SANTA CLARA, CA. — Nationally and even locally, a lot of people have written off the San Francisco 49ers for the 2016 Season. Some of the die hard faithful, however, will keep their blind faith. But there are reasons why the 49ers might actually be good this season. Below, we will list 10 reasons why the Niners and Niners Faithful should be looking forward to the up and coming year…
CHIP KELLY AND COMPANY IN, JIM TOMSULA’S INCOMPETENT STAFF OUT!
While we do not know what Kelly has in store for us until the groomed product steps foot out on to the gridiron Week 1 against the Rams on Monday Night Football, we do know that Chip Kelly, despite a down year in 2015 due to being spread thin by the front office, he still has a winning record as a NFL football coach with 27 wins and 20 losses. Prior to the 2015 Season, his coaching record (when is primary focus was coaching) was 20-12.
Kelly went 10-6 his first season with the Eagles and had relatively the same talent. Granted, the NFC East was not quite as competitive as the NFC West is heading in to the year but you can bet that Kelly has no intentions of finishing last in the division. He will come in throwing haymakers to make his mark within the division.
Kelly is used to winning. Even his worst year in the NFL was not that terrible going 7-9.
THE BLAINE GABBERT EFFECT
While the quarterback position is not set in stone, the writing is on the wall. The team as a whole loves Gabbert and his moxie and passion that he wears on his sleeve. It doesn’t mean that Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who is just 3 seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, won’t fight. It just means that the team seemingly likes and will play harder for Gabbert; a quarterback who got a raw deal in Jacksonville and never had a fighting chance while there.
Let’s get one thing straight… Gabbert was the 10th overall pick in 2011 and clearly had a lot of potential to get drafted as high as that. He was drafted higher than Colin Kaepernick in a stronger class of quarterbacks.
As crappy as the Niners were in 2015, we saw a huge difference between the way the team sold out for Gabbert opposed to Kaepernick. He played under the same incompetent coaching staff and put up better statistics with less than what Kap had to work with at the beginning of the year.
He completed 63.1% of his passes for 2,031 yards with 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. His average per completion sky rocketed from an average somewhere around 5.5 to 7.2 per. It was by far his best season as a pro and under an actual competent coaching staff, the sky is the limit for Gabbert. Had he kept the same averages and started all 16 games, he would have had over 4,000 yards, with 20+ touchdowns.
HYDE & DRAUGHN ONE-TWO PUNCH!
Carlos Hyde exploded on to the scene last year in Week 1 on Monday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings but wasn’t quite able to carry that over in to any of the other games prior to sustaining a season ending injury. But he will be back as the teams bell cow and biggest contributor on offense. Should he stay healthy, there’s little question that he will rush for over a thousand yards in 2016.
Shaun Draughn did a fabulous job filling in for an injured Hyde as well as DuJuan Harris. It’s tough to say who will win the job for back up and relief for Hyde but with how well Draughn did before he sustained an injury himself, he looked like he could start for anyone in the league.
*The 49ers drafted Kelvin Taylor as well and have high hopes for the rookie out of Florida. Nobody knows for sure what Taylor will wind up being at this level and he could surprise a lot of folks… especially considering his pedigree of being the son of one of the NFL’s all time best running backs in Fred Taylor.
YOUTH IN THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
The Niners are loaded with a bunch of cornerbacks who will either be entering their first year in the NFL or have less than 3-years in the league. This is exactly how we saw the Legion of Boom formed by the division rival Seahawks. It’s a copy cat league and the Niners have ripped this page right out of Pete Carroll’s playbook. Couple that with Bruce Arians method of having safeties that can play like corners, and the Niners are set up to have the best of both worlds.
The competition will be stiff and it will be very tough to make this team at this position. The 49ers are prone to lose some real talent and potentially have to watch them blossom their careers in other teams jersey’s. Let’s just hope that the staff and front office makes the correct decisions on who to keep and who to trim.
