49ers fans are exhausted. They’re tired of Las Vegas over/unders, position group rankings, and photos of skinny Colin Kaepernick. However, other than seeing what Chip Kelly can do to make the team faster and hopefully more interesting than it was during the let’s-not-get-embarrassed-too-badly season of 2015, there isn’t much to look forward to from a player personnel perspective. On paper.
Sure, Joe Staley has been anywhere from good to excellent throughout his 49ers career, and NaVorro Bowman made enough tackles last year to be named first-team All-Pro despite not covering anybody. But what else is there?
I haven’t been known to sugarcoat when it comes to the 49ers. I ripped them from 2008-10 (on this website — I ripped them in the company of friends and family before BASG was born), wrote dozens of posts full of flowery praise from 2011-13, and after that things sort of changed. You can probably fill in the blanks. Yet, despite what has gone on (and what hasn’t) over the last couple of years, it wasn’t difficult to come up with 10 players that, good or bad, should at least be interesting in 2016.
1. Carlos Hyde
This guy is obviously on the top of any list like this. Kelly brings in a zone-blocking scheme, which from what we saw during his time at “The” Ohio State, is perfectly suited to Hyde’s strengths. Hyde is big, strong and athletic. He can break tackles as well as any back in the league. But is his foot fully healed? And if it is, will another injury occur? Anything from 200 to 1,500 yards is on the table, although the smart money is probably on something closer to 1,000 since one would think the 49ers will try to keep him from having too many games with 20+ carries.
2-3. Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner
It’s been almost a year since Armstead said he’d love to play with his former Oregon teammate, and if the 49ers are going to climb back to respectability, their last two first-rounders absolutely must play a significant role. Pro Football Focus loves Buckner, who produced much more in college than Armstead. The latter’s rawness showed during his rookie season with the 49ers, as Armstead came into camp looking pretty raw. However, by the end of the season he looked freakishly large and strong, tossing offensive linemen around semi-frequently.
It might sound crazy, but the best case scenario is for Armstead and Buckner to become the next Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. We can’t expect the second coming of Cowboy from either player, because it isn’t fair to say a guy in his early-20s needs to play like a guy who should get some Hall-of-Fame consideration. But there’s nothing wrong with hoping, and since these two young defensive linemen are enormous and Kelly is familiar with both, they’ll get every chance to learn and grow this year on what looks to be a rebuilding team.
4. Jimmie Ward
Ward was quietly really good as a nickel corner last year, so now it appears he’ll be a starter on the opposite side of the field from Tramaine Brock. He’s a former first round pick, so he’s one of those players who could quell the Trent Baalke hot seat chatter if he plays like a top-20 cornerback.
5-6. Joshua Garnett and Anthony Davis
Baalke put himself out there a bit when he traded up for a guard that none of the “experts” had in the first rounds of their mocks, but I think guards are a little underrated. The 49ers wouldn’t have been what they were from 2011-13 without Mike Iupati, who they drafted in the middle of the first round in 2010. And bad guards don’t go unnoticed when they get flagged for holding, miss blocks, and allow sacks up the gut.
Plus, there’s no 49ers fan in existence who didn’t see this Vine and start salivating.
Then there’s Davis, who most 49ers fans started despising once he “retired.” That is, until he showed up to camp in great shape this weekend. He said he was around 370 pounds in 2014 and now he’s around 330. And if he came back after all the crap he talked about the organization on Twitter, he’s probably serious about making some money, and the best way to do that is to block the way he did from 2011-13.
As Matt Barrows noted, Davis and Garnett played together on the third-team offensive line to start camp, but they could easily start beside each other in Week 1.
7. Jaquiski Tartt
If you follow the 49ers on Twitter, you know they’ve been promoting two players above the others throughout the offseason: Torrey Smith and Eric Reid. Reid is a nice player, but we’ve probably seen his ceiling. Tartt, meanwhile, is a total wild card. In his rookie season he hit some dudes hard, picked off Johnny Manziel, and threw Jay Cutler to the ground like Cutler was a lifeless toy. That was one of two sacks for Tartt (the other came in Week 1 against the Vikings), one more than Reid in his career.
With Reid and Antoine Bethea pretty well entrenched as the starting safeties, the 49ers will have to get creative for Tartt to play as many snaps as a mid-second round pick normally would in his sophomore season. (I think his future is brighter than Reid’s, personally.)
8. Tank Carradine
Aaron Lynch failed a drug test because the sample wasn’t readable (he drank too much water, which is a pretty common strategy folks have been utilizing to pass drug tests for years). Corey Lemonier isn’t good. Eli Harold gained weight during the offseason, but that doesn’t guarantee anything when the ball is snapped. Ahmad Brooks is past his prime and still isn’t in the clear for whatever occurred at Ray McDonald’s house.
Sooooo, it appears Carradine changed positions at just the right time. If he can come up with some pressures and even a few sacks in the first four games of the season (Lynch is appealing the suspension … good luck with that), his career as an outside linebacker could take off. If he has another nondescript season, he’s a second round pick who goes on the ledger as another Team-ACL failure for Baalke.
9. Blake Bell
Vance McDonald is the big dude who gets open fairly frequently, but has granite hands. Garrett Celek is the steady, prototypical tight end who would’ve dominated in the 1980s on Bill Walsh’s teams. Bruce Miller is the … well, who knows what to make of Miller, a nice “sneak attack” receiving threat who’s being forced to become a full-time tight end because Chip Kelly is one of several coaches who thinks fullbacks are unnecessary.
Bell is taller than McDonald (who’s a little faster and has longer arms), and his hands are better. The tight ends will probably get a ton of targets this season, just because the receiving corps is so underwhelming, and I have a feeling Bell might be the breakout star (relatively speaking) of the bunch. For just learning the position late in his collegiate career, he looked pretty comfortable over the last six games of his rookie season (12 catches, 169 yards).
10. Bruce Ellington
I liked this guy as a rookie, wondered aloud why they didn’t use him all that much last year, and this season might be his last chance to shake off the minor injuries and become something under Kelly. It’s not like his competition is all that stiff, either. Quinton Patton is currently the No. 2 guy, and he has committed 10 penalties in his last 20 games. That’s an amazing number for a receiver, never mind the fact that four of those were personal fouls. Aaron Burbridge was good but not exactly dynamic at Michigan State, they have a CFL guy who Kelly likes, plus a DiAndre, a DeAndre, and a DeAndrew. But Ellington, despite being a little smaller than Kelly probably would prefer, can do a lot of different things (including returning punts and kicks). If Kelly likes Ellington and gets creative with him, his career arc can change drastically this season.
You might have noticed that every single player on this list was drafted by Baalke (some will argue that Baalke didn’t have full control of the 2010 draft, which took place right after the 49ers let Scot McCloughan go, but I tend to give Baalke credit for that one since no one was above him on the personnel pecking order).
That brings me to what this season is (or should be) all about.
1. Did Baalke stock the team with young talent, or a bunch of guys who are just kind of there?
2. Is Blaine Gabbert the franchise quarterback? Can Kelly salvage Colin Kaepernick? If the answer to both of those is no, they need to turn the page immediately after the season ends. The overall mission of the 2016 campaign should be to make a long-term quarterback decision … ESPECIALLY if their younger players turn out better than expected, because they don’t want those players to waste their prime years playing with a below-average guy playing the game’s most important position.