Asking someone their thoughts about the 49ers heading into 2016 is likely to net you a response that is largely rooted in their beliefs about Chip Kelly as a head coach and leader. After a shakeup in Philadelphia last offseason, even putting down thoughts on currently rostered players seems a daunting task. That being said, Chip Kelly the “GM” won’t be present in San Francisco, as ownership has relegated him to strictly coaching. While the 49ers have not been the poster child for neutral-to-positive media reports in recent years, there are already mumblings and reports out of the 49ers camp of unrest. It’s going to take a strong leader to right this ship, and while Kelly may not be the leader that some would like him to be, winning can go a long way in building trust.
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To say that 2015 was a down year for Colin Kaepernick would be putting it lightly. After a coming out party in 2012, he has struggled to improve as a passer, seeming to have a harder time taking the next step with each passing year. After a dismal start to the season, Kaepernick was benched so he could “take a breath”, and was then placed on season ending IR shortly thereafter. Rumors of partying, tiffs with teammates, and lack of focus clouded the air. A new regime thought to potentially be a spark of hope was quieted recently with indications that the quarterback wanted out of town. It’s much too early to speculate on what, if any, affect post season hiccups have on the following season, but this will be an interesting story to watch.
Ranking 32nd in yards per attempt and 30th in completion percentage reveals what many already know. Kaepernick has struggled mightily with accuracy and vision. The continued struggles of the offensive line (bottom feeders in both rush and pass protection) coupled with Kaepernick’s tendency to hold the ball and try to do too much on the ground have haunted him the last three seasons. In 2014 he finished 2nd in sacks, and had the 2015 season played out, he would have taken the cake in a landslide.
Simply put, this team needs a leader to get the offensive line struggles fixed and give Kaepernick an opportunity to grow his confidence in the system. It may be beyond a comfortable level for the signal caller to continue with the 49ers, but we will know in the next few months what direction this team is headed.
Having failed to see starting action since 2013, Blaine Gabbert had an opportunity to prove himself as a legitimate threat when Kaepernick was placed on IR. While his completion percentage was better than Kaepernick’s best year, Gabbert’s inability to protect the football caused nearly as many turnovers as touchdowns, and his sack rate was on par with Kaepernick’s. Gabbert has difficulty reading coverages, and suffers similar issues with accuracy and vision.
Going forward, Gabbert is best suited for a backup role in the NFL. He will not test any defense and crumbles under pressure. It’ll be another long season for San Francisco if Kaepernick leaves and Kelly rides the Gabbert Express.
Move along, people. Move along.
Recovering from surgery to correct a stress fracture in his foot, it is expected that Carlos Hyde will be available for camp this spring. While the divide between opinions on Hyde are wide, I am squarely in the pro-Hyde camp. Yes, he has been hampered by foot issues, but when on the field (and with only modestly-effective blocking) Hyde is a punishing runner who fights through contact. I enjoy watching, I really do. But the offensive line of San Francisco was a travesty this season, and Hyde’s 4.1 yards a carry was certainly a reflection of that.
Hyde will be a good fit in the Kelly system, and should thrive under the up-tempo offense. Kelly likes to run (top third of the league in rush attempts each of his three seasons in the NFL), and has produced effective rushers fairly consistently. And while Hyde hasn’t been uber effective in his two professional seasons (see offensive line/QB struggles), there is much to be excited for going forward. He has the pedigree of a workhorse back and should slip into a comfortable role in a progressive offense. So, while injury concerns and disagreement about Hyde’s role in the Kelly offense have caused many to sell on him for 2016, I’m buying.
The fourth-round pick from last season, Mike Davis had an abysmal rookie season. Averaging 1.7 yard per carry on 35 attempts, Davis bombed behind a struggling line. His inability to pass block only continued to hamper his role, and a midseason hand injury removed him from action for 8 weeks. While a productive back for South Carolina, Davis did little to cement a role on the Niners heading into next season. Further complicating his role are the serviceable backup in Draughn and exciting newcomer in Hayne. Davis will need to work hard to ensure playing time going forward, but should have enough of a leash to do so for at least another season.
The ex-rugby star from Australia made a splash in the preseason, but was buried on the depth chart for most of the real games. While Hayne has certainly flashed athleticism, he is a raw football player with plenty of room for improvement. Indications from San Francisco upper management are that Chip Kelly is excited to work with Hayne, but season expectations remain low for him having a substantial role.
Given the largest role in his career, journeyman Shaun Draughn received a primary back role in the absence of Hyde. In six games, Draughn only mustered 3.5 yard per carry and found the end zone once. He did display soft hands out of the backfield, which aided the all-too-common check-down game. It’s reported that the Niners are interested in resigning the back for the 2016 season, but he will be relegated to a backup role, possibly further down the pecking order if the competition from Hayne or Davis proves strong.