There are three viable safeties in Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, and Jacquiski Tartt… add in Jimmie Ward, the Niners first overall pick in 2014 as the nickel-slash-hybrid corner/safety and the back end of the defense is looking really good.
NAVORRO BOWMAN’S TEAM
Rewind backwards to the Championship Game a couple years ago against the Seattle Seahawks when the Niners not only lost but lost Bowman to a severe injury that not many thought he would fully recover from and nobody would have been able to predict how strong he would come back. Make no mistake, moving forward this is Bowman’s team and he will be the heartbeat and voice not only for the defense but for the entire team.
Bowman believes in his mind that he is the best inside linebacker in the NFL. And he actually has a case. In 2015, he finished with the most tackles in the entire NFL with 154. He had a pair of interceptions and sacks as well. He was first team all-pro and made the pro bowl once again.
If Bowman is able to expand on what he did last season individually and help the rest of the team grown as an on-field-general, the defense can and most likely will thrive even though they’re young.
THE DYNAMIC DUO (BUCK ‘n A!)
DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are tall enough to start their own basketball team. Combine that with their reaches and you can potentially expect a lot of tipped passes in 2016. These two are reunited with their college coach as well as each other where they dominated the Pac-12 together. It’s tough to say how good or bad they’ll be at this level but last season, especially toward the end, Arik Armstead really began to flash how dominant he can possibly be.
When you think of great defensive line dynamic duo’s, the first combo that comes to mind typically is Reggie White and Jerome Brown. Now those are some big shoes to fill and there may not ever be a combo as good as that, but Buckner and Armstead do know each other and compliment one and other very well.
As long as they both learn and perfect their techniques, and play fundamentally sound football along the defensive line, these two can be great together for a very long time.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS FIXED …FOR THE MOST PART
Scratch Anthony Davis and hopefully Trent Brown can continue his growth from last season as he took over as the starter position for right tackle. He graded out very high per Pro Football Focus for the games he played in… which in and of itself was impressive all things considered with the coaching staff he had to grow under.
Fast forward to 2016, and the offensive line looks completely reshaped. The Niners moved back up in to the first round in the 2016 NFL Draft to select Joshua Garnett, who some believe was going to be the Seattle Seahawks pick at the back end of the round. Garnett will be an instant contributor as he not only has a phenomenal football IQ but natural instinct for the game of football. He was blowing open truck sized lanes for Heisman finalist, Christian McCaffery at Stanford.
Joe Staley is still carving a path and making a strong case for Hall of Fame status when he hangs it up. With that said, there is still a lot of football left in him.
Prior to his injury, center Daniel Kilgore was getting better and better and was on the cusp of entering the threshold of Pro Bowl status. He said he is finally healed 100% and hopes to get back on track to where he was at prior to breaking his leg.
The Niners also brought on Zane Beadles, a guy who blocked and learned a lot from shoe-in Hall of Famer, Peyton Manning. Beadles was a Pro Bowler in 2012.
These are the five who I expect to start… However, the Niners did draft a couple more offensive lineman and there are a couple of others that are licking their chops that have been waiting in the wings prior to this year for a chance to start such as Brandon Thompson and Ian Silberman. There will also be some depth there… Erik Pears, by many, was considered to be a huge liability but at the very least, he can be a swing tackle in case things do not go as planned and there are more injuries throughout the year.
NFC WEST OPPONENTS GOT WEAKER
“Yeah ……… right”. That’s what Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks fans will tell you. But the facts are that both, a long with the Rams have taken some serious hits to some of the veteran leadership that was there before. The Cardinals are the least effected and will most likely be the front runner in the division all year. But Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and Chris Johnson are all a year older. They’ll have to depend a lot on the young legs of rookie sensation, David Johnson at running back.
The Seahawks entire offensive line was depleted in just two seasons. That’s gonna hurt the run game and also affect Russell Wilson’s time in the pocket. The more he is out of the pocket and scrambling, the more chance he has of getting injured.
