“They have a great roster. They have a Super Bowl roster … They have the guys to go do it. I think the expectation needs to be that they can go get one.” — Steve Young
This idea is almost taken as gospel by many 49ers fans. We can argue about Jim Harbaugh’s skills as a coach, or how Jim Tomsula ended up as his replacement, but the 49ers’ roster is bad-freaking-ass. They lost eight games last season because the coaches sucked and a ton of guys landed on injured reserve. This … is … UNDENIABLE.
It’s also exactly what Jed York wants us to think. And it’s not true. It’s not even close to true. If you’re a fan and you want to get your hopes up for next season while dismissing reality, go ahead and ignore this story. And feel free to rip me to shreds in the comments. I’m a “hack.” I’m a “troll.” I’m “not professional.” I’m a “sensationalist.” No one has more insults in their commenting repertoire than football fans, as we’ve learned since the 49ers started losing to teams like the Raiders.
If we can ignore emotion for a minute or five, what exactly does it take to win a Super Bowl? One of the better quarterbacks in the league certainly helps, but isn’t mandatory (ex: Dilfer, Trent). Despite Colin Kaepernick getting sacked more than three times per game and committing almost one turnover per contest (10 interceptions and five fumbles lost), it’s not a stretch to say he’s a Super Bowl caliber quarterback — we’ve seen him lead the 49ers to four playoff wins while coming pretty danged close to helping the team earn its sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl teams need balance and talent that produces mismatches throughout several position groups. Quarterback is clearly the most important position, but a team can get to the big game and win if they hold mismatches at the line of scrimmage and outside the hashes.
Kaepernick isn’t perfect, but he’s good enough — provided he has the right team around him. The 2014 49ers were not that team (not that Kap helped out his own cause most weeks). The 2015 49ers are not that team, either … unless a lot of things fall perfectly into place.
Running back: Whether or not they re-sign Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde reels off more positive carries than negative — Hyde had 32 carries of two yards or fewer in his rookie season, compared to 30 of five-plus yards.
Wide receiver: Trent Baalke finds a replacement for Michael Crabtree who can take some of the burden off Anquan Boldin (who turns 35 in October), preferably a deep threat who’s taller than 6′ 1″; Bruce Ellington becomes a dangerous slot receiver; Stevie Johnson (if he isn’t released) stays healthy.
Tight end: Harbaugh’s departure brings Vernon Davis back to life; Vance McDonald figures out a way to use stickum without getting caught.
Offensive line: Anthony Davis and Daniel Kilgore get healthy; Alex Boone plays consistently well throughout the entire year (unlike his down-and-up performance in 2014); Marcus Martin goes from worst offensive lineman on the team (according to Pro Football Focus) to solid contributor; Brandon Thomas recovers from his ACL surgery and performs well enough in his redshirt rookie year to make everyone forget about Mike Iupati; Baalke finds a swing tackle to replace Jonathan Martin.
Defensive line: Justin Smith doesn’t retire; Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine become above average starters; Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams get healthy after spending a combined 17 games on IR.
Outside linebacker: Aldon Smith gets his hands on quarterbacks more often while avoiding the long arm of the law; Aaron Lynch builds off a strong rookie campaign; Corey Lemonier recovers from an awful sophomore year.
Inside linebacker: NaVorro Bowman recovers from major knee surgery; Patrick Willis recovers from toe surgery; Chris Borland builds off his tremendous rookie season.
Cornerback: The top two guys from 2014 (Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox) are unrestricted free agents, so Baalke either re-signs the right guy or brings both back; Dontae Johnson and Jimmie Ward make huge strides; Tramaine Brock comes back healthy and plays like he did in 2013; Kenneth Acker comes in and adds depth (I liked Acker a lot during training camp, FWIW).
Safety: Antoine Bethea stays for one last season before getting released/restructured (his cap number goes from $3M in 2014, to $4.75M in 2015, to $6.25M in 2016 and $7M in 2017) … OR, they release Bethea and Ward plays much better as a safety than he did as a rookie corner; Eric Reid stops getting concussed.
Special teams: Baalke finds the team’s first legit returner since Ted Ginn left.
