The San Francisco 49ers hit rock bottom in 2016. Years of mismanagement and bungled drafts by former GM Trent Baalke led to one of the worst rosters in the NFL. They finished 2-14, a deserved record for a team that was routinely humiliated on Sundays. The result was a complete housecleaning, with both Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly getting fired in the fallout.
The 49ers are now moving forward. They hired first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan and are also taking a chance on rookie GM John Lynch. Both men are tasked with reviving a franchise that suffered a swift and embarrassing collapse since running Jim Harbaugh out of town. Remember when Colin Kaepernick led them to the Super Bowl? That was only four years ago, and it already feels like an eternity.
Shanahan and Lynch did what they could to add some talent in the offseason, but on paper, 2017 looks to be another long season for 49ers fans. This rebuild is going to take more than one year, and time will tell if the new front office is up to the challenge.
Wait, the 49ers hired the FOX Sports guy as GM?
They sure did! You can’t accuse the 49ers of not thinking outside the box, though. Since retiring as a player in 2008, Lynch joined the broadcasting booth, serving as a color commentator for FOX until scoring his new gig this year. It was a surprising move, given that Lynch had no front-office experience up until now.
The obvious comparison is John Elway, also a former player now calling the shots in Denver. The difference is that Elway actually had years of experience working in a front office, even owning an AFL team at one point. His promotion to the Broncos’ GM role felt like a natural progression. Lynch is more being thrown into the fire, though at least he’ll be working closely with Shanahan.
To his credit, Lynch had a better draft than expected. His free agent signings were kind of random — veterans like Pierre Garcon, Kyle Juszczyk, and Malcolm Smith aren’t the kind of players rebuilding teams normally shell out money for — but they were necessary upgrades to fill out a wasteland of a roster. Nevertheless, Lynch has a lot of doubters he’ll need to prove wrong.
Then there’s Shanahan. As the son of longtime coach Mike Shanahan, is this just a case of blatant NFL nepotism? Well, not quite. There’s little doubt that Kyle’s last name helped get his foot in the door, but he’s proved to be quite an adept offensive mind over the years, having successful runs as an offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans, Washington, and Atlanta Falcons.
Shanahan’s work with the Falcons was particularly impressive. With him as coordinator, Atlanta’s offense averaged 33.8 points per game, by far the best in the league, and tied with the 2000 St. Louis Rams for seventh-most all time. He got an MVP season out of Matt Ryan as the Falcons soared to the Super Bowl, only to blow a 28-3 lead. After the game, Shanahan was criticized for not running the ball in field-goal range with an eight-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Yet despite his Atlanta tenure ending on a down note, he’s earned his shot at seeing what he can do as head coach.
The barren Niners roster gets incremental upgrades
If nothing else, the offense should be better. Garcon gives the team a legitimate No. 1 receiver it didn’t have last year. A contract worth $9.75 million in guaranteed money is a lot to give a fullback, but Juszczyk is one of the best in the NFL and gives Shanahan some play-calling versatility. Fourth-round running back Joe Williams is already making waves in OTAs and could end up pushing Carlos Hyde.
Another new free agency addition is Marquise Goodwin, a wide receiver with blazing speed who is also an Olympic long jumper. Goodwin didn’t put it all together with the Buffalo Bills, but NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport recently raved about his potential with the 49ers:
He’s someone who, for whatever reason, didn’t get a great opportunity in Buffalo. He can absolutely fly. He’s starting to become a football player opposed to a fast track guy who can jump. I don’t know what he’s going to become, but if there’s anyone who can utilize speed, it’s Kyle Shanahan and what he does on offense.
The defense is also looking more promising than it did last year. Lynch pulled a fast one at the 2017 NFL draft, getting two third-rounders and one fourth-round pick from the Chicago Bears just to move down one spot from No. 2 to No. 3 overall. He even got the player he wanted all along — Solomon Thomas, who should immediately slot into a starting role on the defensive line. Lynch also traded back into the first round to get linebacker Reuben Foster, giving the defense two Week 1 starters right off the bat. Not bad at all.
So there are some positives. Lynch might know what he’s doing after all, and we know Shanahan will do what he can to maximize what talent they do have. But things won’t be pretty in the short term.
Who’s the QB? Eh, we’ll figure it out
Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are out. Taking their place are ... Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley? Uh, OK. To be fair, the 49ers were openly courting Kirk Cousins all offseason, but a trade with Washington never came close to happening. With Cousins hitting free agency next season (unless Washington somehow manages to hammer out an extension), it’s entirely possible that Shanahan is just punting the quarterback position this year and will pursue his former QB. The two worked together in 2012 and 2013 when Shanahan was Washington’s offensive coordinator.
If not, then they should at least be drafting high enough to get a potential franchise quarterback. USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen are among the top prospects in what should be a loaded QB class in 2018.
That’s not a bad plan for next season, but it sure won’t make the 2017 offense any easier to watch. Hoyer hit his ceiling years ago as a mediocre journeyman, and any promise he showed last year was wiped out by a season-ending broken arm. Barkley didn’t show much in relief of Hoyer, throwing a staggering 14 interceptions in just six starts for the Bears.
If the New York Jets have the worst QB situation in the league, then the 49ers aren’t far behind. The silver lining is that Shanahan has a good track record with quarterbacks, so fans can only hope he has a plan here.
The San Francisco defense can’t be any worse than last year
Nearly everything about San Francisco’s defense was a trash fire last season. The unit allowed a league-high 30 points per game, was dead last with 165.9 rushing yards allowed per game, and was No. 28 in defensive DVOA. All of these numbers are the worst in franchise history.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman was by far the best player on that side of the ball, and once he tore his Achilles in Week 4, the entire unit rolled over and died.
Thankfully, there are glimmers of actual talent on this defense. Thomas will be paired up with rising second-year lineman DeForest Buckner. Linebacker Malcolm Smith and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell came over in free agency, while Foster is solid insurance in case Bowman can’t come back healthy. Jimmie Ward, who got his fifth-year option picked up, will transition from cornerback to safety full time.
There are still too many holes in too many positions, but first-time defensive coordinator Robert Saleh at least has more to work with than Jim O’Neil did last season.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
The 49ers will be bad in 2017. That’s not a hot take, just the reality of the situation. Shanahan’s tenure won’t be judged off an obvious rebuilding year — wins and losses will be less important than how the team actually looks on the field.
If the 49ers are competitive every week, keeping games close, and responding to the culture Shanahan implements, then that’s an encouraging sign. It’ll give the team hope for the future as it starts building up a core of real NFL talent.
The plan isn’t to win now, it’s to win down the line. If Baalke let the house crumble away, then Shanahan and Lynch have to lay down a completely new structure. That takes time, but the early returns are promising. If Shanahan and Lynch keep up their momentum from the draft, it might not be long before the 49ers are relevant again.