How to fix the San Francisco 49ers
This is the latest in a series, offering my opinions on what struggling teams should do this offseason in order to turn their fortunes around.
There’s no team that needs more help than the 49ers right now. They have a dearth of talent, and don’t have as many high draft picks as the Browns do. Given that, you can argue that they’re in the worst shape in the league.
Let’s see how we may fix that:
STEP ONE: TWEAKING THE COACHING STAFF
Personally, I’d give Chip Kelly’s 2016 failure a pass, given the aforementioned lack of talent on the roster. He still hasn’t had his chance to hand select a franchise QB and run his system the way he intended. Until he does, I don’t think we can call him an NFL bust.
On the other hand, I’d be quicker on the trigger to replace the defensive staff. Young Jim O’Neil’s unit has been an embarrassment in 2016, allowing 2468 rushing yards on the year so far (at 5.0 yards per carry). There’s plenty of blame to go around for that — but no matter what, that’s an inexcusable result. I’d look outside of the organization for a new DC.
My top choices would be former Browns coach Mike Pettine (O’Neil’s boss in Cleveland), and Houston LB coach Mike Vrabel. The trouble is: I don’t think either one would come to San Francisco. The 49ers DC job is one of the least desirable in the league, because of the talent level, and because of all the time they have to spend on the field. The top coordinator candidates can probably find more gainful employment elsewhere.
One reasonable and realistic name would be current Chicago DB coach Ed Donatell. Donatell served as the DB coach with San Francisco under Vic Fangio and could help bring back some of that swagger to a unit that needs it. He has coordinator experience as well, and wouldn’t be in over his head here.
STEP TWO: BEEFING UP THE D-LINE
The 49ers have invested heavily in defensive linemen in the draft, most notably selecting two Oregon Duck ends in the first round: the 6’7″ Arik Armstead and the 6’7″ DeForest Buckner. On paper, that should be a formidable pair of bookends.
However, just because you’re tall and athletic doesn’t mean you’re a star lineman. In fact, being so tall and lean may actually hurt your leverage (compared to a short bulldog like Aaron Donald.) Of the two, Buckner is the more reliable bet for the future. Armstead, to me, is a big ol’ question mark. He wasn’t productive in college and hasn’t shown much in the NFL. Maybe he’ll turn into something down the road, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.
Instead, I’d look for reinforcements elsewhere. San Francisco does have cap room this offseason and would be wise to target some d-linemen. I’d keep an especially close eye on two that aren’t yet household names: the Giants’ Johnathan Hankins, and the Eagles’ Bennie Logan. The Giants have spent so much money at d-line that they may have to let Hankins go, and Logan is a high-motor high-effort player that may slip through the free agent cracks. I’d give strong offers to both as players that can start on the 49ers line and be improvements on Armstead and FA Glenn Dorsey.
STEP THREE: TAKING A CALCULATED RISK AT QB
Colin Kaepernick‘s the best QB on the 49ers roster, but he’s still not the answer. He hasn’t shown enough improvement as a pure passer to gain my confidence or justify his salary. I’d send him packing.
With the presumptive #2 pick, the 49ers can potentially select their next franchise QB. Unfortunately for them, the draft doesn’t offer any sure things this year. The top QBs — Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky, etc — all come with limited resumes and big risks.
But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing for the 49ers. In fact, they can admit that all the QBs are question marks, and not force a pick at #2 overall. Instead, they can wait until Round 2 or Round 3 to select a QB, knowing full well that it may or may not work out.
The two QBs that I’d study closely for that role would be Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. They have both have size and arm strength. The questions about them regard their ability to transition from a spread system — but the 49ers run a simplified offense that wouldn’t be hard to adjust to. Either one would be a smart risk (given the cost) in Round 2 or 3.
Mahomes or Rudolph probably wouldn’t be ready from day one, but the Niners should take a long-term approach here and not rush them. Although he’s hated by most fans, current backup QB Christian Ponder isn’t a bad option as a place-holder. He’s smart, relatively accurate, and relatively athletic. He can hold down the fort for 8-10 games until you’re ready to test drive your new rookie QB.
STEP FOUR: TAKING BEST AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT
Because of their needs across the board, the 49ers shouldn’t force the issue at any one position. Presuming they wait on QB, they can take the best available player at #2.
Garrett would be an absolute home run and potentially the next Von Miller; if a QB goes #1, he’d be a great pick at #2. Jonathan Allen’s disruptive in both the run and pass game, and would be a welcome addition to the defensive line rotation that needs all the warm bodies it can get. A middle linebacker like Reuben Foster usually doesn’t merit the #2 overall selection, but Foster is one of the best ILBs in a while and would follow in the tradition of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
I’d continue that “best player available” approach throughout the draft, knowing full well that the Niners aren’t likely to be competitive in 2017 either. They may need a star WR, but that doesn’t need to come right away: after all, Chip Kelly’s offenses rarely funnel to star WRs anyway.
The 2016 San Francisco 49ers are one of the worst teams in the league, and no matter what they do this offseason, the 2017 49ers aren’t going to be significantly better. However, by making these moves — finding a developmental QB and loading up on the d-line with players like Bennie Logan and Jonathan Allen — they can build more infrastructure in order to be more competitive down the road.