The San Francisco 49ers endured arguably the worst off-season in franchise history, as they lost plenty of key players on both sides of the ball.
No longer can the team rely on their workhorse and team’s security blanket over the past decade as RB Frank Gore left via free-agency to join the Indianapolis Colts. No longer can the team depend on the heart and soul of the defense for the past eight seasons as ILB Patrick Willis abruptly retired after suffering a nagging toe injury.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, how about the loss of arguably the best young inside linebacker in the NFL retiring from the game, as ILB Chris Borland shocked the world with his retirement after just one season.
A nightmare that just doesn’t seem to end, the losses of six additional starters from their 2012 Super Bowl team will surely be missed, as future hall of fame DE Justin Smith (retired), RT Anthony Davis (retired), G Mike Iupati (Arizona Cardinals), WR Michael Crabtree (Oakland Raiders), CB Chris Culliver (Washington) and most recently OLB Aldon Smith (released) are enough to make any team cringe. However, I’m here to tell you all is not lost in San Francisco.
Below we take a look at all eight losses listed above and why the Forever Faithful should remain optimistic despite what other NFL pundits say.
1. RB Frank Gore
Next Man Up: RB Carlos Hyde
Analysis: The team drafted Hyde in the second-round (No. 57) in last year’s draft to be the heir apparent to Gore. A player that showed plenty of promise his rookie season as Hyde rushed for 333 yards (4.0 avg.) and four touchdowns, it will now be his job to lose in 2015. A hard-nosed runner between the tackles who has the ability to excel in the zone-blocking scheme, Hyde should re-establish the team’s smash-mouth ways as I predict him to garner a stat line around 800 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Weakness: There is no question that Hyde struggles in pass-protection so that will be an area of concern for the team heading into the season — something Gore excelled in.
2. ILB Patrick Willis
Next Man Up: ILB Nick Moody
Analysis: Let’s just be honest. No one can replace a player like Willis. He was the face of the franchise for eight seasons before injuries forced him to retire. The heart and soul of the defense, it will now be a camp battle between Moody and ILB Michael Wilhoite as they try to fill his shoes. In the end, I believe it will be Moody who starts Week 1.
A converted safety while at Florida State, Moody has more range, speed, and agility than Wilhoite while recently standing out in camp. In fact, it has been Moody who has been displaying his hands as he already picked off QB Colin Kaepernick twice during the team’s first week of practice.
Whether shooting the A-gaps or dropping in coverage look for Moody to fly around the football under DC Eric Mangini’s 3-4 (Dom Capers type) defense as I predict him to have a stat line around 85 tackles and 3.0 sacks in 2015.
Weakness: At times Moody gets engulfed by offensive lineman in run defense but makes up for it with his ability to read-and-react skill set. If he can peak into the backfield while using his instincts to make sideline-to-sideline tackles, Moody could turn some heads this season.
3. DE Justin Smith
Next Man Up: DE Glenn Dorsey
Analysis: The 49ers are absolutely stacked along the defensive line while having arguably the deepest group in the NFL. They may have lost a future Hall of Fame defensive end with Cowboy but Dorsey is a nice consolation prize. He has a high football IQ with the H-W-S to stack and shed while holding the point of attack. A true 3-4 defensive lineman who can occupy multiple blockers on his way to the ball-carrier, look for Dorsey to have a Pro Bowl type season in 2015.
4. RT Anthony Davis
Next Man Up: T Erik Pears
Analysis: I have to say I am not a big fan of Pears. In fact, the entire right side is in shambles to tell you the truth. Pears is by no means a starting right tackle in the NFL. He has slow movement skills and routinely gets dominated by speed-rushers coming off the edge. In all honesty, Pears looks the part of the second coming of T Kwame Harris. However, he is a behemoth a man as he does stand 6-8, so that should help him out in the run game.
5. LG Mike Iupati
Next Man Up: LG Alex Boone
Analysis: The 49ers will surely miss Iupati in 2015. He was arguably the team’s best run blocker for five seasons while opening up gaping holes on the left side. However, Iupati is now off to Arizona leaving the 49ers to switch Boone to left guard.
Boone may not have the strength of Iupati at the point of attack but his movement skills may be better suited on those stretch-run plays the 49ers hope to incorporate under new OC Geep Chryst. Something that should not be overlooked, look for Boone to stand out as he has the athleticism to excel under the 49ers new offensive scheme.
6. WR Michael Crabtree
Next Man Up: WR Torrey Smith
Analysis: Crabtree never panned out into the Pro Bowl player the Forever Faithful were anticipating and as a result is now off to the Oakland Raiders. Enter, Smith. The deep-threat the 49ers have been sorely missing since the days of WR Terrell Owens — Smith is already looking the part of a No. 1 wide-receiver in camp.
A smart football player who runs crisp routes while catching the ball at it’s highest point makes Smith a nice upgrade over Crabtree. And while Crabtree may have better hands as a receiver, Smith more than makes up for it with his sub 4.4. 40-yard dash speed while providing Kaepernick a bigger catch radius to work with.
7. CB Chris Culliver
Next Man Up: CB Shareece Wright
Analysis: The 49ers brought in Wright to start opposite of CB Tramaine Brock. And apparently the move is paying off as Wright intercepted Kaepernick twice during the first week of training camp. So far Wright has been receiving first-team snaps and has done a solid job thus far. If he can pick up Mangini’s complex scheme while routinely making plays on the ball, the team should benefit as Wright seems to be a scheme-fit player.
8. OLB Aldon Smith
Next Man Up: OLB Aaron Lynch
Analysis: There is no question that Smith has Hall of Fame potential written all over him. A player with the H-W-S to wreck havoc in the backfield, Smith could have easily been the 49ers all-time sacks leader. However, he is no longer with the team leaving them to turn to second-year OLB Aaron Lynch.
A true pass-rush specialist as Lynch also has the H-W-S to thrive under Mangini’s complex scheme, look for him to make some noise as he fights his way to a double digit sack season. And while he appears to be out of shape while looking sluggish during team drills, I can assure you will be more than ready when Week 1 rolls around.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lynch ranked first on the team against the pass-rush so look for that to continue in year two as I predict him to have a stat line around 45 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles.
With the 49ers looking to prove the haters wrong, do not be surprised if they turn heads in 2015 en route to making a strong playoff run.