The Rams not only have to work with a rookie quarterback who will be learning the NFL on the fly but have also lost pieces on defense such as Chris Long and James Lauranitas who have essentially been the heartbeat of that defense for a very long time; on top of moving and playing in a new city in Los Angeles. The Rams will look to replace that leadership with Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald. But the edge where Long played and the middle of the field where Lauranitas played will be compromised.
SPECIAL TEAMS HAS A CHANCE THIS YEAR!
Last year, special teams was an enormous liability under former special teams coach, Thomas McGaughey Jr. It was a mess. Guys did not stay in their lanes on kickoffs, punt returns were completely inconsistent. And kick returners and punt returners changed from week to week. I would go as far to say that the 49ers were the worst on special teams in 2015.
Bradley Pinion never felt comfortable the entire year. He had countless shanks in large part to having rushers in his face nearly every time he had to kick.
Darius Swinton II and his assistant Michael Clay have had a bit better success in their coaching careers to date than McGaughey ever did. But McGaughey was sitting in the scrap pile of people that wanted and were willing to come coach under Tomsula. Swinton has been a special teams assistant since 2009 spending time under the Rams (2009-2011), Chiefs (2012), Broncos (2013-2014), and Bears (2015). The will be his first year as the main special teams coordinator but he has earned every inch of the right.
Phil Dawson, even though he is approaching a hundred years old in football years, has still been one of the most consistent kickers in the National Football League; that will not change.
Most expect Bruce Ellington to earn both the kickoff and punt return honors and be more integrated in to the slot position under Chip Kelly’s high octane offense as well. Ellington is one of the fastest and most elusive players the Niners have when healthy. It should bode well if this is the route the team takes here.
JIM O’NEIL’S DEFENSIVE SCHEME
Eric Mangini was the defensive coordinator in 2015 and the Niners got burnt so much that all that was left was a pile of smoldering ashes in most games. This was in large part due to the careless frequency of blitzes that Mangini threw at opposing offenses. Half the time he telegraphed the play calling. It’s tough to say how much of that was Tomsula taking control on the sidelines though. Either way, it was a train wreck for most of the season.
Jim O’Neil is one of the younger coordinator’s in the league and for whatever reason, maybe because they can relate more, younger coaches and coordinators typically get the guys to buy in more. Navorro Bowman and others have been quoted and have gone on record stating that they like this defensive scheme much better than last seasons.
O’Neil spent his first season in the NFL working as the defensive quality control and defensive backs coach in 2009 at the age of 31. Thereafter, he went to New York to become the assistant defensive backs coach for the Jets from 2010-2012. He then moved on staying in the division but transitioned as the linebackers coach for the Bills in 2013. The versatility was enough for the Browns to consider him for the defensive coordinator for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Being that O’Neil has mastered both the defensive back and linebacker positions, and knowing that he could stand to learn more along the defensive line, he brought in Jerry Azzinaro who was with Chip Kelly at Oregon and also coached both DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead along with rookie free agent defensive lineman, Alex Balducci who actually was moved over to the offensive side of the ball to play guard.
So in recapping, the factors of Chip Kelly, Blaine Gabbert, Carlos Hyde, the youth in the defensive backfield, Navorro Bowman’s leadership, the potential dynamic duo of Buckner and Armstead, the offensive line seemingly in better shape, the NFC West opponents losing key contributors, a better special teams coach, and Jim O’Neil’s influence should all help in forming a team that can and will compete in the NFL this year.
While many share the national opinion in that the Niners will not be a strong team in the NFL, they are set up in many ways to be the biggest surprise and sleeper in the league. If the Niners do manage to punch a ticket to the playoffs, it would come as a shock to most, however, remember where you heard it in that it could be a very feasible feat.
*The 49ers will open the season against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium© on Monday Night Football, September 12th.