Most people I’ve talked to think the 49ers are going to be a complete disaster this year, but those who call themselves “faithful” employ that famous football fan moniker for a reason. Well, a couple of reasons, one of them marketing-based (thank you, Jed York). But the reason stemming from sincere belief in the colors is evident in the most common defense I’ve heard since the Offseason From Hell™:
The roster is still talented.
No one’s using the word “loaded” anymore, which is how one could describe those teams in 2011, 2012 and maybe even 2013. But those who believe my B- grade for Trent Baalke was unduly harsh think the 49ers GM is a step or two ahead of the curve. While some of us wonder how the team will bounce back after losing a good percentage of its leadership core, others remind us that talent — especially cheap talent, at least in the salary cap era — is what prevents teams from dropping off for extended periods.
There’s an inherent advantage in continuity, because it breeds predictability. Predictability from a talent standpoint is never a bad thing for coaches when everyone is predicting dominance. Predictable dominance breeds confidence and takes the guesswork out of game-planning, which allows the coaches to spend practice time working on making the team more precise. Teams with a lot of uncertainty spend too much time figuring out who’s going to play and how many snaps they’ll get.
However, the 49ers took advantage of a lack of predictability in 2011. That’s when Jim Harbaugh shocked the NFL by taking a formerly dormant roster to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship Game. Harbaugh got most (all?) of the credit, since the 49ers hadn’t won that many games or gotten as far since 1997, when Steve Mariucci was also a rookie NFL head coach coming from a Bay Area college program (Cal).
But the 2011 49ers were actually an extremely talented team in disguise, full of ascending players who were taught by Mike Singletary how to conduct themselves and work like NFL greats. Singletary also lacked managerial skills, coaching experience and offensive knowledge. Once the talent was paired with a clear vision, the team took off.
Let’s assume Jim Tomsula and his staff are more competent than Singletary and his assistants (one of which was Tomsula). Even if this is the case, the 49ers still lost A LOT of people since December. So their hopes for the upcoming season rest on young players taking some huge leaps (like NaVorro Bowman in 2011) and/or veterans raising their games from very good to elite (like Justin Smith in 2011).
As someone who liked the Harbaugh hire, but didn’t think the 49ers would come out of the lockout-shortened offseason ready to dominate, I know last place in the division isn’t a certainty. But in order for some pleasant surprises to occur in Santa Clara, most of the players who are candidates to perform much better than ever before … well, they need to do exactly that. Or, taken another way, several players better step up this season or the 49ers are toast.
Here’s the first in what’ll be a 10-part journey through the 49ers roster.
Note: Colin Kaepernick won’t be included in this pre-training camp feature because everyone knows the deal with Kap. Unless his accuracy and decision-making improve and his turnovers (15 in 2014) go down, the 49ers are going nowhere.
1. Carlos Hyde
I thought the draft pick was inspired. I was impressed at rookie minicamp. I was sold by the end of preseason. After he rushed seven times for 50 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, I thought Frank Gore’s starting job could be in jeopardy.
Then Hyde rushed 70 times for 218 yards (3.1 ypc) over his next 12 games. He performed well in Seattle (six carries, 55 yards) in Week 15, but he also suffered a season-ending ankle injury in that game.
Hyde goes into this season as the starter, but he’ll be running behind a line that could have three different starters from the year before. The 49ers might be looking forward to a RB-by-committee approach now that Gore is in Indy, but there are a few reasons why Hyde should get every opportunity to become a top-10 NFL running back.
- Reggie Bush isn’t someone the 49ers can count on to do much more than catch a few passes and return a few punts.
- Kendall Hunter is coming off two major injuries over the past three seasons.
- Mike Davis (who I also like) is a rookie fifth-rounder.
Since the 49ers have already expressed a desire to be a run-first team, it sounds like they’ll need Hyde to excel as a (the?) focal point of their offense. There are differing opinions as to whether he can handle the job, which should come as a surprise to no one.
Michael Moore (no, not THAT Michael Moore) of Pro Football Focus writes that Hyde is a player fantasy owners should SELL in dynasty/keeper leagues.
Last year in the 49ers offense, Gore racked up over 250 carries and out-carried Hyde 3:1. It would be ideal for Hyde to replicate that ratio over newly signed Reggie Bush, but that remains to be seen. For starters, there’s Bush, clearly brought in to be the third-down/passing back in an offense that might be trailing a few more games than in previous seasons. There’s also the return of a healthy Kendall Hunter, still only 26, to spell either Hyde or Bush. It may not seem like much, but consider the 49ers signed Hunter to a one-year contract extension late in 2014 while recovering from a torn ACL, and it’s obvious they want him around. Couple that with the fact that the 49ers added running back Mike Davis in the fourth round of this year’s draft, and you have the makings of a very crowded depth chart of players the 49ers obviously want to see involved.
Additionally, there’s a revamped offensive line that will attempt to replace two of the top run blockers in the game last season. Out are guard Mike Iupati (the second-best run-blocking guard according to PFF’s grading) and tackle Anthony Davis (the 13th-best run-blocking tackle according to PFF); in are a combination of veterans (Erik Pears – the 76th-best guard overall last year, according to PFF) and rookies (Brandon Thomas and Marcus Martin).
Taking all of these moves into account, it almost looks like San Francisco is going to throw everything they can at the wall and see what sticks, which should give Hyde owners an uneasy feeling.
But there are others who feel like Hyde is ready for the kind of breakout season the 49ers so desperately need, according to David Fucillo of Niners Nation:
Furthermore, as the Around The NFL article points out, if the 49ers add more stretch zone concepts, it bodes even better for Hyde. He did a lot of that kind of running in college, so getting him more in his comfort zone this year would be a big plus. He can handle power, but why completely re-invent the wheel if they don’t have to.
Around The NFL goes with a projection of 200 carries, 900 yards and nine touchdowns. If the 49ers go with a three-headed rotation, 200 carries could make some sense. Frank Gore averaged 267 carries per season in his final four years with the 49ers (played 16 games each of the four seasons). If the 49ers are committed to a committee of sorts, 200 carries makes a lot of sense for Hyde. And if he gets those numbers with 200 carries, I could definitely live with that.
That story also included a factoid from another PFF writer (and friend of the site), Jeff Deeney.
Carlos Hyde had the 7th-lowest % of runs of 2 yds or less (38.6%) despite being hit in backfield the most of any RB. https://t.co/5MGZh9jffC
— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) July 10, 2015
That’s the thing with Hyde. Sometimes he looks like a future perennial thousand-yard back, other times he looks like a guy who doesn’t get to the line of scrimmage quickly enough. Moving on from Frank Gore is going to be difficult in so many ways, and that’s just on the field. If Hyde can step in and play as well as Gore did in his final season as a Niner, they’ll take it. If he can approximate what Gore did in his prime years, the 49ers will be ecstatic and better positioned to make noise in the NFC West.
Stay tuned — I’ve got nine more players to go …