When NaVorro Bowman’s knee exploded in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, few San Francisco 49ers fans realized that that moment would be the last time their team would be relevant for a long, long time. What followed was a flaccid 8-8 campaign in the new Levi’s Stadium, then catastrophe. The head coach was fired, three potential hall of famers left the team, as did their top receiver and a phenom rookie linebacker. The 49ers turned to a man in Jim Tomsula who was better prepared to run a pizzeria or a deli than an NFL team, and predictably failed. Their once-star quarterback, Colin Kaepernick was benched, then shelved with injuries.
Tomsula was fired; Jed York’s fall man for the disastrous 2015 campaign, and the 49ers turn towards disgraced former Eagles’ head coach and GM, Chip Kelly, to coach the team. Trent Baalke’s roster is a mess, with unproven talent at nearly every position, and the squad has spent the last half-decade running completely different offenses than Kelly. Tomsula ran a “play to not lose” offense and Jim Harbaugh tried to run it down your throat and out the other side.
Entering the 2016 campaign, the 49ers have significantly more questions than answers. Here are the five that will be the most important questions as training camp opens up in 2016.
Did Chip Kelly Learn His Lesson?
The biggest question going into this season is if Chip Kelly learned his lesson from Philadelphia. His issues were two-fold. First, he wrested control away from Howie Grossman and made a mockery of the Eagles’ roster. That shouldn’t be a huge problem in San Francisco, since the roster is already one of the worst in the league.
Kelly has also come out and said that he does not want roster control, but we will see how long that lasts. Second, towards the end of his tenure in Philadelphia, he became stubborn and predictable, which led to a precipitous downfall for what had been one of the most interesting career ascensions, as Kelly revitalized the Eagles, taking them to two consecutive ten-win seasons and two consecutive playoff berths.
2015 saw the league adapt to Kelly’s offense and Kelly’s refusal to change got him fired. As he comes to San Francisco, who fired another obtuse, successful coach, whether or not he learned from his Philadelphia mistakes will loom large for the 49ers. Will Chip lead the 49ers to offensive competency or will Mr. Kelly’s Wild Ride claim another victim?
Who Starts Under Center Week One?
Colin Kaepernick’s crashing descent from leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl to becoming completely ineffective just a couple short years later is astounding. There’s more here than the NFL figuring out running quarterbacks. In short, Colin Kaepernick broke. He developed behind one of the best lines in the NFL, and received constant pressure to fight his urge to run and try to become a pocket QB.
When the 49ers’ offensive line cratered, Kaepernick started getting blasted, and hearing footsteps. He rushes his reads, he hears footsteps, and he can’t do a single thing under pressure. In comes Blaine Gabbert, the disgraced former Jaguars quarterback. He was… serviceable last season. He certainly did nothing to steal the job from Kaepernick, despite the fact that Kaepernick did everything in his power to give it away. It was long opined that Colin Kaepernick was the kind of QB that Chip Kelly wanted in his system, but he’s lost his deep ball and he never had the quick decision-making skills needed.
Kaepernick is the better talent of the two, but will only be useful if Kelly can rebuild the husk of the QB formerly known as Kaepernick. If the role goes to Gabbert, he has a lower ceiling, but a higher floor. Nick Foles has shown that he is nothing without Kelly, so it’s entirely possible that Gabbert will work perfectly under Kelly’s tutelage. Given the high-profile nature of both Kaepernick and Chip Kelly, this may be one of the top camp battles in all of the NFL.
Who Steps Up at WR2?
Outside of Smith, the 49ers have one of the most talent-bereft wide receiving corps in the NFL. Not only are the receivers behind Smith a mish-mash of mid-to-late round picks, UDFA and former CFL hopefuls, they are inexperienced middling talent, as well. Smith had thirty fewer targets last season (62) than he did in any other single season of his career last year; if you add up the career targets of the rest of the 49ers wide receivers likely to make the roster, they have 70 total (Jerome Simpson will be off the team before preseason is over).
Quinton Patton is the WR2 on the depth chart out of pure attrition and deference to his roster seniority, but he was on the roster bubble last offseason and seemingly has more alarmingly boneheaded plays as he has impressive or encouraging plays. Chip Kelly has mentioned his interest in Bruce Ellington frequently, and Blaine Gabbert praised him during OTAs.
He’s the favorite to step up as the WR2 to Smith’s WR1. He’s a small, springy, speedy receiver perfectly suited for the slot, where Chip Kelly likes to go. He should have a breakout year. DeAndre Smelter has a chance to rise up the depth chart, as well, now that he is fully healthy. It will be an intriguing position group to watch.
Who Starts Alongside NaVorro Bowman?
Michael Wilhoite started most of last season before going down with injury after twelve games. In stepped Gerald Hodges, who the 49ers acquired part-way through the season via a trade with the Minnesota Vikings. Wilhoite played… okay, and played decently enough when he filled in for NaVorro Bowman in 2014.
However, Gerald Hodges was the faster, more dynamic playmaker out of the two, and he definitely played better in coverage. Bowman’s knee injury seems to have sapped some of his ability to play in coverage, but his ability to read pre-snap made him moderately successful blitzing last season. While Wilhoite is the more solid player, he seems to be the platonic third ILB; decent at everything, outstanding at nothing. Good enough to go unnoticed on defense but not good enough to make any big plays.
Hodges has the greater upside, but also the lower floor. Hodges’ coverage abilities seemingly match better with Bowman’s nose for tackles but Chip Kelly & Co. may be more interested in making sure they get solid production next to Bowman, going with Wilhoite and choosing to not gamble on Hodges’ upside.
Can the Niners Shore Up Their Sack Differential?
If the name of the game in the NFL is getting to the opposing quarterback and ensuring your quarterback does not get sacked, the 49ers were the worst in the NFL at the game. Their -25 sack differential is next-level bad. The Niners, Browns and Bills all had a -21 or more differential, and the #4 team, the Jaguars, had -15. The 49ers made moves this offseason to shore up both sides of the ball to change that differential.
They traded up to get a second first-round pick to snag OG Joshua Garnett. They jettisoned Jordan “Highly Recruited Tuba Player” Devey, who may have been the worst offensive lineman in the NFL last year. They shuffled Daniel Kilgore behind Marcus Martin, who was touted as the best center in the 2014 draft but mastered snapping the ball while simultaneously being knocked on his rear end in 2015.
The 49ers went out and got Zane Beadles, who they hope will flourish with a return to a zone blocking scheme.For the defensive side of the ball, the Niners used the #7 pick on DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead’s college running mate. They hope that Buckner and Armstead can bookend the defensive line. The problem comes with the outside linebackers. Aaron Lynch was the only pass rusher of value last season, and he will miss four games in 2016 due to suspension.
Looking down the depth chart reads like this: should have been cut years ago (Ahmad Brooks), a failed DL (Corey Lemonier), a player who is all potential and suddenly all bulk (Eli Harold) and a suspect cover OLB who would be better suited with his hand in the dirt (Tank Carradine). It’s an oof-worthy group of OLBs, and given they were all on the team last year, a definite reason why the 49ers had the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL in 2015.
As training camp and preseason approaches, the 49ers have plenty of question marks. The low-talent roster, the pariah coach and a GM on his last leg make for a motley crew. There’s a reason why the team isn’t favored in any of their games this season. There are a lot of questions surrounding the club right now, and getting some answers will definitely help sort out whether Vegas was spot-on or drastically underestimated the franchise’s 2016 prospects.