Three words seem to keep popping up when talking about the 2015 San Francisco 49ers: Worst. Offseason. Ever. The Niners certainly had one of the most eventful offseasons in recent memory, enduring more personnel turnover than most corporate mergers. Their star coach left and if their star players weren't retiring they were getting into trouble with the law. Everything that seemed to go wrong did.
But is it really all that bad? We talked to David Fucillo (aka Fooch), head man at 49ers blog Niners Nation, to get a feel for how he thinks his favorite team will fare on Monday and in 2015 on the whole. You might be surprised at just how optimistic he is.
So...how was your offseason? Fun? Uneventful? OK maybe not. In fact, the 49ers offseason was so historically bad that our parent site came up with a way to imagine the horror happening to your own team by Ninerizing them. San Francisco has seemingly gone from perennial contender to also-ran overnight. So we're curious--what silver linings (if any) are there from the tumultuous offseason in San Fran?
Well, it was certainly an interesting offseason. That's for sure. Plenty of teams have major roster turnover from one year to the next, but I can't recall a team losing that many starters that quickly. And really, what made it so crazy was the four retirements. Justin Smith was not a shocker, but Patrick Willis came out of left field, and Chris Borland and Anthony Davis were simply stunning. Add in Aldon Smith's latest arrest and release, and Ahmad Brooks getting his own indictment. Who would have thought so much might overshadow Jim Harbaugh leaving in bizarre circumstances?
But as an optimist at heart, I can come up with some silver linings. For the Smith and Willis departures, both were already getting up there in age. The team had started rotating in defensive lineman for Smith, and Willis missed much last year with the turf toe injury that led to his retirement. As for Aldon Smith, they had not gotten a full season from him since 2012, and his overall effectiveness was inconsistent with all the issues the last two years. The team drafted Eli Harold, and will count on further emergence from second year pass rusher Aaron Lynch.
The big question is what to make of Jim Tomsula replacing Jim Harbaugh. Very few coaches have had the kind of stretch Harbaugh did with the 49ers. The team went to three straight NFC title games and one Super Bowl, and realistically was one or two plays from appearing in three straight Super Bowls. There was constant turmoil last season that likely wore down the team. Tomsula is criticized by some as a "company man", but one upside to that is things will at least be a little calmer in 2015. Players love Tomsula, so motivation should not be an issue. I have no idea what Eric Mangini (DC) and Geep Chryst (OC) will bring to this team. I mean we know about Mangini's history, but the turnover raises all sorts of questions about what to expect.
Those questions make this one of the most interesting 49ers seasons in a long time. Things could go well or poorly, but at least we'll get some answers.
With so much turnover on the roster, there seemed to be plenty of position battles in the preseason. What were a couple of the more interesting positions that were up for grabs for the 49ers? Are there any starting jobs that haven't been completely decided upon heading into Week 1?
The cornerback position has been the most intriguing in my mind. The 49ers drafted a pair of cornerbacks (Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser) on day three of the 2014 NFL Draft, and stashed them on injured lists. They both have emerged to compete for a starting spot opposite Tramaine Brock. The team lost starters Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, and yet if they can stay healthy, it is not the craziest notion that this group could be better. And more importantly, they're locked up for the next few years. The starter opposite Brock is not decided, at least publicly. Jim Tomsula said Acker and Reaser are competing to start opposite Brock, and we'll find out this Monday who ends up with the nod.
Another position competition of note was at the return positions. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington was the kick and punt returner for much of last season. This past preseason, he competed with UDFA DeAndrew White (Amari Cooper's running mate at Alabama) and "rookie" Jarryd Hayne. I say "rookie" because Hayne is coming over from Australia where he was arguably the best rugby league player in the country. He had a huge preseason, making numerous big plays to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Tomsula would not reveal his returners, but fans are hoping Hayne gets the nod.
