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2016 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Blaine Gabbert
Backup(s): Colin Kaepernick

Starting QB: It's hard to imagine mega-bust Gabbert captaining a team again (by choice), but here we are. And it's not a bad call: Colin Kaepernick has simply been among the league's worst passers since his 2012 starting debut, while Gabbert may have the skillset to surprise in Chip Kelly's system. He's among the league's most athletic quarterbacks; his 2011 combine numbers were eerily similar to Kaepernick's, and according to Pro Football Focus, Gabbert was the superior scrambler of the two last year. That's a prized asset in a Kelly offense that once forced lumber-footed Nick Foles to notch 4.4 rushes per game in 2013. It's fair to point out that Gabbert hasn't been much of a passer himself. As a Jaguar from 2011-2013, he wasn't a demonstrably better thrower than the likes of Tim Tebow or Christian Ponder. But he actually turned in an acceptable 2015 through the air; it wasn't fantasy-worthy, but it was fairly efficient, and that kind of performance could swell into QB2 territory in Kelly's high-volume offense. Gabbert will never sniff an All-Pro team and isn't even a guarantee to be on roster in 2017, but his fantasy upside as Kelly's starter is significantly higher than his ADP suggests.

Backup QB: It's been a tremendous fall for Kaepernick, who in 2013 looked like a prototypical dual-threat QB en route to two NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. His sack rate has soared, while his touchdown and yardage efficiencies have dropped every year since his 2012 debut. The main culprit has been Kaepernick's lack of development as a passer: the team has had to drastically handcuff its passing game to hide his inability to strike accurately down the field. As a result, he's averaged just 199.5 yards and 1.12 touchdowns over his last 40 full starts. And his rushing production has dwindled to the point that it can't drag him to fantasy utility. Kaepernick rarely runs the ball in the red zone, resulting just two ground TDs over his last 24 games. While there looks to be tempting upside in Kelly's system, which is high-volume and appreciative of athletic quarterbacks, there's not much to see in Kaepernick. He can't be trusted to manage a productive passing game, and his running prowess hasn't blown anyone away of late. Should he step in at some point for Gabbert due to injury or ineffectiveness, he'll certainly be worth a waiver claim. But chasing him with a draft pick looks like a desperation play.

Running Backs

Starter: Carlos Hyde
Backup(s): Shaun Draughn, Mike Davis
Fullback(s): Bruce Miller

Starting RB: There are plenty of reasons to fade Hyde going forward: he's yet to truly impress through two injury-shortened seasons, he doesn't provide much passing game value, and his offense is in transition at best. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for 2016. Assuming he's healthy, Hyde profiles as a true workhorse back - he absolutely dominated 49ers touches in 2015, and this year's depth chart is even less talented. And while it's true he's yet to catch passes at a useful clip, we can at least take comfort in the fact he'll remain on the field in passing situations, as the team failed to add any intriguing talent to the position in the offseason. Most importantly, Hyde is now a Chip Kelly bell cow, which involves an even further boost to his volume outlook. Kelly offenses run as many offensive snaps as anyone, providing an extra 4-6 plays per game over the average. That allows us to comfortably project a feature back like Hyde to an additional 20-30 touches over a full season. Even a marginal RB can spin that kind of volume into major fantasy usefulness, so it appears the only factor blocking Hyde from an easy RB2 season is Hyde. The good news is that he's dropped weight this offseason and appears fully recovered from late-season foot surgery. It's fair to question his upside, but an unquestioned Kelly lead back always carries a strong floor.

Backup RBs: A career special-teamer, Draughn was surprisingly useful as an injury spot-starter in 2015. He wasn't a successful runner (3.5 yards per rush and a single TD across 76 carries), but he fit well with the team's hurry-up offense, catching 25 passes in his six starts. The 49ers brought him back on a one-year deal, likely to serve as Hyde's caddy and leader of a committee in case of injury. Draughn is a talent-starved 28-year-old reserve talent on his sixth team in six years, so while he's appealing for his cheapness and volume potential, he's just as likely to tumble down the depth chart by midseason. Davis was an intriguing rookie, boasting SEC workhorse numbers and solid receiving production. But he showed so little on the NFL field that he's already fighting for air in a wide-open backfield. He quickly stepped in for Reggie Bush as Hyde's primary backup, but lost half the season to a broken hand and wheezed as a ballcarrier. In his four games of solid snap counts, Davis managed just 18, 11, 18, and 49 total yards, averaging an anemic 1.7 yards per rush in the process and providing no help in the passing game. He'll open 2016 looking up at Draughn on the depth chart.

