With all of the offseason turmoil surrounding the San Francisco 49ers, it’s hard to find many pundits that think the team can avoid being a complete train wreck this year, let alone make the playoffs. When you consider the coaching changes and the players that aren’t around anymore, I guess it’s easy to jump on that bandwagon, but I don’t think those people are paying close enough attention to who’s still in the locker room.
Despite the turnover, the 49ers still have a very talented roster capable of putting up a nine or ten win season. Sure, they have question marks (most teams do) but San Francisco is really in better shape that most people think. I believe they’re still a playoff team. I’d even go as far as to say that they’re better than the St. Louis Rams and on par with the Arizona Cardinals (and will fight it out with the latter for second place in the division).
I’m assuming this of course, based on my inkling that certain things will go the 49ers’ way in between the lines. In this edition I’ll take a look at the offense, as the 49ers can make the playoffs if…
QB Colin Kaepernick ends his regression
Kaepernick has been to a Super Bowl, won big playoff games, and when he’s on there may not be a more exciting player in the NFL. But let’s call it like it is…Kaepernick did not play well last year. Actually, his play was a little scary in 2013 as well.
From week’s 2-11 of ’13, Kaepernick averaged 154 yards passing a game and completed a mere 53.7 percent of his passes. The 49ers were 5-4 during that stretch. He did turn it around late in the year, upping his passing average to 232 a game and completion rate to 61.8. That late surge led to a glimmer of hope that a breakout year was coming, but 2014 was a mess.
Looking skittish in the pocket and confused with his reads, Kaepernick’s play was a big reason the 49ers’ offense was atrocious for most of last year. The starting unit only scored 29 touchdowns (nine quarterbacks threw for more than 29 by themselves), and the team scored 17 point or less in half of their games.
Kaepernick wasn’t solely to blame as poor offensive line play, bad play design/calling and a having no vertical threat all played a part. But Kaepernick has to prove he can be an above average passer this year, or the 49ers have a big problem. It sounds as if the new coaching staff will employ an offense more suited to their quarterback’s strength, and any mechanical deficiencies are hopefully a thing of the past after Kaepernick worked with Kurt Warner this offseason. However, those things need to play out on the field.
If Kaepernick can at least regain his late season play of 2013, the 49ers will have a very good offense that is more than capable of helping to punch a ticket to the post season.
The O-line holds it together
One of the biggest myths of HC Jim Harbugh‘s run with the team was that the 49ers had a great offense line. The truth is they had a great run blocking group, but the pass protection has always left something to be desired. Consider that the Niners were consistently in the bottom of the league in sack percentage under Harbaugh, allowing a sack on 8.9 percent of their dropbacks in 2011 (sixth worst), 8.6 in 2012 (third worst), 8.6 in 2013 (fourth worst), and 9.6 in 2014 (third worst).
Now the team will enter training camp without former starters OT Anthony Davis (retired) and G Mike Iupati (left via free agency). How far this team goes will have a lot to do with how well their replacements do. Right now G Alex Boone, T Joe Staley and C Daniel Kilgore look like the definite starters, and that’s a good place to start. The issue will be finding another guard and tackle who can play as well as the other three have a reputation for.
G Brandon Thomas, G Joe Looney and G/C Marcus Martin will all get a crack to start opposite Boone, while G/T Erik Pears and rookie T Trenton Brown will have an opportunity to replace Davis. Personally, I’ve of the belief that Boone is their next best tackle and should be moved there, while Thomas, Looney, Martin and Pears fight it out for the two guard spots.
There is a lot of promise in Thomas and Martin (both 3rd round picks in 2014), and having them excel on the inside could push this line over the top. After all, Staley has been a Pro Bowler and Kilgore may have been the team’s best lineman before he got injured last year. Add in a solid Boone (in a contract year) at tackle and you might have something.