It’s as if a TV show you hated, but couldn’t bring yourself to quit watching, began its latest season by systematically removing and repairing everything that drove you crazy about the show in the first place.
The annoying teenager character who did nothing but sulk and turn unnecessary storylines into wasted hours for you, the viewer? Gone. Those slow periods that made your eyelids heavy? Replaced by riveting scenes and punchy dialogue.
This never happens, because shows generally get worse with time because the creators and writers run out of ideas. Sports teams don’t have this problem, because they can clean house and bring in new front offices with new ideas, and that’s what the 49ers did after losing 25 games over the previous two seasons.
We can’t expect miracles with this group, but at least they’re making moves that seemed necessary while we watched this team fester and fail in 2015 and 2016. And it’s almost startling how much dead weight they’ve already trimmed.
The first step was removing the team’s most unlikeable protagonist in Trent Baalke, because the most frustrating thing about this team was the clear disconnect between reality and the former GM’s delusional fantasies about his personnel. The problem wasn’t that the 49ers were unlucky or inexperienced. They were just plain horrid. An embarrassing number of players who got playing time with the ’16 Niners would not have seen the field for any other team. Baalke’s players were either poor from a skills standpoint, too injury-prone (or hindered by preexisting conditions, like torn ACLs suffered in college) to be dependable, or they had a screw loose. Or, as was fairly common under Baalke, players were cursed with more than one of the attributes I just listed.
John Lynch only called one Niners game for Fox last year (a sad little Week 3 affair in Seattle), but Kyle Shanahan had to gameplan against these jokers. His offense put up 41 points and 550 yards, and Shanahan couldn’t help but cringe watching Blake Bell lead the 49ers in receiving yards (45) and Jeremy Kerley lead them in receptions (5 for 28 yards).
The 49ers have had a few non-contact practices, and we can assume everyone in the front office has watched their fair share of film, but the turnover we’ve seen — this much, this soon — indicates that Shanahan and Lynch already had several cuts in mind when they signed their respective contracts. The result? The 2017 49ers aren’t anywhere closed to a finished product, but as an offense they should be more talented in every area than they were in 2016.
Quarterback: Might as well get the most controversial position group out of the way first.
Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley will never be top flight starters, and we have no idea what to expect from C.J. Beathard, but look who they’re replacing. Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder are currently unemployed. We know why that’s the case for the latter two (abject suckitude), but anyone who claims Kaepernick is still an above average NFL quarterback, who’s being held back due to his political actions/stances alone, didn’t watch this team over the last two seasons.
Would Kaepernick get the benefit of the doubt if he stood for the anthem, ate meat and kept his hair short last year? Perhaps, but that has nothing to do with his recent contributions to the 49ers, which were hollow.
I get the arguments in favor of Kaepernick getting a job: He won playoff games four and five years ago, there aren’t many mobile quarterbacks over 6′ 2″, he had a respectable TD/INT ratio last year, and there aren’t exactly a lot of great quarterbacks in the NFL.
But it was clear to anyone who watched closely that Kaepernick learned a lesson of sorts in Week 3 of the 2015 season, when he threw four interceptions against the Cardinals including two pick-sixes. From then on he made sure to avoid making throws that could possibly result in the other team catching the ball. Only five picks over his next 16 starts was quite good … in a vacuum (or a football league where teams can get away with passing for just 20 touchdowns in an entire season). In reality, Kaepernick wasn’t even playing not to lose — he was playing to pull himself above the fray and avoid embarrassment.
In terms of depth, the 49ers’ current crop of quarterbacks is superior. Depending on what Beathard can do, this trio may even have more upside than last year’s group. That is, unless you’re one of the few still holding out hope that 29-year-old Kaepernick still has some tricks up his sleeve (if he ever gets another chance to play).
Running back: The 49ers released DuJuan Harris today. Carlos Hyde is the incumbent, but to push him they’ve added a vet, a young back who hasn’t gotten many opportunities, and a fourth-round pick (Tim Hightower, Kapri Bibbs and Joe Williams) to compete.
If Williams left his college troubles behind, look for him to start at some point this season. He’s that good. (As opposed to Mike Davis, who averaged 2.0 ypc in two seasons after Baalke took him in the fourth round. The 49ers waived Davis three days ago. I’d be pleasantly surprised for his sake if he ever gets another NFL carry.)
Fullback: Let’s see, the previous guy was released a week before the 2016 started after (allegedly) beating the crap out of an elderly man and his son in a drunken rage/stupor. Now they have Kyle Juszczyk, who Pro Football Focus graded as the best fullback in the game last season.
Wide receiver: Torrey Smith was one of the 2016 roster’s only sources of good quotes, and he definitely puts more effort into his tweets than most pro athletes, but he was a thoroughly mediocre receiver. Pierre Garcon is a tougher player with a better all-around game, and he won’t pout on the field when things don’t go his way.
I thought the 49ers might prioritize receiver more than they did in the draft (they still need a red zone threat), but Garcon, Marquise Goodson, Aldrick Robinson, Trent Taylor and Victor Bolden have to provide more than whatever they’re losing with the departures of Smith, Quinton Patton, Rod Streater, Chris Harper and DeAndre Smelter. That has more to do with how underwhelming last year’s receiving corps was than the brilliance of the new group, admittedly.
Tight end: The 49ers didn’t even try to hide their interest in trading Vance McDonald, and that gesture alone shows that the current braintrust understands the position better than Baalke ever did. Then you have Pro Football Focus naming fifth-rounder George Kittle as one of their “10 mid-round gems,” as well as undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini, who performed well at City College of San Francisco before playing two years with Louisville (668 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2016).
You might think a lot of this sounds like addition by subtraction, and you’d be right. Tight end is another group where simply getting rid of the incumbents generates optimism that wasn’t there a year ago. Don’t be surprised if McDonald is traded soon and they cut Garrett Celek and Bell before September.
Offensive line: Joe Staley will be 33 at the start of next season, and the quest to find the left tackle of the future may end up being a top priority a year from now. However, Staley still good enough to lead a position group where there will be some continuity next season. The only new guy in the starting lineup may be Jeremy Zuttah who’s probably an upgrade over Daniel Kilgore at center. No matter who starts at that position, the backup center will surely better than Marcus Martin. Martin was waived in March and claimed by the Browns a day later. Good luck with that, Cleveland.
We’ll take a similar look at the roster’s defensive alterations soon.