Signed late in the season after Draughn was put on IR, DuJuan Harris had a decent impact, but as traveling replacement he is unlikely to remain with the team in 2016.
Placed on injured reserve midway through the season with a torn MCL, Bush is a free agent in 2016 and will enter the season at the “put ‘em down” age of 31. While backs long in the tooth have had some success in the last few years, Bush was minimally involved in the San Francisco offense, has had two complimentary roles in successive seasons, and is coming off an injury. He will likely find a home as a backup, but his days of relevance have passed.
A bandage for a bad situation, Kendall Gaskins was sprinkled in during the season with no significant impact. Nothing to see here, folks.
Poor, poor Anquan Boldin. The battle-tough vet struggled to find the success that he had seen in previous years in the bay, but continues to grind in his twilight years. Clearly not the athletic, high-pointing, boss he was in his younger years, Boldin is still making plays with route savvy and experienced moves. A free agent in 2016, there’s no doubt he can still be serviceable on a productive team. Boldin has mentioned that he is interested to see what the Kelly offense will bring, and whether he makes it to free agency or not remains to be seen. I can see him being a very good fit for several teams on the brink of a championship. For his sake, it’s probably best he heads out for a chance at a championship. If comfort and excitement keep him in San Francisco, however, he would be a nice fit for the new system. I expect a return to 2014 numbers if the offensive line can gel at all.
As a downfield speedster with a limited route tree, Torrey Smith struggled this year. A huge signing for the team last offseason, poor quarterback and offensive line performance killed his potential. Only hauling in 33 catches, Smith still managed a stunning 663 yards (ranked first for yards per reception for WRs with over 30 receptions) to go with four touchdowns. There is a place for Smith in the Kelly offense, but it will require him to leave his comfort zone and work the field. Not likely to see the YPC he put up in 2015 again any time soon, Smith can still find success with his speed if he can muster some growth as a receiver.
Would you believe the third year spark-plug receiver was third in targets and receptions (tied with McDonald) for the Niners? While many have had big expectations for Patton, his development was stunted by the offensive ineptitude. Catching only three less receptions than Smith, Patton had nearly 300 less yards and was not an impact player by any stretch. If Boldin packs his bags, there’s a chance Patton secures more playing time, but thus far, he’s done little to encourage the 49ers to gamble on him in a larger role going forward.
Fourth on the depth chart, this offense had no chance of offering Ellington a glimmer of hope during his first two seasons. A smaller receiver noted for his explosive ability, Ellington will struggle to find playing time without a subtraction in the receiving corps. Even then, he could be surpassed by more formidable recruits already in the stable.
Remember DeAndrew White for the near future. A highly-touted recruit, White had a less than thrilling collegiate career due to injury. Signed by the 49ers at a UDFA, White was the talk of town last offseason, and although he had nearly zero usage during his first NFL season, could easily surpass Ellington and Patton on the depth chart and play a significant role in the next two years with San Francisco and the Kelly offense if he impresses this offseason. A speedy receiver with good size, White is a capable route runner and ripe for an impact.
I was as surprised as you to find that Simpson is still in the league. That is all.
Anderson has the potential to challenge near the goal line, but has existed only as a situational player with injury concerns. Not terrible, but nothing exceptional to contribute on a weekly basis.
Averaging 1.5 targets a game with Vernon Davis in the fold, Vance McDonald saw a jump to 5 targets a game as the primary tight end for San Francisco. It certainly didn’t hurt that the check-down approach of Gabbert played well into his hands. Speaking of hands, while serviceable near the goal line, McDonald had issues with drops down the stretch, and ultimately opened the door for competition. With another cheap year under contract, McDonald is likely to get a shot at starting with Garrett Celek currently headed towards free agency. While Celek would be expected to start if resigned, it was McDonald that saw the lion’s share of usage after Davis left, leaving this a murky situation.
Another fourth-round draft pick in 2015, Blake Bell went from buried on the depth charts to a primary tight end by the end of the season. The trade of Davis and injury to Celek put him squarely behind McDonald for game action. McDonald’s dropsies and so-so athleticism opened the door for Bell to get in a significant amount of snaps down the stretch. He expectedly struggled with blocking, but did make plays that likely opened some eyes on the Niners’ coaching staff. If Celek is not re-signed this offseason, expect Bell to make a push for a starting role on an offense that is desperately in need of a tight end.
The less famous Celek was in line to replace Davis after the trade with Denver. It was McDonald, however, that won the snap count and stat line battle. A free agent heading into 2016, it remains to be seen if the 49ers keep Celek around. The more experienced tight end, Celek would surely have a role in 2016. Unfortunately, the emergence of Bell and goal line success of McDonald will keep his role and value marginal.