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San Francisco 49ers: 2017 preview

After a miserable 2-14 campaign in 2016, the 49ers rang the changes from front office to the roster. Can they improve this year?


The San Francisco 49ers come into 2017 with a lot of hope, but not for this season. Another new head coach, changes at quarterback, big turnovers on defense… There are a lot of new aspects to the team by the bay, it just might not make much difference to their record this year.

2016 recap

When you start Blaine Gabbert in Week 1, it’s never going to be a particularly good season. However, a 28-0 win over the Rams on the first Monday of the season gave fans a glimmer of hope. That glimmer was soon snuffed out though.

Heavy road defeats to Carolina and Seattle were expected, but it soon became clear that this team couldn’t do much against anyone. In the end, Gabbert was benched for Colin Kaepernick by Week 6 as a million and one talking heads exploded. Kaepernick was good, but a lack of weapons and poor protection stymied the offense.

Meanwhile, the defense was abysmal all year. They led the NFL in rushing yards allowed with a massive 2,654, letting teams rip off 4.8 yards per carry. That lack of basic defensive stability was the foundation for a 13-game losing streak, which only ended when they met the inept Rams again.

Offseason moves

InOut
Pierre Garcon, WRTorrey Smith, WR
Malcolm Smith, OLBAntoine Bethea, S
Kyle Juszczyk, FBMichael Wilhoite, ILB
Earl Mitchell, DTColin Kaepernick, QB
Brian Hoyer, QBBlaine Gabbert, QB
Elvis Dumervil, OLBQuinton Patton, WR
Marquise Goodwin, WRGerald Hodges, OLB
Matt Barkley, QBChip Kelly, Head coach
Aldrick Robinson, WRTrent Baalke, General manager
Tim Hightower, RB
Solomon Thomas, DE (Draft)
Kyle Shanahan, Head coach
John Lynch, General manager

Let’s start with the front office moves. It was about time to get rid of Trent Baalke given the state of the roster he had constructed, and given that his draft record was fairly poor. Moving on from Chip Kelly after a year wasn’t all that surprising given his rigid system and poor results, and who was available.

Bringing in Kyle Shanahan, the mastermind of Atlanta’s high-powered offense as well as the strongest recent years in Washington and Cleveland, was a great move. Big things are expected from him, and at the very least he should build an offense that can be very successful. Bringing in John Lynch as general manager was one of the strangest choices we’ve ever seen, but it may end up being a stroke of genius. He immediately fleeced the Bears on Draft day and took Solomon Thomas at #3, he has worked with Shanahan to bring in veteran leaders like Elvis Dumervil and people who know his system like Pierre Garcon and Brian Hoyer. Give it a few years and we might be talking about one of the better personnel people in the league.

As for the players, losing guys like Michael Wilhoite and Gerald Hodges takes away a lot of snaps from last season’s defense, but since that unit was terrible it doesn’t matter too much. Bringing in Malcolm Smith looked good too, right up until he tore his pectoral muscle, which will sideline him for the season.

2017 schedule

WeekOpponent
1Vs Carolina Panthers
2@ Seattle Seahawks
3Vs Los Angeles Rams
4@ Arizona Cardinals
5@ Indianapolis Colts
6@ Washington Redskins
7Vs Dallas Cowboys
8@ Philadelphia Eagles
9Vs Arizona Cardinals
10Vs New York Giants
11BYE
12Vs Seattle Seahawks
13@ Chicago Bears
14@ Houston Texans
15Vs Tennessee Titans
16Vs Jacksonville Jaguars
17@ Los Angeles Rams

The AFC South is potentially the weakest division in the NFL, which could very well help the 49ers maintain a reasonable record, however the NFC East has the potential to be very difficult indeed. Throw in Carolina as one of their strength of schedule games and it could be a rough season. The Seahawks and Cardinals will be good, but the Rams are likely to be no better than a pile of hot garbage again.

The toughest stretch is going to be before their bye week, with Dallas, the Eagles, Cardinals, and Giants come three potent offenses, and a trio of deadly defenses. It won’t be easy.

Three players to watch

Almost every position is up for grabs this year with San Francisco. Which players are going to make a spot their own and lay a claim to being a foundation piece of the rebuilding 49ers?

Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, & Arik Armstead – Defensive line

These three players represent the last three #1 picks of the 49ers. New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be bringing the 4-front defense he studied under in Seattle and Jacksonville. As a result, Thomas is likely to be playing the “LEO” role with more freedom to hammer around the corner and hit anything in his way, while Buckner and Armstead play on the opposite side of the nose and on the outside shoulders of guards and tackles. If these three can all live up to their potential and start to dominate in the trench then this defense could fly. If they don’t, then three years of high draft picks could bust.

Brian Hoyer, quarterback

Arguably Hoyer’s best season came in his brief stint in Cleveland under the tutelage of Shanahan. Reunited with the inventive offensive mind of Kyle, he will be tasked with keeping the 49ers competitive, and a good season could see him hang onto the job in 2018.

The expectations are that Hoyer will flop. The strongest memory people have of him was his terrible game against the Chiefs for Houston. However, for most of his career Hoyer has looked after the ball and made enough plays to keep his team in the game. With an offense he has history with, Brian Hoyer could weave magic in San Francisco.

A career 59.5% passer, with 44 touchdowns and just a 2.2% interception rate, it’s not beyond Hoyer to put together a good season and keep the 49ers offense ticking.

Aaron Lynch, Edge

In 2014 and 2015 Aaron Lynch was a potentially dominant edge rusher. He put up 12.5 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, and 35 QB hits across the two years while playing just 59.9% of defensive snaps. The theory went, that with more playing time would come even more production, but injuries hampered him throughout 2016. He produced just 1.5 sacks and only five QB hits in just 19.3% of snaps.

With the change of defensive formation and the drafting of Solomon Thomas, Lynch’s potential may never be realized. We will find out this season if he can get the job done San Francisco, or if he will have to move to a different team, with a different scheme, to be the pass rusher he looked like he could be two years ago.

Prediction

2017 won’t be friendly for the 49ers, and no one on the team expects it to be. They are very light at almost every position, with NaVorro Bowman the only real star left on the roster. It’s going to be a long slog, but there is enough young talent on the defense, including Reuben Foster, to think they will be as abysmal as they were last year. I can see five or six wins for the 49ers if everything breaks right. With two against the Rams, Chicago, Jacksonville, and even their games against the Colts and Redskins being very winnable. However, that’s if things go right. Injuries, an unpredictable offensive line, and year one struggles for Shanahan could all bring their plans crashing down. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic about the foundation Lynch and Shanahan have laid so far. This season shouldn’t be all doom and gloom for 49ers fans.

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Toby Durant

A passionate and opinionated writer, I am currently the NFL editor for RealSport. However, I also contribute to F1, WWE, Football, and other sections of the site, and I have covered the NFL International Series for RealSport and previously contributed to SB Nation.

 

I also have 10 years playing and coaching experience in American football, starting at the University of Nottingham and including a stint as defensive coordinator at Oxford Brookes University. I may be a Patriots fan but all aspects of the sport interest me, from guard play to special teams.

San Francisco 49ers: 2017 preview

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