The 49ers’ downward spiral that began with the ousting of Jim Harbaugh as head coach following the 2014 season has finally bottomed out. Now the 49ers are hoping they can pick up the pieces and surge back forward under new management both in the front office and on the sidelines.
For the first time since the 49ers began to slip from the top of the league in 2014, there is legitimate optimism about the future of the franchise. However, that positive outlook for the future likely won’t include the upcoming campaign. The roster that remains is still lacking in top-tier talent in too many places. And while John Lynch’s first draft class provides a well-rounded infusion of young talent to the roster, it’s not likely to be enough to pull the 49ers out of the NFC West cellar.
But the train appears to be back on the tracks for now, which is a step in the right direction.
Biggest positive change: Trent Baalke is no longer making decisions related to the football team. The 49ers finally parted ways with their former G.M. after last season, bringing John Lynch into the fold instead. Baalke had whiffed on a large number of his draft picks in recent years. The most glaring was his 2012 class headlined by A.J. Jenkins that saw the entire seven-man class out of San Francisco within three seasons. The 49ers didn’t have replacements in place for aging stars such as Justin Smith and Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald and Bruce Miller provided repeated off-the-field issues for the team. It’s left the 49ers roster a shell of its former self.
Biggest negative change: While it ultimately became an inevitability, the departure of Colin Kaepernick as starting quarterback has left the 49ers with low-ceiling options at the most important position on the field. While Kaepernick had his struggles in recent seasons, he also had two very solid years as a starter in 2013-14. Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley don’t exactly bring excitement to the position and haven’t done enough in their careers to suggest a breakthrough is coming. Maybe C.J. Beathard develops in time, but it leaves the 49ers without a real long-term solution at quarterback in the interim.
Coaching thermometer: With a complete regime change in place, Kyle Shanahan’s hot seat is nonexistent. After moving onto their fourth head coach in the last four seasons, Shanahan will get plenty of time to implement his new system and let Lynch rebuild the roster to best suit its functions. Jed York needs to give the group time to grow and turn the franchise around.
We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Navorro Bowman. The stalwart of the 49ers defense has been through the good times and the bad in the Bay Area. Perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL not named J.J. Watt prior to his devastating knee injury in the 2013 playoffs, Bowman continues to produce for the 49ers even after missing an entire year recovering from injury.
How they can prove us wrong: It would take a lot. Brian Hoyer builds upon his five starts last year in Chicago and performs at a league-average or better level. Carlos Hyde finally stays healthy and provides the consistent ground attack the 49ers need to take pressure off the passing game. Reuben Foster’s shoulder stays intact and allows him to compete for Rookie of the Year honors. Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner find homes in the 49ers’ new 4-3 scheme to take their games to a higher level.