by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
San Francisco 49ers
2016 (2-14)…Finished in last-place for the second consecutive season.
Owner Denise DeBartolo York…Daughter of Edward DeBartolo Sr., who purchased the franchise in 1977 and sister to Edward DeBartolo Jr. who ran the team for the family and became enshrined into the NFL Hall of Fame; took over the team from her brother in 2000; also once owned and ran the Pittsburgh Penguins organization of the NHL after her father purchased the team in 1978.
CEO Jed York…Son to Denise DeBartolo York; became team president in 2008 and is the main day-to-day final decision maker for the franchise.
GM John Lynch…1st-year as GM after spending previous nine as a broadcaster since his retirement in 2008; former All-Pro safety and nine-time Pro Bowler who won a SB with Tampa Bay in 2003; Lynch played his college football locally at Stanford.
HC Kyle Shanahan…1st-year; first-time HC; son of two-time SB winning HC Mike Shanahan; previously OC for four teams including last season’s SB runner-up Atlanta, where he was named AP Assistant Coach of the Year; Texas Grad.
DC Robert Saleh…1st-year; previous LB coach with Jacksonville; coached with Shanahan as an assistant in Houston; won SB with Seattle as a defensive assistant under Pete Carroll; will switch the defense to a 4-3 front; Northern Michigan grad.
DQC DeMeco Ryans…1st-year; first job coaching on any level after leaving football following the 2015 season; played linebacker at Alabama and named SEC Defensive Player of the Year; former All-Pro who played 10 seasons in the NFL and named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for Houston.
QB CJ Beathard
QB Matt Barkley
QB Brian Hoyer
RB Tim Hightower
RB Joe Williams
FB Kyle Juszczyk
TE George Kittle
WR Pierre Garcon
WR Marquise Goodwin
WR Trent Taylor
DE Elvis Dumervil
DL Solomon Thomas
DT Earl Mitchell
LB Reuben Foster
LB Malcolm Smith
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
PK Robbie Gould
QB Colin Kaepernick
WR Quinton Patton
WR Torrey Smith
DL Glenn Dorsey
LB Nick Bellore
LB Gerald Hodges
LB Michael Wilhoite
CB Tramaine Brock
S Antoine Beathea
PK Phil Dawson
QB…Even though Brian Hoyer started five games for Chicago last season, the lingering memory most of us still have of the 8-year vet is when he threw four interceptions in the 2015 Wild-Card Playoff loss against Kansas City. Even though Hoyer might get a bad rap for that performance, he does own a decent career starting record (16-15) that includes a 10-6 mark over his two seasons in of all places, Cleveland. Make no mistake though, he’s not here to be the franchise savior. Instead look for him to bring stability, leadership and professionalism to a franchise looking for a major culture change. Back-up Matt Barkley followed Hoyer from Chicago where he started the first six games of his career there last season with sour results (1-5). Lynch and Shanahan also traded up in the third-round to acquire CJ Beathard from Iowa. Expect them to evaluate Beathard during practice this season to determine if he deserves to get an opportunity at the future top-job here before they decide what to do in the 2018 draft.
RB…If he could ever stay healthy for a complete season, Carlos Hyde has the talent to become a huge difference-maker for the 49ers. But every year Hyde gets nicked-up by every body part you can possibly imagine. Enter free-agent insurance policy Tim Hightower, who had an under-the-radar comeback season for New Orleans last season in which he totaled 748 yards with five scores. The real excitement though comes from a pair of rookies in fourth-round pick Joe Williams and free-agent Matt Breida. Williams and Hightower share something in common since Williams also left the game for a while and made a successful return. Though Williams only missed a month last season compared to several years for Hightower, it was still an impressive feat for the former Utah star who appeared fresh and rejuvenated after returning to the Utes with some big performances including a 332-yard effort against UCLA. Breida is a true underdog camp story to keep an eye as he makes a serious case for major playing time as early as this season. Primarily due to former Head Coach Willie Fritz departing before his senior season, Breida experienced a huge letdown after looking like a potential impact draft player during his previous two seasons. From his sophomore to junior seasons at Georgia Southern, Breida totaled over 3,000-yards and 34 TDs combined while leading the nation in yards-per-carry. New fullback Kyle Juszczyk was a great signing by Lynch. Juszczyk is the complete package which includes elite pass blocking and top receiving skills for the position.
TE…Vance McDonald has yet to live-up to expectations after being taken in the second-round in 2013. Now the word is that he’s on the block as the new regime tries to either get his attention or recoup some assets if they don’t see improvement. McDonald did attain career-highs in yards (391) and TDs (4) receiving last season, which isn’t really saying much about his career so far. Meanwhile, even though Garrett Celek’s career-highs last season in receptions (29) and yards (350) is also uninspiring, Celek did go undrafted in 2012, so he’s not under the same pressure as McDonald to perform. It also helps that Celek is a better blocker. The player to watch here is fifth-round pick George Kittle, who experienced the same type of down senior season as Breida did, yet offers the all-around game that Shanahan is looking for at this position. It won’t hurt Kittle either if his former quarterback at Iowa (Beathard) winds up getting the gig here.