Fullback: Miller simply isn't an offensive weapon, and his usage outlook is even worse going forward. He's carried some utility to the 49ers as a dump-off option, recording 43 catches from 2013-14. But that came in the watered-down, underneath-only offense required for Colin Kaepernick. Kelly's scheme doesn't seem to have a place for that - the more dynamic James Casey caught just three balls for Kelly's Eagles in 2014. Consider also his September assault arrest, and Miller isn't worth the slightest hint of fantasy consideration.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton
Backups: Jeremy Kerley, Rod Streater, Aaron Burbridge [R]

Starting WRs: Smith was a clear free agent flop on paper, signing for five years and $40 million but providing just 33 catches over a full season. It's hard to get excited for 2016 based on that raw production, but the peripherals are strong for Smith. He was actually quite efficient last year, finishing second in the NFL among qualifiers with a dazzling 10.7 yards per target. He was utilized all over the field, shedding his one-trick pony tag and proving a suitable fit for short-arming QBs Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. Most importantly, he's set to inherit a massive influx of targets as the clear No. 1 wideout in a fast-paced Chip Kelly offense. There's very little talent on the depth chart to compete with, and Kelly offenses always run near the league-high in snaps. It looks like 100-110 targets are a fair baseline for Smith, who could easily return to his Ravens level of production, assuming Gabbert is at least moderately effective as a passer. Luckily for us, his ADP has never been lower, making him one of the elite WR3 targets to be found remarkably late in most drafts. Some 49er will take a ton of snaps on the other side, but it's hard to project much dynamism for anyone; this offense is in transition and unlikely to be WR-friendly beyond Smith. Patton is the most likely candidate to start on the other side, but through three years he's yet to show he belongs in the league. In 2015, his first full season and real opportunity, Patton managed a ho-hum 30 catches for 394 yards across 424 snaps. A very average athlete, he still boasts just one touchdown through 26 NFL games. The team would love to upgrade with one of their deeper options.

Backup WRs: Kerley and Streater will fight for slot snaps, but neither is intriguing. Kerley "boasts" a pitiful 5.6 pards per target from the last two years as a Jet, while Streater fell out of favor in Oakland and has played in just four games over the same span. Neither is a special fantasy target, even if one nails down the job. Aaron Burbridge, 2015's Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year, survived final cuts as well. He's a subpar athlete, and he doesn't bring special size (6'0", 206 pounds) to the table; think of him as a poor man's Rashad Greene.

Tight Ends

Starters: Vance McDonald
Backups: Garrett Celek, Blake Bell

McDonald has certainly failed to live up to his 2013 draft stock (55th overall), but his arrow is at least pointing up. With Vernon Davis out of town and no real team capital invested in replacing him, McDonald should lead TEs in receiving opportunity in 2016. He certainly has his warts, particularly hands of stone (a stunning 22% career drop rate), but there are positives as well. He's a fine run blocker, which keeps him on the field through the drops, and he was a real red zone asset down the 2015 stretch. In eight games with Blaine Gabbert, McDonald turned six red zone targets into three TDs, notching three games of 61+ yards along the way. McDonald is anything but a safe bet in this wide-open crew, but there's real TE2 potential and he comes nearly free. Celek is much more blocker than receiver, but he's the team's steadiest option and by far the best candidate for heavy playing time. The team gave him a four-year, $14 million deal (with $5 million guaranteed) this offseason, so he'll likely lead the unit in snaps. That said, Celek is a thoroughly average player, a 27-year-old with 27 catches across 39 career games. Chip Kelly is known to utilize his TEs (including Garrett's brother in Philadelphia), but he has more dynamic options down the depth chart. Celek isn't likely to top 25-30 catches, and he's no guarantee to hold off Bell, a moderately athletic ex-quarterback who surprisingly saw 351 snaps and 25 targets as a 2015 rookie. Bell made a few impressive plays down the stretch, with three of his 12 catches from Gabbert covering 20 yards or more. He's old for a prospect, but with this competition so wide open, he can't be counted out for a notable role.

