The final round of the NFL West Coast Training Camp Roundtable goes to several 49ers experts from across the web. Stephanie McCarroll, Chris Wilson, Mitchell Blahut and Kevin Molina all write for different 49ers websites. Each one offers their insights on San Francisco’s weaknesses, strenths, questions and expectations via email as the team heads into training camp.
What are the 49ers’ biggest weaknesses headed into the season?
Stephanie McCarroll: …And while there is hope with the new regime, only time will tell. Since the 2013 NFCCG versus the Seattle Seahawks, which resulted in a 23-17 loss, the 49ers have struggled with the offensive line. The stability of left tackle, Joe Staley is waning due to the brunt of the last three seasons and his age is not helping. At 32, he leads the team morally but there have been no standouts along side him in the past three years.
Right tackle, Trent Brown was mediocre at best in run support. Further, OG Joshua Garnett, the 2016 1st round pick, had a disappointing rookie season. Yet, it appears there are new faces in the mix, i.e., Jeremy Zuttah, Tim Barnes, Brandon Fusco and Garry Gilliam. Even so, the OL will undoubtedly struggle learning a new blocking scheme under Shanahan.
If we judge Shanahan’s offense, a lot of calls require an outside-zone approach. It is a lot to learn, especially for a group that has had four schematic offensive changes under four coaching staffs for the fourth straight season.
Mitchell Blahut: Starting off with the obvious is the quarterback position. Not many teams are going to have a winning record with Brian Hoyer as the starter. Plus, with guys like Matt Barkley and CJ Beathard as backups, it doesn’t seem to make fans optimistic about this stuff…
Chris Wilson: The San Francisco 49ers’ biggest weakness this season was also their biggest weakness the past two seasons: their offensive line. The 49ers’ offensive line was the NFL’s worst over the past two years, per Football Outsiders, and is a major reason why the Niners won only 7 games over that timeframe. The new 49ers front office recognized this problem, and brought in a handful of players to compete for starting positions in 2017; Pro Bowl center Jeremy Zuttah was the team’s biggest offseason addition on the line, and will be an immediate starter. The 49ers also added tackle Gary Gilliam, guard Brandon Fusco and center Tim Barnes. Although all three linemen started for other teams in 2016, none are locks for starting jobs in 2017, but they should provide competition in a group that needs immediate improvement.
Kevin Molina: Defensively, their biggest weakness is one that many teams struggle with and that’s EDGE pass rushing. The current group of EDGE rushers can be disruptive from time to time, but they are either completely unproven or on the downside of their careers. In the last few years, they have made a serious investment in their interior pass rush group and that will in time show real benefits. Just ask Aaron Donald and Muhammad Wilkerson about the damage they can wreck from the interior. In 2017, the interior group of DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead (who even though has been lumped in at the LEO position will still likely be an interior pass rusher) will have to lead the way while the EDGE rush group will have to be more than the sum of their parts. The 49ers have no illusions about this position, they understand its importance and that they need to commit real resources to rectify it. In the 2018 offseason, they have an estimated $113 million in salary cap space and they will have five draft picks in the top 100 selections, so this weakness will almost assuredly be addressed.
What are the 49ers’ biggest strengths?
Stephanie McCarroll: Although the 49ers struggled on the defensive end of the ball last season, the new brass made the defensive a priority. General manager, John Lynch used his first three NFL Draft picks to address defense. He also made significant moves in free agency.
In the 49ers’ 2-14 abysmal season, there was hardly a bright spot. However, if you look at the play of DE DeForest Bucker, he certainly shined. Buckner led all interior defenders in snaps last season.
Yet, there is room for improvement, the 49ers allowed franchise highs in rushing yards (2,654) and all-purpose yards (6,502). Hence, the NFL Draft No. 3 all around pick, DE Solomon Thomas from Stanford made complete sense. Although NT Earl Mitchell was signed in free agency, there was a serious need in the trenches. Thomas reinforced the front seven and alongside Mitchell, it appears the run defense has been addressed. If Arik Armstead returns from his season ending injury, he can become another significant component to a new 4-3 defense needing strength and depth.
All-pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman and first-round rookie, LB Reuben Foster should only add fuel to the fire. Additionally, with LB Malcolm Smith and pass rusher, Elvis Dumervil in the mix, the defensive group is a definite bright spot, especially when it comes to talent and depth.
Mitchell Blahut: The young unit that is coming in from this year’s draft. The first-rounders of Thomas and Foster will be solid pieces in fixing the defense. Also, the additions of offensive guys like Joe Williams and George Kittle is also something to get excited about. Not to mention with the early cornerstones that the team added in the 2016 Draft with Buckner and Robinson.
