The San Francisco 49ers are coming off their worst season in almost a decade. At 5-11, they finished at the bottom of the NFC West standings after they benched their starting quarterback, lost their starting running back to injury and fielded a defense that went from one of the league's best to the league's worst. Head coach Jim Tomsula was fired at the end of the season after just one year at the helm.
But the 49ers still have far more questions than answers going into a very important offseason for the franchise. They desperately need this offseason to go in the complete opposite direction as it did a year ago.
The ill-fated 2015 offseason started when Jim Harbaugh was fired after a contentious relationship with the 49ers front office. The search for his replacement was a farcical mess that ended with Tomsula, the defensive line coach, getting hired over the defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Adam Gase, who is now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, was also a top candidate.
The coaching staff that came together -- featuring Geep Chryst and Eric Mangini as coordinators -- was hardly confidence-inspiring.
In relatively quick succession, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis all retired. Of those, only Smith was expected to hang it up when the 2014 season came to an end. Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore were two of the big names that left in free agency while NaVorro Bowman, the best player on the roster, was coming off a gruesome knee injury. Pass rusher Aldon Smith was also arrested for the fifth time in three years and the 49ers were forced to release him.
Despite all of this, the room for optimism was such: Colin Kaepernick was growing and was expected to rebound from a down season, he had a new weapon in Torrey Smith at the receiver position, and running back Carlos Hyde looked more than ready to carry the load on offense. Couple that with a deep defensive line and a good safety pairing, and the 49ers could reasonably be expected to field a competent team in 2015, in spite of the offseason.
That did not happen. Instead, the offseason set the tone for a hapless 2015 in San Francisco.
If it weren't for bad luck ...
Kaepernick regressed to the point that he looks like a lost cause now, and backup Blaine Gabbert wasn't much better. Hyde sustained a season-ending foot injury and No. 2 running back Reggie Bush went on injured reserve with a torn MCL after he slipped on concrete against the Rams.
The offensive line was shuffled a couple different times with Jordan Devey and Erik Pears combining for the worst guard/tackle combination in the league. Safety Eric Reid took a step back and the 49ers rotated through an entire depth chart of cornerbacks to find one that would stick. Nothing about the 49ers seemed stable and Tomsula, who never looked like he planned to stay more than a single year, was fired.
The 49ers conducted a coaching search and wound up with Chip Kelly, who was fired by the Philadelphia Eagles in December. Kelly is known for having an offensive mind, but his final season with the Eagles was a failure and he still faces the tall task of getting the 49ers to mesh when they have the ball.
Kaepernick is key
The most concerning aspect of Kaepernick's decline is that it didn't start in 2015. He was not a good quarterback the previous year under Harbaugh, and that only worsened when his quarterback coach was promoted to offensive coordinator under Tomsula. Kaepernick played in nine games last season, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,615 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Unlike in the past, he never looked like he was capable of breaking out a big play.
That goes against everything we thought we knew about Kaepernick after his brief stint in the playoffs. He was part of the new breed of quarterbacks, alongside both Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. But while Wilson and Newton have taken huge leaps forward, Kaepernick committed basic mechanical mistakes in every game he played last season.
Fortunately for him, Kelly runs an offense that seems to fit Kaepernick's skill set well. Kelly isn't going to be burdened with general manager duties with San Francisco like he was in Philadelphia, and it's likely he wants to focus a large portion of his efforts on figuring out what went wrong with Kaepernick and if there is anything there to salvage. The 49ers are not going to be a successful team with Gabbert under center. That's pretty much guaranteed. But if there's any chance that they can figure out Kaepernick, then it's a chance worth taking.
No more out-of-nowhere retirements
Willis called it quits just eight years into his career. At the time of his retirement, he was one of the top linebackers in the NFL. While the 49ers had his eventual replacement on the roster, they didn't for long. Borland earned a lot of playing time in 2014 due to Bowman's injury and he kept pace with the high level of play expected of a 49ers inside linebacker. As a rookie, he led the team with 107 total tackles. Then he gave up football after just one year in the league.
The 49ers believed in Davis at right tackle to such an extent that they signed him to a deal through the 2019 season. Then he unexpectedly retired, so the 49ers were left looking for a new tackle. They settled on Pears, who was ineffective, and the offensive line play was among the worst in the league. One thing that might end up going their way is that Davis claims he will return this coming season, though the 49ers say they have received no paperwork from him yet.
The Aldon Smith and Justin Smith side of the defensive line was one of the best in the NFL, but both players were suddenly gone in an instant. The 49ers accounted for just 28 sacks all season, fourth-worst in the league.
Young playmakers could step up
The 49ers do have young, exciting talent. Hyde is just 24 years old and if he heals from his injury, the 49ers can at least expect to field a strong power running game under Kelly. At the receiver, Torrey Smith is just waiting to break out and if the 49ers can get something even remotely passable at the quarterback position, Smith really could shine. The offensive line will immediately improve if Davis returns. Even if he doesn't, Trent Brown is a giant of a man and if his talent can match his physical attributes, then he could replace Pears.
On defense, pass rusher Aaron Lynch is one of the most exciting young players in the league. He had 40 tackles and 6.5 sacks this past season, and will be counted on to be the team's top rusher next season. Arik Armstead, last year's first-round pick, will have another season under his belt and could be a playmaker as well. There are also young tight ends Rory Anderson and Blake Bell, who will likely need to step up with Vernon Davis out of the picture.
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A lot would need to go right for the 49ers to improve as a team in 2016, but the most important thing that needs to happen is simple: have a better offseason than the one before it. The good news for the 49ers is that it'd be hard to have a worse one.