On offense, the offensive line competition was interesting in terms of new bodies, but it is the biggest question for the team. Joe Staley remains locked in at left tackle, and Alex Boone switched from right guard to left guard. This locks up a strong left side of the line. After that, it's all up in the air. Erik Pears is locked in at right tackle for now, but center and right guard have been rotating. The team settled on second year center Marcus Martin to hold the fort while Daniel Kilgore is on the PUP list, and hopefully secure the role long term. Martin had started camp at right guard, but the team eventually acquired Jordan Devey in a trade for a reserve tight end. Devey is now starting at right guard. The right side of the line remains subject to extensive change.
The upcoming season appears to be a crucial one for the development and future of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. After an incredibly impressive start to his career he took a step back in many respects in 2014. What does Kaepernick need to do both on Monday night and throughout the season to prove that he is the man for the job?
The perception of Kap remains forever debated among 49ers fans. He struggled at times with shorter passes and touch, but he also suffered from poor offensive line play. Injuries kept the line from ever developing any sort of consistency, and it cost Kap time to make plays.
He spent the offseason working with quarterbacks coaches in Arizona, and that included some time with Kurt Warner. He has shown some improved mechanics, but that has also been primarily in training camp. We did not get to see much of Kap in the preseason, so we are all waiting and wondering if he can keep up what he learned when pass rushers are hurtling themselves at him.
If the offensive line holds up (a big if), Kap needs to improve on his short passing game. The team did not use a lot of short passes under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, but fans are expecting a lot more of that with the addition of Reggie Bush. I honestly think if the 49ers can establish more of that in a sort of West Coast throwback, it could mean big things for Kap. It could open things up elsewhere, and with Torrey Smith giving the 49ers their most significant speed threat in some time, it opens the door for a lot of opportunities.
As we have already touched on, there are plenty of new faces on the 49ers this season. Give us one player on offense and one player on defense that most Vikings fans might not know about but could have a big impact on Monday's game.
On offense, keep an eye out for Bruce Ellington. The 49ers signed Torrey Smith this offseason, pairing him with his old running mate Anquan Boldin. They will be the big weapons at wide receiver, but Bruce Ellington brings a unique skillset that 49ers OC Geep Chryst will hopefully take advantage of this season. Ellington is a speedy guy who could potentially bring a Percy Harvin type of threat to the 49ers. He has dealt with hamstring injuries and muscle strains, but if healthy, he's a guy you could see lineup outside, in the slot, and even potentially in the backfield.
On defense, keep an eye on No. 59 Aaron Lynch. The 49ers slowly worked him into the pass rush rotation last year, and he quickly emerged as a force during Aldon Smith's suspension, and Ahmad Brooks's own discipline. The 49ers will be counting heavily on Lynch to bring a serious presence in the pass rush.
Finally, provide two honest predictions: the score of the game in Santa Clara on Monday night, along with your best projection of the 49ers' record in 2015. Will the 49ers surprise people by starting 1-0 and remain a contender in the NFC West, or will Monday night mark the beginning of a very long season in San Francisco?
Score prediction: I'll go with the 49ers springing the home upset with a 24-20 victory. As I've said above, there are enough questions that this is an unpredictable team. But I think Minnesota's questions on its own offensive line open the door for the 49ers defense to find some success. If the 49ers offensive line can hold up even a little bit, I think the 49ers win this game. I think the big thing for the 49ers will be winning the field of position battle. They appear to have significant return depth for the first time in a while, and that could be where the team can swing this game.
Record prediction: I've said this team could go 6-10 and I wouldn't be surprised, or it could go 10-6 and I wouldn't be surprised. I honestly have no idea how this team will do. I think things were so ugly last year that just having a little serenity could boost them, so I'll say 9-7. But again, I could throw darts at a wall and feel more confident with the prediction. The upside to all this is at least the team could be very interesting (good OR bad).
Thanks again to Fooch for his incredibly insightful answers. Look for our Q&A about the Vikings later this week on Niners Nation.