Welcome to my preseason team by team scouting report series. Each day in August and September 1, I will be previewing one team’s season, making bold predictions, answering team questions and telling you what sleepers and rising players to focus on. I will also give my input on the team’s schedule and remind you of my season prediction for that team.
The 49ers may be one of the most stuck teams in the NFL. Even the Browns have a better shot of bouncing back from these tough times. The Niners have minimal defense, declining offense, and overall aren’t looking great. Chip Kelly doesn’t look to be the answer. But could there be some positives hidden between all the misery? How do I know? That’s one of many things I will show you today.
3 Players to Watch For
1. Aaron Lynch, OLB
I could say the entire linebacker corps should be monitored. They may not have stellar defense, or many stars, or enough to win more than 4 or 5 games, but they have some decent pass rushers all around. They actually ranked 18th in total defense last season. DeForest Buckner could make an impact as a rookie, veteran Ahmad Brooks and Michael Wilhoite could also step it up beside NaVorro Bowman, even guys like Glenn Dorsey or Arik Armstead. But I chose Lynch because of all these linebackers, Lynch has the most breakout potential. Lynch put up decent numbers in his first two seasons, and 2016 could finally be the year for him to pile up some sacks. Still, this defense isn’t great otherwise.
2. Bruce Ellington, WR
Although he is more established as a special teamer, and he’s playing behind Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton, Ellington could be a deep sleeper. The 49ers could use another weapon for whoever starts at QB. It will make up for the problems at quarterback. Torrey Smith can’t do what he used to do anymore, and Quinton Patton never really established himself as a quality starter. Sure, he had 394 yards and 30 receptions in 2015, but that’s nothing for an NFL starter. If Ellington could do what he does on special teams on offense, that would be helpful.
3. Colin Kaepernick, QB
I know, Kaepernick has done nothing to prove himself in the last two seasons, and Blaine Gabbert looks to be the favorite to start unless training camp position battles change things, but if Kaep can get it done in training camp, he could win his job back. Then comes the big question. Will he ever return to his 2013, even his 2014 state? I think if he works hard enough in the preseason and regular season in the next year or two, that could eventually happen. Honestly, I think Kaep’s the starter around here. He’s the fan favorite, Chip Kelly’s favorite, and in the few scenarios where he does bounce back to his 2013 or 2014 form, it pays off.
3 Questions That Must Be Answered
1. Who will win the battle at quarterback?
Personally, I think that this is Colin Kaepernick’s job to win. If he can have a strong preseason and stay in shape, I think he will win the job. It doesn’t matter how well Blaine Gabbert does, he’s not fit for a starting job. Kaepernick was once a quality starter, he just needs to prove he still has any willpower at all. A few years ago this wouldn’t have even been a discussion! I think Kaepernick will have a strong preseason, and things will come close, but in the end, Kaepernick will pull ahead and prove he’s still in starting condition.
2. Will we see major defensive improvements, finally?
I think we will see some guys step it up this season. When they were good, the Niners had a powerful offense, and not the greatest defense, but they have a decent group of pass rushers, some veterans like NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Bethea, and an overall acceptable defense. They haven’t lost much since then, except quality plays from the same group of guys. I could see DeForest Buckner having an awesome rookie season, maybe Aaron Lynch or Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman will each give you a half dozen sacks, but nothing major. The 49ers are already in hot water on offense, it would sure be helpful to have an above average defense again.
3. Will the offensive line make things even tougher under center?
The quarterback holes are already an issue. If the offensive line continues to have problems too, it wouldn’t be any help. They do now have Joshua Garnett at guard where Alex Boone was. Joe Staley is still in the mix at tackle. But there are still some problems on the right side, even though Kaep’s blind side is taken care of. Anthony Davis was reinstated after coming out of retirement, but is he still elite, and will he be in football shape? Who do they have behind him, Trenton Brown? Zane Beadles will be a help, but the issues surrounding him at right tackle and center will definitely make things tougher under center if they don’t take the next step.
