2016. Yikes.

IS CHIP KELLY A GOOD COACH?

Let’s be clear — Kelly shouldn’t be allowed near anyone’s front office. The Eagles are a strange organization and they had a knee-jerk reaction to the Kelly situation in 2015, but Kelly is incapable of being a general manager. He’s thankfully not in charge of personnel in San Francisco, so can he still be a good NFL coach?

There’s a two-part answer. First is the Xs and Os element. Kelly is adept as a play-caller. He’s a smart football mind and, to repeat, Foles posted one of the best single-season ratings for a quarterback in NFL history on his watch. Yes, Nick Foles. Kelly went 26-21 with the Eagles, including two 10-win seasons in three years, with Mike Vick, Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford as his primary starting quarterbacks. So, sure, Kelly can coach. But there’s a second component to the job, and that’s relating to players. It’s unclear if Kelly can do that well enough. By all accounts he’s strange, and while he’s a good tactician, he needs to figure out the other part of it. Especially with the 49ers, who will likely lose a lot of games but have to keep playing hard when things go bad.

You can’t realistically envision any scenario in which the 49ers make the playoffs. Not in this division, with arguably the NFL’s toughest schedule. But it would be nice if they had an answer at quarterback by the end of the year, either with Chip Kelly performing a miracle and resurrecting Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick getting a chance and shining like he did a few years ago (or with both failing so miserably the 49ers will be in a position to draft Deshaun Watson next spring). Also, it would be great if they knew by the end of the season that Kelly was the right hire.

With expectations low there isn’t much that would shock realistic 49ers fans in 2016. The worst outcome is if Chip Kelly’s flaws in Philadelphia haven’t been fixed, the team turns on him after a bunch of losses and it’s apparent he’s just not a good NFL coach. Nobody wants to fire a coach after one season, much less do it in two consecutive years.

Almost any stat cited will indicate the 49ers were fortunate to get to five wins last season. They did practically nothing to make the roster better this offseason and they have what might be the toughest schedule in the NFL. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re picking first in next year’s draft. Getting back to five wins again will be a challenge unless the Tomsula-to-Kelly upgrade is worth some hidden wins.

32. 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!

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