The running game is also something to look at with the acquisition of fullback, Kyle Juszczyk and the new zone-stretch scheme that Shanahan implements.
Chris Wilson: The 49ers’ biggest strength in 2017 was one of their biggest weaknesses in 2016: their defensive front seven. Last year, injuries and scheme issues turned a young and talented front seven into a group that opposing defenses ran against at will. This offseason, the Niners added a number of veterans and two first-round draft picks to their defensive line and linebacker corp. The 49ers now have four first-round picks from the last three drafts and three previous All-Pros among their front seven defenders. Expect the 49ers’ run defense to improve dramatically in the upcoming season.
Kevin Molina: …While I am tempted to answer that the biggest strength offensively is the group of running backs that this team has assembled, the clear answer is the offensive coaching staff that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have put together. This is a group that has continuity, experience, youth and obvious talent. The two positions that Shanahan builds his offense around, the offensive line and the running back positions are being coached by the two most experienced coaches on the staff, Bobby Turner and John Benton. Two coaches that have a long history with Shanahan and/or their disciples (Benton worked in HOU with Kyle and Gary Kubiak). They know exactly how to scheme and teach what Kyle is looking for. His passing game specialist and run game specialist, Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel, are key Shanahan assistants that have followed him throughout the course of his career (LaFleur from CLE to ATL to SF, McDaniel from HOU to WAS to CLE to ATL to SF). Even the position that assumed to be the biggest weakness in terms of production in the Shanahan offense, the TE position is being coached by a former college HC who has coached Tony Gonzalez and Jordan Cameron during their respective pro bowl seasons and Cameron Brate, who last season tied for the league lead in TDs by a TE. While the talent on the field is not where the organization wants it to be and is obviously still in transition, the talent on the sidelines will help to negate some of the potential deficiencies they will have and help to put the players in the best place to succeed.
What are your biggest questions heading into the 49ers’ season?
Stephanie McCarroll: So far, so good with the new regime. It is pretty obvious John Lynch nailed the 2017 draft, but it is easy to be excited at this juncture. Everyone needs to temper their excitement with reality and at this point, some things are very much in the air.
One huge question mark is Brian Hoyer. As the key musician on offense, he is literally leading the symphony. While Hoyer has experience under center, we really do not know how well he will do or if he is merely a placeholder at this point…
What are you most excited for in the coming 49ers’ season?
Stephanie McCarroll: Improvement should be the overall goal this season. The 49ers have a lot of work ahead of them and the 2012 run should of showed fans how difficult it is to make a championship run. There are so many components and nearly every one has to go in the team’s favor.
The 49ers 2017-2018 schedule is a tough one. And, 5 of the first 8 games are on the road. But, this is the game, hard-nosed opponents. If the 49ers can compete and pull out some wins, we will see a clear direction (either way) of where this team is headed.
Mitchell Blahut: I’m excited to see what Shanahan has planned for 2017 with the wrinkles he’s put into the offense. As well as the addition of new defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, and the Seahawks-esque defensive scheme he will put in place for this young and improving defense.
Chris Wilson: I’m most excited to see how new head coach Kyle Shanahan implements his distinct style of offense in San Francisco. No one expects Shanahan — who led the best offensive in the NFL in 2016 — to immediately replicate his recent feats, but I believe progress will be made over the course of the season. I expect Shanahan to be aggressive on offense, and for the 49ers to be more competitive in 2017. The rebuild will take longer than a single season, but I’m excited to watch Shanahan and the 49ers build the foundation necessary for future success.
Kevin Molina: What I am most excited for in the 2017 season can be said for all aspects of the team and that is a return to competency. It has been a few seasons since 49ers have been able to say that the on the field product was competent. While it may be way too early to say that that’s the level of confidence that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have breathed into the organization. The way they carry themselves and the level of intelligence and self-awareness they speak with has given me the confidence to say that this franchise has returned to being a well-run operation. That has me most excited for this upcoming season. While its hard to pinpoint how many wins this team will have — although I do think there is more talent on this team than most are giving them credit for — but they will definitely be a far more competitive team than we saw in the 2016 season (excluding the games they played against the Rams). The on the field product will be better coached, better positioned and will be more aggressive. Plenty of mistakes will be made, that’s to be expected from a group that has had as much turnover as this team has endured but for as many mistakes as they will make there will be plenty of opportunities for this team to make explosive and positive plays that will show that this team is heading in the right direction.