3 Bold Predictions For The Season
1. Not one, but two running backs will rush for 500+ yards
When someone asks me about Shaun Draughn, I would say, big sleeper. Carlos Hyde is already a workhorse RB when he’s healthy. He was the next man up when Frank Gore was still here. He’s healthy, now it’s time to shine. You can’t expect too much from Carlos Hyde in his first full season as a starter, no more Reggie Bush, and hopefully no more injuries. But 500 yards isn’t too much to ask from a 2014 2nd round pick. Shaun Draughn may also get some time in the backfield, especially if Hyde is still developing or getting hurt. This guy has been bouncing from team to team, being cut numerous times, maybe he’ll finally have a nice stay with the 49ers and work some yardage as a handcuff to who was once one of the top breakout candidates in the NFL.
2. Three of the four 49ers starting linebackers will rack up at least 8 sacks
I know I only said minor improvements but come on! Eight sacks is nothing, at least for two of them, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. The wild card here, Aaron Lynch. I mentioned his name yet again. This guy got 6 and 6.5 sacks in his first two seasons, it’s time for him to make the leap. I could see 9 or 10 sacks out of him. Bowman and Brooks could even rack up 11, 12 even 13 or 14 for Bowman. I think the defense, especially the pass rush, could be the reason the 49ers win these games, at least the three I think they will manage to win.
3. Vance McDonald or Garrett Celek will lead the Niners in receptions
Half of you may have never even heard of one or both of these guys. Neither of them are elite tight ends like Rob Gronkowski or Greg Olsen. The 49ers just lack a wide receiver so badly that a low end tight end has a better shot at 750 yards than their #1 wide receiver. I actually think the tight end two are a pair of sleepers, that could easily beat out Torrey Smith for the most receptions on the Niners. I think which one of the guys leads in receptions has to do with who starts at QB. It seems like Kaepernick prefers McDonald, but Blaine Gabbert threw to Celek more. Will this happen? I’m pretty convinced.
Any team at the Niners’ level’s schedule could be considered tough, but the 49ers do have a few winnable match-ups. The Niners open up the season hosting the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams have a strong pass rush but have holes scattered around the defense, especially in the puzzled secondary. Todd Gurley leads an offense that lacks receiving weapons for rookie quarterback Jared Goff. Tavon Austin had a decent 2015 season, but hasn’t fully proven himself yet. With the home field advantage, the 49ers should be able to use their own pass rush and rushing game to get past the Rams. I don’t actually see much the Rams have that the 49ers don’t, but both teams will have a tough time in 2016.
After that comes a 4-game stretch against some of the NFC’s best, Carolina, Seattle, Dallas and Arizona. They have decent match-ups against Buffalo and Tampa Bay after that, but they won’t get the W on the road, and the underrated Bucs should edge them.
Then comes another NFC South team, the Saints. The Panthers and Bucs are out of the way, and personally, I think those two teams are the division’s only contenders. They have both acceptable offense AND defense, so they will thrive. Colin Kaepernick and Carlos Hyde should be all over the Saints D, and again they have home field, they’ll pick up the win.
After two more tough match-ups comes two road games, against the Dolphins and Bears. Neither team is dominant, but both have the weapons to pick up a few wins themselves, and San Francisco will fall to them without home field advantage on their side. The easy end of their schedule continues, but they might actually have a chance in the second part because in between two pairs of road games is a home game hosting the Jets. Resigning Ryan Fitzpatrick will help the Jets, but the few 49ers sleepers should edge out the Jets D and win.
The Falcons and Rams are up next after that, on the road. Neither of those teams are very good, but they should edge out the 49ers, considering they have home field advantage, and personally, I think the 49ers are the worst team in the league, despite having the ability to pick up a few wins. In Week 17, even though the Seahawks may not need the game to make the playoffs, they’ll go for it and take down San Francisco to get past the Cardinals for the division win.
My Season Prediction
The 49ers won’t do much without a reliable QB or receiver, plus poor defense, but with a reasonable schedule, I think they pick up 3 or 4 games and make sure the worst team in the league has at least one win. The 49ers should be able to pick up a few wins with a reasonable schedule, but you never know with this bad a team.
Projected Finish: 3-13, 4th In NFC West
The 49ers are still an NFL team, but they won’t replicate one very well, and may have regressive offensive struggles throughout the season despite slight improvements on the defense, which was already close to average.