WR…Pierre Garcon is coming off the second 1,000-yard season of his career as he reunites with Shanahan, who was his coordinator in 2013 when Garcon went nuts with career-highs in receptions (113) and yards (1,346). Marquise Goodwin has dealt with injuries over his career in Buffalo, though he’s coming off career highs in receptions (29) and yards (431) and adds quality track speed to the unit. Jeremy Kerley was one of the few bright spots for the 49ers last season after reviving his career following a dismal final season with the Jets. Rookie fifth-round pick Trent Taylor is making a nice impression so far in camp. Taylor was ultra-productive for the high-octane Louisiana Tech offense last season that included 1,803 yards on 136 receptions and 12 TDs. Taylor is a very similar player (small, not exceedingly fast, but productive) to fellow rookie Ryan Switzer in Dallas. Recent draft picks, Aaron Burbridge and DeAndre Smelter as well as free agent Aldrick Robinson, will all compete for the final roster spots.
OL…The outside positions are set with star left tackle Joe Staley entering his 11th-season in San Francisco along with the ascending third-year right tackle, Trent Brown. The center spot is also in good hands with Daniel Kilgore. Now if only if Kilgore can stay healthy after missing 23 games the past three seasons. That’s why the Niners signed former Rams center Tim Barnes in May. Barnes has started 32 games over the past two seasons with the LA franchise. The real concern with this group is at guard where the Niners thought they were getting a good one when they selected Josh Garnett in the first-round of last year’s draft. The local product from Stanford was an Outland Trophy Award winner who looked the part. He was probably taken a bit higher than he should have though and ended up struggling like most of the team did last season. Garnett was poised to start once again this season until a camp knee injury knocked him off the field. Even though he’s scheduled to return by early September, the missed practice time will hurt. That opens the door for veteran Zane Beadles to reclaim his starting job after a poor first-season with the club. Free-agent pick-up Brandon Fusco has plenty of starting experience too after coming over from Minnesota in the off-season. The most experienced backup is former Seahawks tackle Garry Gilliam, who has 29 starts over his last two seasons in Seattle.
DL…With the switch to a four-man front the 49ers added first-round pick Solomon Thomas and free agent’s Elvis Dumervil and Earl Mitchell to the unit. Thomas has big-time ability and can play anywhere along the front while Dumervil is a former All-Pro defensive end who’s registered 99-career sacks and will help to mentor the other young lineman on the team. The Niners are loaded with young defenders in this grouping including former first-round talents DeForest Buckner (2016) and Arik Armstead (2015) as well as two potential sleepers to keep an eye on, Roland Blair and rookie sixth-round pick, DJ Jones. Armstead dropped nearly 20-pounds in the off-season to prepare for the switch from a 3-4 end to a 4-3 end and maybe this is exactly what he needs to jump-start his career. Armstead is also returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the season in early November. His former Oregon teammate is already thriving in the league after Buckner put together an excellent rookie season. Unlike his predecessor, new coordinator Robert Saleh wants to keep his linemen fresh, so expect additional holdovers like Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Chris Jones and Aaron Lynch along with newly acquired Leger Douzable to all do battle for those additional reps.
LB…This is a position in transition with a high-paid player coming off an Achilles tear and learning a new position for the first time in his career (NaVorro Bowman), a key free agent pick-up player with an early camp injury that’s forced to miss the season (Malcolm Smith) and a rookie former Butkus Award winning player who fell in the first-round due to potential attitude issues and a shoulder injury that still happens to be bothering him in camp (Reuben Foster), all making things uneasy here. Also look for Eli Harold to compete with 33-year-old Ahmad Brooks for playing time at the new SAM role at linebacker.
DB…Injury-prone defensive back Jimmy Ward is making a switch of his own this season as he moves over from cornerback to play free safety. Another former first-round pick and injury-prone player will line up alongside Ward at strong safety in Eric Reid. Reid is coming off a torn biceps injury that forced him to miss the last six games of the season. It’s time for both Ward and Reid to fulfill their promises or they might be looking for work elsewhere next season. 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tarrt has received 14 starts due to injuries in the backfield the past two seasons, so he should be ready to make a jump real soon if he’s forced back into the starting lineup. With cornerback Tramaine Brock released over a domestic violence charge in April, Lynch spent two draft picks here on players including third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon from Colorado. Witherspoon was a huge part of the Buffaloes return to prominence last season as he led the nation with 23 passes defensed. Witherspoon could end up receiving major playing time by mid-season. That’s because starting corners, Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinson have a lot of work to improve upon before either can stake a claim at both corner spots. Keith Reaser should also continue to get reps here. So when it’s all said and done, this is the weakest position group on the team. Is there talent? Yes. Can they all stay healthy and grow with the new coaching staff? We’ll see.
Robbie Gould replaces Phil Dawson as the place-kicker. Gould went 10 for 10 with the Giants in 10 games of action last season. Gould also made 7 of 9 from 50+ in Chicago during his final season with the Bears in 2015.
The 49ers are in full blown rebuild mode following the moves to hire a first-time general manager (John Lynch) and a first-time head coach (Kyle Shanahan). Both Lynch and Shanahan do have nice resumes, so there is something to work with here.
The first draft for Lynch also appeared to go well by adding some intriguing talents like Thomas, Foster and Witherspoon as well as fleecing the Bears for those extra picks. Lynch also added some solid vets via free agency. Players like Hoyer, Garcon and Dumervil are the type of players you can trust to help with the fresh young faces here.
It’s anybody’s guess how things will eventually work out. But on the surface and considering how stale things had become here, this is not a bad gamble by York and the organization to go with a new approach and see where it takes them.