The San Francisco 49ers are coming off a disappointing 2015 season in which they finished 5-11, good for last in the NFC West. Vegas expects a similar win total again this season: Most sportsbooks are offering over/under odds at 5.5 wins, with a much stronger payout on the over. On paper, the 49ers are a really bad team. They lack talent on offense and experience on defense, and unless they can manage close games and catch some opportunistic breaks, it looks to be another very long season for the storied franchise.
The 49ers enter the 2016 season with the toughest strength of schedule in the entire league. Unfortunately, they made few moves in the offseason to improve their roster. Outside of the signing of veteran guard Zane Beadles to replace the departed Alex Boone, the most significant move they made was to fire head coach Jim Tomsula and hire former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, whose unique and controversial approach to running an NFL team, along with the recent media circus surrounding former franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick, should make for an unpredictable and entertaining start to the season.
Kelly employs a no-huddle offensive scheme predicated on pressuring the defense through pace. This style should benefit their top offensive player, Carlos Hyde, and likely no one else. Hyde is a talented running back – somewhere in the top 10-15 in the league in terms of ability – and though he will be targeted as the one offensive player on the 49ers who defenses will look to shut down, he should have a productive season based on the sheer number of touches he will get. He is also reportedly in outstanding shape, a must for any lead back in Kelly’s supercharged system. Unfortunately for Hyde, however, the 49ers return the majority of an offensive line that ranked near the bottom of the league in run blocking.
After Hyde, it gets grim fast. Newly minted starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert is a former top-ten pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 35 career starts, he has thrown for 33 touchdowns, 31 interceptions, and has lost nine fumbles. Wide receiver Torrey Smith is a serviceable number two receiver masquerading as a number one. The rest of the receiver corps is made up of no-names who would be no better than the fourth or fifth options on most other NFL teams.
On defense, there is reason for optimism. The 49ers boast three-time All-Pro linebacker Navarro Bowman, and three-time Pro-Bowl safety Antoine Bethea returns from last year’s season ending injury. First round draft pick DeForest Buckner is a defensive end with tremendous promise. The team also used three picks from last year’s draft to address holes in their secondary, which should pay dividends in the future. Though the defense has potential and could easily show improvement from a season ago, they are likely a year away from taking a significant step forward.
The 49ers are a strong bet to finish last in their division and have very little shot of making the playoffs. Though Kelly had some early NFL success when he won a division championship in his first season with the Eagles, he did so with the aid of explosive playmakers in LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. There is a growing consensus among NFL insiders that Kelly’s innovative offensive scheme and preferred style of play doesn’t work long term in the NFL, especially without the right personnel. It will be fascinating to follow that story-line to see how it plays out.
I personally would be surprised if the 49ers won more than four games, and would be shocked if they made the playoffs, but, hey, it’s the NFL, and anything can happen. That’s why we watch the games.