Friday’s NFL news dump included a four-game suspension for San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aaron Lynch. Lynch, who failed a drug test due to the presence of a substance in his sample that wasn’t performance enhancing, is kind of important to this team because he’s one of the few players who can get to the quarterback with any sort of regularity. In fact, he’s the team’s only dependable pass rusher. Period.
Ahmad Brooks? His career is in a decline and he’s still facing charges of sexual battery. Eli Harold? He needs to prove he can play after a ghost-like rookie season. Corey Lemonier? If he keeps playing the way he has over his first three seasons, his fourth will be his last. Ronald Blair? A rookie fifth-rounder probably isn’t the savior the 49ers need. However, Lynch was one of the bright spots in 2014 after getting selected in the fifth round.
Lynch, who dropped in the draft due to red flags surrounding his transfer from Notre Dame to the University of South Florida and significant weight loss in college he blamed on an Adderall prescription, was supposed to be one of the best players in the 49ers’ front seven, which was already considered below average. That’s a theme for this year’s roster, which according to the experts is one of the weakest in the NFL.
Most 49ers fans already knew this. Jim Tomsula looked the part of a buffoonish mascot last season, but he wasn’t exactly leading the 1985 Bears into battle each week. However, just to set reasonable expectations for Chip Kelly and the team at large in 2016 (which wasn’t favored to win any of their games as recently as a month ago), here’s what Pro Football Focus thought of each 49ers position group in their “Ranking all 32” series.
The 49ers will be hoping Chip Kelly can work his magic on their quarterbacks, because on paper, neither Gabbert nor Kaepernick has been able to perform well going back for several years. Kaepernick has at least had a stretch of play at this level where he looked legit, but Gabbert has never justified his first-round selection on the field. Kelly’s system was able to make Nick Foles look like a superstar and Sam Bradford have a fine year despite a faltering running game, so there is a chance that whoever earns this job has the best season they have had in some time if the same thing happens in San Francisco.
Running backs: 18th
We can assume that Carlos Hyde is healthy, but the 49ers may be wise to keep him in a platoon role. That being said, he certainly impressed in his limited time. On 198 carries over two seasons, Hyde has broken 57 tackles; that’s one of the highest rates in the NFL over that span. 69.7 percent of his yards have come after contact in his career, another superb rate. He has top-10-type talent; he simply needs to prove it over the course of a season.
Like much of the 49ers’ offensive roster, San Francisco isn’t in a great position here. Torrey Smith is the best of the bunch, and it will be interesting to see how new head coach Chip Kelly utilizes him coming off the lowest-graded season and worst receiving-yardage total of Smith’s five-year career. Dropping 16 of the past 103 catchable passes thrown his way isn’t a great sign, but his 6.8 yards after the catch average from a year ago is something that should fit in the new offense. At tight end, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek combined for 512 yards in 2015, but look for that to change if the usage of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz in Kelly’s final season in Philadelphia is anything to go by.
Offensive Line: 26th
The 49ers are mostly this high because Joe Staley remains one of the better left tackles in football. His play has declined slightly in each of the last four seasons, yet he still finished with the fifth-best overall grade among LTs last year. The rest of the San Francisco O-line is filled with rookies who haven’t yet played to their potential and cheap free agents.
Much of the 49ers’ roster struggled last year, but the secondary fared well for the most part. Recent draft picks Ward and Reid have performed above-average, even though they may have not yet shown enough to live up to their first-round status. Brock didn’t come close to his career-year of 2013, but had a solid season after missing most of the 2014 season. Having Bethea back will solidify the safety position and give Tartt more time to develop after being forced into the lineup last year.
Defensive front seven: 23rd
Led by Ian Williams, the 49ers’ base run defense is in safe hands, but they allowed nearly 2 yards per carry more in sub-packages than base, the biggest drop-off in the league last year. While the addition of Buckner to pair with former Oregon teammate Arik Armstead adds to their interior pass-rush, the 49ers’ sub-package run-D has to raise its game in 2016, Williams is the key to the 49ers’ run defense, and teams can remove him from the equation without blocking him, simply by forcing San Francisco into their nickel and dime defenses. Another year removed from a devastating knee injury, San Francisco will hope that NaVorro Bowman can be close to his old self in coverage after he allowed the most yards and broke up the fewest passes in a single season since he entered the starting lineup last year.
The most optimistic fans out there might be thinking, “Hey H8TR! Your CLICKBAIT headline says ‘least talented’ and the 49ers aren’t 32nd in any of this nerd site’s position group rankings. Don’t call yourself a faithful either, BRO. Kick rocks.”
And my retort to those faithful few out there would be … do yourself a favor and don’t buy an ESPN Insider subscription, where PFF showcased their overall roster rankings.
32. San Francisco 49ers
Top five players: OT Joe Staley, LB NaVorro Bowman, NT Ian Williams, DE Arik Armstead, LB Aaron Lynch
Starters who should be upgraded: LB Ahmad Brooks, OT Erik Pears, OC Daniel Kilgore, QB Blaine Gabbert, LB Michael Wilhoite, WR Quinton Patton
The 49ers aren’t far removed from having one of the league’s best rosters. They were once being complimented for being so loaded that they could essentially draft “redshirt” prospects like running back Marcus Lattimore. That depth — and talent — unraveled in a hurry and has not been helped by a series of retirements by some of their best players. DeForest Buckner has the potential to make an immediate impact and turn around the defensive front, but he’s only a rookie. The rest of the defense is in turmoil, too, with Bowman the only tried and tested performer. He was far from good a year ago despite racking up tackle numbers.
The offensive line, once the bedrock of the offense, is now really just Staley and a collection of below-average starters. Rookie Josh Garnett could add some quality eventually. At quarterback, Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick will battle, which speaks for itself as to how far the 49ers have fallen.
Yes, the roster would look slightly better if Anthony Davis and Chris Borland stayed with the team and Aldon Smith didn’t get into legal trouble once every nine months. But Justin Smith retired at the right time and Patrick Willis probably only had another good year left at the most (he was declining pretty quickly as his feet started to fail him). Most of all, the NFL is a dangerous, unpredictable workplace where the entire roster cannot turn into absolute crap just because three good young players go missing.
The bright side for Trent Baalke, who amassed this sorry group? PFF gave his 2016 draft a B+, as they love DeForest Buckner and had nice things to say about Blair, Jeff Driskel and Kelvin Taylor. The 49ers are in rebuilding mode, similar to the 2005-10 stretch after they replaced Steve Mariucci with Dennis Erickson and quickly fell to the bottom of the league standings. In other words, the best we can probably expect from Kelly, even if he pushes all of the right buttons, is a 7-9 season. With a difficult schedule and so little talent (it’s not a good sign that a 32-year-old left tackle and a middle linebacker who can’t cover anymore are the team’s two best players), that might be too much to ask.