By Sam McPherson
Only one Bay Area professional football team will be playing in the NFL postseason this year, and it’s not the San Francisco 49ers. After making it a habit to be in the playoffs during the 1980s and 1990s, the 49ers have enjoyed just three chances at a sixth Super Bowl title in the last 14 seasons, dating back to 2002. To make matters worse, this year’s two-win team is one of the worst squads in the 71-year history of the San Francisco franchise.
The 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC West Division champions this year, on New Year’s Day at Levi’s Stadium in what will probably be an organizational record-tying 14th loss. Three prior S.F. teams have posted 2-14 records (1978, 1979, 2004), and while the team bounced back from those debacles, the NFL landscape certainly has changed a lot, even in the last decade. The 49ers can make a 180-degree turnaround in 2017, but they have to rebuild the roster quickly once the whistle blows on this Sunday’s season finale.
Offensive Changes And Offseason Plan
San Francisco isn’t going to find a franchise quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft, so the 49ers need to get Colin Kaepernick a full offseason with head coach Chip Kelly, period. Despite his 3-15 record as a starter over the last two seasons, Kaepernick has thus far posted a 15-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season. His decision making has been a little better, and a full year with Kelly to prepare for 2017 would be very beneficial for the team, as Kaep is the only real QB the team has at its disposal right now.
Running back Carlos Hyde needs to stay healthy, too, as combined, he and Kaepernick keep defenses very honest. But Hyde has yet to make it through a full NFL season as the San Francisco starter, and that needs to change in 2017. With a healthy offensive line and an improved Kaepernick, the 49ers could field a decent offense next year, considering Kelly’s track record. The coach’s first two seasons in Philadelphia featured some of the highest-scoring offenses in the league, and with time and add talent, Kelly can do the same in San Francisco.
One huge key, in addition to the above, is getting some quality receivers to come to play for the 49ers. Tight end Vance McDonald is under contract for awhile, so San Francisco has to focus on getting some WRs to give Kaep several downfield targets. When the team went to the Super Bowl in 2012, the 49ers had one consistent receiver (Michael Crabtree). Give Kaepernick three real targets, including McDonald, and this offense has potential. Unrestricted free agents like DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery would be ideal, but getting them to buy into the team’s future could be expensive.
Defensive Changes And Offseason Plan
The worst unit in the league this year will automatically be better next year with the return of linebacker NaVorro Bowman from injury. San Francisco needs to find the next great franchise LB in the 2017 draft to complement Bowman’s veteran leadership and spearhead the unit’s resurrection. With some serious draft strategy, perhaps the 49ers could grab two great LBs from the University of Alabama: 2015 SEC Player of the Year Reggie Ragland and 2016 Dick Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster.
The 49ers did well with last year’s top draft pick (defensive lineman DeForest Buckner), and they also scored nicely with a fourth-round pick (cornerback Rashard Robinson). Beyond the first round, the San Francisco front office needs to unearth a few more picks in the draft like Robinson to rebuild this defense. The 49ers can grab a few elite talents early if they’re able to swing some trades, and then they can mine for gold in later rounds. It’s the best way, in conjunction with the return of Bowman, to rebuild the defense quickly.
The last key to making this defense great again is going to involve signing a veteran free agent for the defensive line with a little gas left in his tank. Think of how the 49ers lured defensive end Justin Smith west from Cincinnati before the 2008 season. San Francisco wasn’t a good team at the time, but Smith came anyway, and he was part of a great 49ers defense from 2011-2013 that anchored postseason success. San Francisco needs to come up with that kind of free-agent signing again this spring to complete the defensive turnaround in one offseason.
This is a very important offseason for the San Francisco franchise. The team should retain Kelly because, despite a low level of talent on the roster, he had the squad playing hard every week. His offensive mind can reshape Kaepernick’s NFL future, if the front office can find some WR talent to help the QB. Defensively, the team has the draft at its disposal, with the (likely) No. 2 overall pick and 10 picks overall, which is the most in the NFL right now. Using those picks wisely (or not) is going to determine the 49ers’ future.
The NFC West Division isn’t strong right now: Seattle is in decline, despite winning its third division crown in four years, while the LA Rams are a mess in need of a new coach, among other things. The Arizona Cardinals had a down year, and they may need a new QB in the near future, too. The situation is ripe for a quick turnaround, especially with the last-place schedule next and the inter-conference matchups with the weak AFC South. But the roster needs to be redone in ways like what is noted above, or else NFL football just won’t matter for a long time in San Francisco.