By Sam McPherson
The reality for the 2015 San Francisco 49ers is that the season is over already. There may be seven games left on the schedule, but the organization is already thinking about 2016. This is clear from the trade of tight end Vernon Davis and the benching of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers are at the bottom of the NFC West, with little chance of escaping the basement by Week 17.
At this point, the team has to be assessing which players are the building blocks for the future of the franchise, on offense, defense, special teams, and the coaching staff. It’s been reported Kaepernick definitely won’t be with the team in 2016, so the obvious starting point for rebuilding the team is going to be a question mark for awhile. However, there are other positions which can be just as important as the quarterback.
When running back Carlos Hyde is healthy, he has shown the ability to keep the offense moving the chains. When he is not healthy, it’s a different story, of course. Hyde is just 24 years old, so it’s not unreasonable to think he will be able to stay healthy long-term. He is the kind of running back you want to build an offense around. The 49ers need to focus on rebuilding the offense line, however, or else Hyde’s talent—and the abilities of the future QB—is wasted.
The left side of the line could be stable with 28-year-old Alex Boone and 31-year-old Joe Staley, but the jury is still out on 22-year-old center Marcus Martin. The potential is there, of course, but the inexperience has been problematic. The right side of the line will need to be rebuilt, as 33-year-old Erik Pears is mediocre at best after the Buffalo Bills gave up on him last season, while 27-year-old Jordan Devey lost his job last year with New England. San Francisco’s front office truly needs to address the OL problems in the offseason. This must be priority No. 1, as the team has proven in the past it still can win with an average QB.
In the receiving corps, wide receiver Torrey Smith is young, fast and a good deep threat. Two tight ends—Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald—are young and talented. WR Anquan Boldin is 35 and not getting any younger, as evidenced by his injury issues this year. No other WRs on the roster are particularly special, so finding a quality possession receiver for 2016 would really help as well.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman isn’t the same player he was before the injury in the 2013 playoffs. However, the 27-year-old is still pretty darn good. The 49ers need to keep him around for both off- and on-the-field reasons. At 24 years old, safety Eric Reid also has proven himself to be a special player. Likewise, 22-year-old defensive end/linebacker Aaron Lynch is a good anchor to build around up front. However, the rest of the defense may need to be rebuilt.
Safety Antoine Bethea will be 32 next season and coming off a season-ending injury this year. Cornerback Tramaine Brock will be 28 in 2016, and he has not proven to be worthy of a shut-down corner contract. Linebacker Michael Wilhoite will be 30 next year, but he is too inconsistent right now to warrant a long-term commitment. Ahmad Brooks (32 next season) is also quite inconsistent and frustrating to watch.
Two youngsters in the secondary have the rest of the season to prove their worthiness: 22-year-old Jaquiski Tartt has shown potential filling in for Bethea, while 24-year-old Jimmie Ward has shown capabilities and flexibility this season. The 49ers will have to decide if either is worth keeping, while at the same time trying to find a consistent defensive line presence to complement Lynch up front.
Bradley Pinion is proving himself to be a fine punter, and even though Phil Dawson is 40 years old, he’s still pretty good having missed just one kick this year in 25 attempts (both field goals and extra points).
Head Coach Jim Tomsula clearly connects with the players, and that’s a good thing. He’s shown the ability to keep a lesser-talented team competitive at home, and now Tomsula has to show that the team can fight just as well on the road in the second half of the season. If this “bi-polar” performance continues through Week 17, the team may need to assess Tomsula’s viability for 2016. The 49ers need a coach that can prep the team properly for both home and road games next season.
First, rebuild the offensive line. Second, find a rookie quarterback or two to groom for the future while keeping Blaine Gabbert as a caretaker starter. Third, rebuild the defensive line. Fourth, give the new QBs some receivers to throw to that can actually help the team. All things considered, the 49ers have some good building blocks here to work with, and the team has relatively few weaknesses. Those weaknesses are just easily exposed right now, but if addressed properly in the offseason, the NFL is very good in terms of making sure all teams have a shot every year—unlike the NBA or Major League Baseball with their lack of a true salary cap.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.