Place Kicker

Phil Dawson, John Lunsford [R]: Dawson was 24-for-27 in field goal attempts and only missed one extra point, but the barren 49ers offense made him the lowest scoring kicker that played in all 16 games. There's no reason to expect much change this year. UDFA John Lunsford has massive leg strength but has to tighten up his accuracy before he will have a chance to unseat Dawson or any other starting kicker.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Bruce Ellington, DeAndrew White, DuJuan Harris

After handling the bulk of the returns in 2015, receiver Bruce Ellington returns likely to reprise his role. Behind him, the 49ers like DeAndrew White and DuJuan Harris.

Punt Returners: Bruce Ellington, DeAndrew White, Bryce Treggs

2015 punt returner Bruce Ellington returns to the 49ers in 2016. Not returning is his top competition, former running back Jarryd Hayne. In fact, the only other 49er with even a single punt return attempt last year is receiver DeAndrew White.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Josh Garnett [R], C Daniel Kilgore, RG Brandon Thomas, RT Erik Pears
Key Backups: Zane Beadles, Trent Brown, Andrew Tiller, Marcus Martin, John Theus [R]

The 49ers' line has seen some turnover this offseason, with the drafting of Josh Garnett, a first round guard from Stanford. The Outland Trophy winner, Garnett was picked up to help ease the departure of guard Alex Boone, and he should win the starting job early in his career. If Garnett isn't ready for whatever reason, steady veteran Zane Beadles will step in at left guard. Left tackle Joe Staley continues to perform at an elite level and is clearly the unit's best player. The rest of the line is less than stellar however. Center Daniel Kilgore is a steady but unspectacular veteran and could face a challenge from Marcus Martin. Right guard Brandon Thomas is considered the lead for the job, however that could just be wishful thinking on the part of the front office. Thomas will face competition in Ian Silberman, Andrew Tiller and draft pick John Theus. Right tackle Erik Pears is replaceable and Trent Brown could swoop in to steal that job before the season begins. Overall the 49ers' offensive line is a mixed bag. There is an elite talent at left tackle, some young potential at left guard, but also some uncertainty at the center, right guard and right tackle positions. Tier Ranking: Mid Tier.

Team Defense

The Eagles defense and special teams became more resourceful under Chip Kelly and scored enough to put them among D/ST1 ranks the last two years... and that's about the best thing you can say about the 49ers defense. NaVorro Bowman hasn't looked like his old self in years, and the cornerback position is unsettled, so it's hard to find something to hang your hat on here, but streaming them against rookie #1 overall pick Jared Goff at home in the season opener isn't the craziest thing we've heard of working in the world of streaming defenses.

Defensive Line

Starters: Arik Armstead DE, DeForest Buckner DE [R], Mike Purcell NT
Backups: Glenn Dorsey, Quinton Dial DE, Ronald Blair DE [R]

Starting DL: Armstead was the #17 pick in the 2015 draft and turns 23 in 2016. He will be reunited with former Oregon HC Chip Kelly. Armstead didn't start a game as a rookie but by some metrics was extremely productive in limited action, credited with a pressure nearly every five times a QB dropped back to pass (making him one of the league's most productive 3-4 DEs in that statistical category). At 6'7", 300 lbs., his combination of length, size, agility and overall athleticsm make comparisons with Calais Campbell of the Cardinals inevitable. Buckner is Armstead's bookend, a fellow 6'7", 300 lb. Campbell clone, former Oregon teammate and Kelly charge. The highly coveted rookie was selected 10 picks higher at #7 overall and turns 22 in 2016. A productive pass rusher as well as active and instinctive run defender, since 2014 he had 81 solo tackles, 83 assists, 30 TFL and 14.5 sacks. Buckner was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and First-team All-American in his senior campaign. The 49ers front office, coaching staff and scouting department are clearly trying to rebuild from the inside out by fortifying and strengthening the trenches. Purcell could be thrust into a starting role after expected starter Ian Williams was unable to shake lingering injuries.