So, to summarize …
The 49ers NEED these players to get healthy in 2015:
- A. Davis
It would really help if these guys recovered from their injuries as well:
- V. McDonald
- V. Davis(?)
Key players who won’t be with the team next year unless something crazy happens:
- R. McDonald
- Brooks (who was terrible in 2014 after playing extremely well for several years)
Key players who might not be with the team next year:
- J. Smith
- V. Davis
- S. Johnson
- Bethea (I’m hearing whispers that he could be a cap casualty, but I don’t see it)
49ers current salary cap status: Under by $2,195,000 (per Jason Hurley of Niners Nation)
Potential Cap Casualties (also per Hurley):
Brooks: “If the 49ers chose to release or trade Brooks before June 1, they would save $1,508,750, while taking on a dead money hit worth $5,546,250 in 2015. If they choose to designate him as a June 1 release, they would see savings of $4,706,250, while having dead money hits of $2,348,750 in 2015, and $3,197,500 in 2016.“
V. Davis: “If the 49ers choose to move on from Davis, they would save $4.9 million in salary cap room. Because he has only one year left on his deal, any release would result in the 49ers taking a $2,067,920 dead money hit in 2015.”
S. Johnson: “Johnson is scheduled to have a $6.025 million salary cap number, with a $5.5 million base salary. Johnson also has a $250,000 roster bonus, and a $275,000 workout bonus in 2015. If the 49ers move on from Johnson, they would save the entire $6.025 million in salary cap room.”
Dawson: “If the 49ers release Dawson before June 1, they would save $3.134 million, with a $1 million dead money hit in 2015. If they chose to wait to designate Dawson a June 1 cut, they would still save $3.134 million, but if they waited to cut him until June 1, they would only save $2.634 million, with a $1.5 million dead money hit in 2015.”
Dahl: “If the 49ers release Dahl they would save $1.7 million in salary cap room, and because he has only one year left on his deal, any release would result in the 49ers have a dead money hit worth $233,334 in 2015.”
The 49ers aren’t going to be major players in free agency due to their cap situation (not that they’re known for bidding on the top free agents anyway). So they’ll need to find a wide receiver in the draft, along with help on the defensive line, offensive line, secondary, and tight end (if they release or trade Vernon), as well as a pass rusher, a backup quarterback (if they don’t sign one of the mediocre free agent signal callers), and a running back (if they don’t re-sign Gore). In other words, just about every position besides inside linebacker.
So here’s what the 49ers are up against …
1. Brand new coaching staff (sort of)
2. Toughest division in the NFL (the 49ers went 2-4 against NFC West teams last year)
3. Third-toughest schedule in the NFL (based on 2014 win/loss records)
4. Barely any cap space
5. Life without Justin Smith will begin soon, perhaps as early as Week 1 (which will have a huge effect on the rest of the defense)
6. Shoddy offense (No. 25 in points, No. 20 in yards) needs better blocking and quarterbacking, along with younger/faster/taller receivers
8. Hopes resting on several injured stars coming back healthy and young players getting better quickly
9. The team’s overall talent peaked in 2011-12, when they had a combined 17 Pro Bowl players and 10 First-Team All-Pros (five each season)
10. They need an amazing draft full of players who can contribute immediately (no redshirts)
“We don’t raise division championships banners. We don’t raise NFC Championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners. And whenever we don’t deliver that, I hope that you will hold me directly responsible and accountable for it.” — Jed York, Dec. 29, 2014
Since Young said he was “worried” about the team’s recent coaching changes, I have to wonder if his comments about the roster being good enough to contend for a title come from a part of him that wants to put a little added pressure on York. In other words, make him accountable.
Hey, the 49ers could see a four-win increase from last season, when the gave up 34 points more than they scored. Anything is possible in sports, life, the NFL, whatever. But to assume that the talent will match these “Super Bowl” expectations is incredibly optimistic, to the point of insanity.
Besides inside linebacker (and that’s presuming Bowman and Willis come back fully healthy), the 49ers do not have a decided advantage at any position group relative to the rest of the league. Unless modern medicine does the 49ers an inordinate number of favors and Jim Tomsula’s staff far outperforms Jim Harbaugh’s, the 49ers aren’t going to contend for another title. In fact, they’ll be lucky to finish second in their division.