NFL Preview Series: San Francisco 49ers

Byron Dixon| BKD TV

Getting rid of John Harbaugh was an all time mistake that could haunt this team for years to come. Colin Kaepernick struggled a bit this past season, seeing his touchdown-to-interception ratio move from 21:8 to 19:10, and his YPA drop from 7.7 to 7.0. This is only a taste of what’s to come, as Harbaugh was a quarterback guru who got the most out of both Kaepernick and Alex Smith. Without Harbaugh, Kaepernick will regress, much like Matt Cassel did when he was separated from Charlie Weis in Kansas City a few years ago. It’s foolish to believe that losing a top-three NFL head coach won’t have its consequences.

While We Were Away: The impending ineptitude of San Francisco’s offense is the departure of guard Mike Iupati, who signed with the Cardinals. Iupati was the team’s top run-blocking lineman, so his absence will hurt the rushing attack. It was already evident that the running game wouldn’t be as efficient, as Frank Gore left for Indianapolis. Carlos Hyde will take over as the full-time back. Despite his age – he just turned 32 – Gore outgained Hyde in terms of yards per carry (4.3 to 4.0), and it’s unclear if Hyde can handle a full workload. The 49ers signed Reggie Bush to handle the pass-catching duties.

San Francisco lost a whopping six defensive starters this off-season, and all of them were extremely key pieces. The three that stick out are Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith because they all retired. Willis and Borland walking away was definitely unexpected. Willis turned 30 this off-season and had dealt with injuries that caused him to miss 10 games in 2014, but he still had 2-3 strong seasons left in the tank. Borland, meanwhile, was exceptional as a rookie, but decided to call it quits because he was afraid of the long-term effects of concussions despite the rapid advance of medical science. The only skilled inside linebacker left is NaVorro Bowman, who missed the entire 2014 campaign with a knee injury. Michael Wilhoite, who struggled last year, will have to start next to Bowman.

2015 Season Outlook: Kaepernick won’t have much help from his receiving corps either. The hobbled Michael Crabtree is gone, and the 49ers signed Torrey Smith as a replacement. This may seem like a quality move on the surface, but there’s enough history of wideouts leaving strong organizations for dysfunctional teams for any logical thinker to be pessimistic. Smith has never been a consistent player – he was second in the NFL in terms of drops last year – and pairing him with an up-and-down quarterback who lost his mentor doesn’t seem like a good idea. Kaepernick will continue to lean on Anquan Boldin, but there’s no telling how much longer Boldin, 35 in October, will be effective. The same can be said for aging tight end Vernon Davis, who had just 26 catches in 2014. San Francisco was much better shape at the tackle position until early June when right tackle Anthony Davis retired for a “year or two.On a positive note, Joe Staley is one of the best left tackles in the business, and at 31 (on Aug. 30), he should be highly productive for at least 2-3 more seasons. It’s worth noting, however, that Staley is already questioning the new coaching staff’s decision to move to a zone-blocking scheme, something he is not comfortable with.

The other two starters who departed were cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver. The duo was solid in 2014, so some combination of Tramaine Brock, Shareece Wright, Chris Cook and Donate Johnson will have to fill those shoes. The corners will have to get help from both the safety group and the pass-rushers. Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will reprise their roles as starters at the former position, though second-round rookie Jaquiski Tartt will push Reid for playing time. Bethea was exceptional in 2014, but Reid happened to be very inconsistent in coverage.

2015 Record: 8-8

Mediocrity is what I see with this team. Playing in the ever tough NFC West it seems they have taken a backseat to the other teams in their division, with all the losses this off-season this team will be competitive but they lack key pieces on both sides of the ball. Under a new coach and staff we could see a drop off and a lot of growing pains as well. This team needs a full year under this staff and a strong draft next year to help get young talent to get them back in contention in the tough NFC.


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