The San Francisco 49ers were the second team to be eliminated from playoff contention with their week twelve loss in Miami, following the Browns in the race for the #1 pick. As of writing this, the winless Browns have the inside track to get the top spot, and the 49ers have the two-win Bears and the three-win Jets ahead of them in the schedule.
These teams are all bad, so the 49ers could accidentally end up with a two-game win streak and blow up their draft seeding. Despite the potential of a win over the first non-Rams, non-Bears team since week ten last season on the horizon, the 49ers’ season is over, and it’s time to look at 2017. Here are the five questions facing the 49ers as they head into the offseason:
Does Trent Baalke keep his job? Does Chip Kelly?
The architect of the league’s worst roster, General Manager Trent Baalke has been much maligned this season. Owner Jed York and Baalke are close, and York has demonized Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick en route to justifying Baalke keeping his job.
Years of picks on project players and players with ACL tears have left the 49ers with a roster bereft of talent. Whether it was A.J. Jenkins or Marcus Lattimore, too many of Baalke’s picks failed to make an impact. Pair this with a complete inability to woo free agents to the team may leave Baalke out in the cold. There are rumors that Chip Kelly is short for the NFL, failing with this roster after he destroyed the Eagles roster, as well.
My Guess: Yes, unfortunately for Baalke. He’s too buddy-buddy with York. As for Chip, Jed York may be way too friendly with Baalke, but even he can see that Chip isn’t a good scapegoat, as the 49ers would be on their fourth head coach in four years if they let Chip go.
That doesn’t mean he won’t bolt on his own for the suddenly vacant Oregon job, though.
Is Colin Kaepernick under center in 2017?
Before getting onto the field this season, Kaepernick and the 49ers restructured his deal into a two-year deal with a player option for the second year.
That means this is entirely Kaepernick’s job to walk away from. He’s performed exceptionally well under Chip Kelly’s system and has gotten more comfortable as he’s knocked the rust off. It’s possible his sudden downturn was a series of injuries, including a thumb, a knee and a labrum, which he all got worked on when he was shut down last year.
My Guess: Nobody is going to give Kaepernick a deal sweeter than what he has with San Francisco, so he’ll stay.
Can they improve their run defense?
The 49ers have a historically bad run defense this season, allowing over 170 rushing yards per game, a full 30 yards more than the #2 team this year. The 2749 yards they are on pace to allow this year will make them the third-worst rush defense in the last 30 years, just behind the 2006 Colts and the 2008 Lions.
There are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. Everything fell apart when NaVorro Bowman went out for the season and picked up a bit when Glenn Dorsey returned. Dorsey is a free agent but should return next year, and Bowman will be back. A better run defense is on the horizon, but only if they snag a free agent or an impact defensive player in the draft.
My Guess: It will get slightly better, but not without investment. Dorsey is injury prone and far past the wrong side of 30. The 49ers’ reticence to spend in free agency will likely doom them again.
Are they going to use their massive cap space?
As it stands right now, the 49ers are over $44 million under the 2016 salary cap, and that number is set to balloon to a staggering $83 million next year (and that will go over $100 million if Kaepernick declines his player option).
They’ll have to spend money just to keep the NFLPA from filing a grievance, and to make sure they hit the rolling cap floor. How much of it will be re-signing their free agents will remain to be seen, but it’s likely less than $20 million of that will go into resigning their guys. The other $80 million remains to be seen (or $63 million if Kaepernick stays).
My Guess: If Baalke stays, their spending stays down. He is too stubborn to admit he messed up the roster via the draft and won’t sign impact free agents to fill holes. He will likely go after a couple of linebackers, be rebuked, call it a day and sign a 30+-year-old defensive lineman.
Will fans even show up next season?
Jed York has his fair share of ill will in the Santa Clara area. He reneged on a promise to build soccer fields, he is accused of not only not paying his rent, but mismanaging tax dollars.
The games are “sold out” because season ticket holders are in the midst of a multi-million dollar sunk cost fallacy, but the stadium is mostly empty, and Patriots fans outnumbered 49ers fans in their last home game. Everyone is getting angrier at the entire situation, and it’s possible we see fans sprinting away from their SBLs, forgoing the thousands of dollars they’ve spent on them, just so they don’t have to see this team anymore.
My Guess: It’s becoming increasingly clear that Jim Harbaugh was the reason this team was good, as a cavalcade of coaches has been able to do nothing with a roster that Baalke makes no effort to improve. Fan morale is at its all-time low, and The Ringer didn’t post an article about how everyone hates the team and the stadium for no reason.
The real answer to question #5 is contingent on the answers to questions 1 through 4.
The 49ers face a rough road back to relevance, and it’s an uphill battle even to move past “laughingstock of the league.” It will be a tough go of things, but positive answers to these five questions will go a long way.