Finding the Silver Lining in the San Francisco 49ers offseason


San Francisco 49ers fans- please, step back from the ledge.

For most of the NFL offseason, the Niners have been a popular punching bag for having a historically bad spring and summer of transactions. After losing linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland to surprising retirements, running back Frank Gore left via free agency and defensive lineman Justin Smith finally announced his expected retirement. Losing three iconic players, an up-and-coming star, and a key cog on the offensive line in Anthony Davis, you really can’t blame all the pundits and fans who feel like the Niners’ season is sinking like the Titanic in mid-July.

December 20, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99) during the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Levi

Perhaps it is the optimist in me, but I believe the Niners will actually surprise many people this year and be very competitive. Looking beyond the chaos of fog and doubt, I can see the silver linings in this extreme makeover of the team. Niners’ management made some key additions that have gotten lost in the shuffle and should address some major deficiencies that affected the team’s performance the past couple of seasons.

In the two and a half seasons that QB Colin Kaepernick has started for the Niners, he has yet to find a consistent deep threat from the receiving corps. His most potent deep threat was tight end Vernon Davis back in 2013, when Davis averaged a career best 16.3 YPC and caught 13 touchdowns.

General Manager Trent Baalke seems to have found a permanent solution in former Ravens’ receiver, Torrey Smith. In four seasons, Smith has averaged just under 17 YPC, and had 19 plays go for 40+ yards. Kaepernick has his best shot at his first 4000-plus yard season with Smith blowing the top off of the defense and Anquan Boldin commanding intermediate routes.

Another reason for the Niners to feel encouraged is the former Pro Bowler Davis. He had an atrocious season in 2014, where he had career lows in receiving yards (245), yards per catch (9.4), touchdowns (two – both in Week one) and plays beyond 20 yards (two). He battled a variety of injuries but going into his contract year, Davis should have plenty of motivation to get back to being one of the premier TE’s in the league. The Niners offense is a thing of beauty when Davis is cut loose on wheel and seam routes.

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For ten years, Gore was the featured back for the 49ers, but now is the time to usher in a new era with last year’s second round pick, Carlos Hyde. Hyde will get a chance to take the reins from a Niner icon who excelled in patience and consistency. Hyde punishes in a more upright style but can showcase another gear that Gore failed to get to once he got beyond the secondary.

Kendall Hunter returns as well from a knee injury and should be more than able to spell Hyde to keep him fresh. Reggie Bush should also feature well on third-and-longs as the Niners have lacked a good passing option from the backfield in recent years.

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But perhaps the biggest factor on whether the Niners can surprise teams this year will be the performance of their quarterback. Kaepernick must become a consistent dual threat for the Niners to make a push for a playoff spot. He has all the weapons needed to be a great passer and he will have to show improvement in his secondary reads.

Make no mistake though, Kaepernick’s most dangerous weapon is undoubtedly his running ability. I cannot stress how many times I yelled at the TV last season to see open space for Kaepernick to run and gain positive yards, only to watch him force throws into double coverage or keep going backwards and get sacked for a double digit yard loss. Offensive Coordinator Geep Chryst- let Kaepernick loose!!

Dec 20, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback

Colin Kaepernick

(7) scrambles against the San Diego Chargers at Levi

The other side of the ball could ultimately be the Niners undoing. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was a nice signing but he is returning from a significant knee injury and is 34 years old. The Niners first round pick, Arik Armstead, missed all of OTA’s and minicamp and has a lot of catching up to do. Aldon Smith had a waste of a 2014 season and needs to be able to provide consistent pressure with end Aaron Lynch to alleviate a questionable secondary.

With top CB’s Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox moving on in free agency, the Niners CB competition is wide open. Jimmie Ward, last year’s first round pick, is still rehabbing from his troublesome foot. The Niners do get the heart of their defense back in LB NaVorro Bowman, as well as DT Glenn Dorsey.

It has been an offseason full of turnover for the 49ers, but by no means does this mean that they cannot compete in the ultra-competitive NFC West. The fact that so many people have counted them out for this season could provide a big enough chip on their shoulder to carry them to a surprise playoff spot. And if they get there, Niners fans can once again rejoice and stay far away from that ledge.

Next: The San Francisco 49ers Will Win the NFC West