2015 Record: 5-11
The 2015 season for the 49ers ended before it began with a rash of retirements and the departure of Jim Harbaugh. Into that breach stepped sacrificial lamb HC Jim Tomsula. A change in QB from Kaepernick to Gabbert, a 31st ranked offense and 29th ranked defense all added up to a organizational change. And that change is known as Chip Kelly.
Key Additions - G Zane Beadles
Key Losses – RB Reggie Bush, WR Anquan Boldin, G Alex Boone
2016 Draft Class – DE DeForest Buckner, G Josh Garnett, CB Will Redmond, CB Rashard Robinson, DE Ronald Blair, T John Theus
2016 Offensive Outlook:
Offensive Coordinator – Curtis Modkins
Base Offense – No Huddle 2 WR 2 TE 1 back Spread
Unlike the last time Chip Kelly rolled into an organization, the Niners refrained from spending wildly in free agency. As a result, the 49ers have the most cap space still available in the league. It seems as though this season will be a discovery process for the roster and next season will likely be the big free agency bonanza.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the addition of Chip Kelly is to find an answer at the QB spot. That answer could come in a couple of ways. First on that list is the resurrection of Colin Kaepernick. After a promising start to his career and then a big payday, Kaepernick regressed mightily over the past 2 years with off-field questions, trade rumors and a benching. However, Kaepernick should be an ideal fit in the Chip Kelly system with his athleticism and arm strength. But his career is at a crossroads that is entirely up to him. The 2nd answer to the QB question might come is the former 1st rounder Blaine Gabbert. Cast off from Jacksonville, Gabbert looked ok in his time in SF and earned the starting nod by the end of the year. Gabbert also could be a solid fit in Kelly’s scheme as he played a very similar system in college at Mizzou and will likely get the first chance to start in 2016. Young players Thad Lewis and rookie Jeff Driskel will compete for the 3rd spot and also fit the Kelly mold. No matter what the final record in 2016, if they can find a solid QB for the future the season should be deemed a success.
The run game perhaps suffered the most in 2015, dropping from 4th overall to 21st. After a fast start, Carlos Hyde went down in October with a foot injury but should be back healthy in 2016. Behind him is 2nd year RB Mike Davis and rookie Kelvin Taylor out of Florida. Given that Hyde came from that spread system in college at Ohio State, Hyde could be a quality fantasy player by putting up consistent numbers.
The skill positions are not as set or as deep as the backs. Torrey Smith is the #1 WR for SF but the other spots are an open competition. Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington will likely win the 2nd and 3rd WR spots respectively, with Ellington having a real chance to be a break out player with his speed. Also expect to see a lot of 2 TE sets in the Chip Kelly spread with Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek both getting time and maybe even former OU QB Blake Bell developing.
Up front the Niners once vaunted OL has been slowly degraded. Joe Staley still mans the LT spot and Anthony Davis, just reinstated by the league, will compete for the RT spot with underwhelming incumbent Erik Pears. Inside Alex Boone got big money to leave for Minnesota and is replaced by journeyman Zane Beadles. First round pick Josh Garnett should start at the other guard spot and Daniel Kilgore returns at C. Though not a top tier OL, it is still the best line Chip Kelly has fielded in the NFL and might do well in his run heavy system.
Overall, the offense of the 49ers should be much better in 2016 because Chip Kelly has had success on that side of the ball consistently. With mobility at QB, a bellcow back that fits the scheme, speed for days at WR and a solid OL, the Niners might be better than many expect.
2016 Defensive Outlook:
Defensive Coordinator – Jim O’Neill
Base Defense – Blitz heavy 3-4
The Niners will keep their 3-4 scheme under Chip Kelly and new HC Jim O’Neill. O’Neill is from the Rex Ryan coaching tree and brings that attacking style defense with him to the West Coast.
The Niners have spent their last 2 first round picks on the DE position in a couple of Oregon Ducks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. Unfortunately, NT Ian Williams is out for the season so the strength of the line could be tested.
Losing both captain Patrick Willis and youngster Chris Borland rally hurt in 2015 and still hurts in 2016. Navarro Bowman continues to lead this unit, though he hasn’t really been the same since his awful knee injury 2 years ago. Alongside him inside is a collection of average guys including Gerald Hodges and Shayne Skov. Outside dynamic pass rusher (and dynamic knucklehead) Aaron Lynch is suspended the first 4 games, leaving Eli Harold or maybe Tank Carradine to fill in. The other side features elder statesman Ahmad Brooks meaning the Niners are going to need to be very creative in their blitz packages to get consistent pressure on the QB.
The secondary is also pretty underwhelming. Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward start at the CB spot with Dontae Johnson or Chris Davis manning the nickel. Given the need for blitzing these corners might be hung out to dry a lot and that probably isn’t a good idea. At safety the just ok Eric Reid is flanked by veteran Antoine Bethea but both could get pushed by 2nd year Jaquiski Tartt.
Overall on defense, the Niners could really struggle. Short of Jim O’Neill pulling some schematic miracles, the 49ers defense will likely be in the bottom 3rd of the league again in 2016.
Record – 3-13 (4th in the NFC West)
It seems as though Chip Kelly is easing into his 2nd stint in the NFL rather than the mass changes he brought with him into Philly. As a result, year 1 could be a tough ride and will likely result in a top 5 pick in next year’s draft. However, the offense should be fun to watch and they will be a tough team to face most weeks.
Stud – RB Carlos Hyde, Vance McDonald
Sleeper – WR Bruce Ellington
Bust – WR Torrey Smith, Either QB