Backup DL: Dorsey is currently rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in late Novemember and if routine without complications could avoid the PUP list to start the season. The former 2008 #5 overall pick of the Chiefs was never able to produce at a level that matched his blue chip pedigree, similar to 2001 #4 overall pick Justin Smith with the Bengals. Unlike Smith, Dorsey has been unable to parlay the change of scenery by the Golden Gate Bridge into serial All-Pro status, though the 30 year old ex-LSU star can provide solid rotational depth. Dial is a former JUCO product and eventual two time National Champion at Alabama. The 2013 fifth rounder recently signed a three year, $12 million extension ($5 million guaranteed). As noted above, he could be the starting NT if the ankle of Williams is slow to heal. Blair is another fifth rounder and alumni of Appalachian State (with independent scout Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network). At 6'4", 270 lbs. he represents a different size profile than hulking, gargantuan bookend DE starters Armstead and Buckner.

Linebackers

Starters: Ahmad Brooks OLB, Aaron Lynch OLB, Navorro Bowman ILB, Michael Wilhoite ILB
Backups: Eli Harold OLB, Corey Lemonier OLB, Tank Carradine OLB, Gerald Hodges ILB, Ray Ray Armstrong ILB, Shayne Skov ILB

Starting LBs: Brooks was a two way star RB/LB and USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year like ex-Denver LB D.J. Williams, and paralleling former Chicago 8 X Pro Bowl LB, Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year Brian Urlacher, enough of a freakish physical specimen and rare athletic prodigy in college to be used on returns at 6'4", 250+ lbs. He had succeeded at every level (ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year, First-team All-American as a Virginia sophomore) and the trajectory of his career was pointed straight up until multiple team violations led to Brooks being booted from the team by HC Al Groh. More challenges folllowed, washing out in Cincinnati just two seasons after being drafted in the third round of the 2006 supplemental draft. Since those low points in his collegiate and NFL career, Brook's CV resumed the dominant and ascendant arc that held so much earlier promise. Now 32 and in the twilight of his career, he is a 2 X Second-team All-Pro in the fifth season of a 2012 six year extension worth $44.5 million ($17.5 million guranteed). Lynch is 23 and a 2014 fifth rounder out of South Florida. He set personal bests in 2015 with 13 starts, 30 solo tackles and 6.5 sacks. Lynch has an outstanding first step, initial quickness, short area burst and acceleration and could have upside as a pass rusher (the 49ers 28 sacks in 2015 were bottom five in the NFL). Bowman and Patrick Willis in his prime were arguably one of the greatest ILB duos in league history. The former has extended the legacy of brilliant LB play beyond the retirement of the latter. Despite missing the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, Bowman didn't skip a beat, and had one of his best seasons statistically, becoming a 4 X First-team All-Pro. While lacking elite timed speed (4.77 40 time), his instincts are off the charts, like Brooks a former star prep RB - he is just 28, and in season three of a five year extension worth $45 million ($25 million guaranteed). Wilhoite is a 2011 UFA from football powerhouse Washburn who turns 30 in 2016.

Backup LBs: Harold was a 2015 third rounder who some scouts saw as a potential first rounder, but he failed to make much of an impact with no sacks in one start during a largely uneventful and forgettable rookie campaign. On the advice of the coaching staff, he has added about 20 lbs. between seasons and is now between 265-270 lbs. to better deal with the rigors of playing 3-4 OLB. Lemonier is another third rounder (2013), a fourth year player with the first two starts of his career last season in 42 career games. His first and only sack came in his rookie season. Carradine was a second rounder (also from the class of '13), and might have gone higher with 10+ sacks for Florida State during the 2012 season before a torn ACL. He is repurposing his body in a different direction than Harold, trying to slim down from a one time 300 lb. DE after failing to distinguish himself at that position to a 265-275 lb. OLB. Hodges is an ex-Minnesota 2013 fourth rounder that will compete with incumbent Michale Wilhoite to be Bowman's sidekick. Otherwise he will provide depth on the inside along with ex-Ram Armstrong and Stanford local product Skov.

Defensive Backs

Starters: Tramaine Brock CB, Jimmie Ward CB/FS, Antoine Bethea SS, Eric Reid FS
Backups: Dontae Johnson CB, Kenneth Acker CB, Will Redmond CB [R], Rashard Robinson CB [R], Prince Charles Iworah CB [R], Jaquiski Tartt SS

Starting DBs: Brock is a late bloomer and former 2010 UFA from obscure Belhaven University. It wasn't until his fourth season that he was promoted to nickel CB, at which point he signed a four year extension worth $16 million ($7 million guaranteed). While not the biggest CB at a listed 5'10", 197 lbs., Brock is a playmaker, with a combined 8 pass thefts in his last two full seasons of 2013 and 2015 (2014 campaign reduced to just three games due to a toe injury). Ward was a 2014 first round pick and one of the consensus top safeties in the class, but with the athletic versatility and positional flexibility to play CB. He also got off to a slow start in his career with San Francisco due to a lingering foot injury, but came on strong in the final month of his second season. By some metrics, Ward was one of the most effective CBs in the league in that span, beginning to fulfill his formidable potential and flash the form that led to the 49ers drafting him so highly. Bethea is the grizzled vet of the stop unit at 32 (with OLB Brooks), but the 3 X Pro Bowler continues to play at a high level. The overachieving former 2006 sixth round pick from Howard by the Colts is not just a secondary and overall defensive leader but was voted Team MVP in 2014, his first after signing a four year contract in free agency worth $21 million ($9 million guaranteed). Bethea lacks prototypical SS size (similar to starting CBs Brock and Ward at 5'11", 196 lbs.) but is a tough, physical, hard-nosed tackler in run support. He also compensates with exemplary instincts that allow him to generally be around the ball and in the right place at the right time. The defense noticeably missed Bethea and deteriorated after a torn pectoral muscle prematurely shelved him midway through the 2015 season. Reid has even better pedigree than Ward as a 2013 #18 overall pick. He was a consensus All-American at LSU and explosive athlete (40.5" vertical and 11'2" broad jumps are extremely rare for a 6'1", 215 lb. safety). Reid is looking for a return to his 2013 Pro Bowl form, leading the 49ers to pick up his fifth year contract option. Once known as a blow up hitter, he at times seems contact shy, potentially linked to his troubling multiple concussion history (especially given the NFL's better informed and more transparent with greater accountability contemporary approach towards neuro-trauma).

Backup DBs: Johnson has three starts in each of his first two seasons. The 2014 fourth rounder out of North Carolina State is an efficient tackler, with an even 50 solo tackles combined in his brief San Francisco tenure. Johnson also offers outstanding length and size for his position (6'2", 200 lbs.). Acker is a 2014 sixth rounder from SMU. His rookie season was scuttled by a pre-season stress fracture in his foot, but he rebounded with a strong sophomore campaign, starting 13 games with 53 solo tackles and a team lead-tying 3 INTs. The 49ers personnel brain trust seemed keen on developing additional CB talent, youth and depth on the roster, drafting no less than three from the positional class of '16 (in rounds three, four and seven). Tartt hails from football juggernaut Samford. At a nearly WLB-sized 6'1", 220 lbs., he is a massive hitter and seemingly destined to play a big nickel, SS/LB hybrid role which has become all the rage recently in the copycat NFL (including vets Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron of ARI and LA, as well as rookies Keanu Neal and Su'a Cravens of ATL and WAS, respectively - all first or second rounders, like Tartt). He made an impact in Bethea's absence during the second half of an impressive rookie campaign (in what may have been an extended heir apparent audition), filling up the box score with 51 solo tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT and 1 FF. Tartt was a prep teammate of Ward (Mobile Alabama's Davidson High).

Last modified: 2016-09-05 14:06:30