By Sam McPherson
Everyone knows this hasn’t been the San Francisco 49ers’ year so far, as the team is 3-6 and on its bye week currently. The team traded away tight end Vernon Davis and benched quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Starting running back Carlos Hyde has been injured, as has the team’s best wide receiver, Anquan Boldin. The offense is the worst in the league.
While the 49ers have posted a respectable 3-2 record at home, they are an ugly 0-4 on the road. The defense has been tight at home and downright ugly away from Levi’s Stadium. Likewise, the coaching staff has rallied the 49ers in front of the home crowd but has failed to prepare the S.F. squad very well for its road games.
Rising: Garrett Celek, Tight End
One of the reasons why the 49ers felt so comfortable trading Davis away was the emergence of Celek as a receiving threat. With three touchdown receptions, the 27-year-old TE has started seven games this year and has demonstrated his value as a blocker as well. New starting QB Blaine Gabbert clearly has a good rapport with Celek from their days running the second-team offense in practice, as both Gabbert’s TD tosses in the 17-16 win over Atlanta in Week 9 were to Celek. Look for this relationship to grow even more in the next seven weeks.
Rising: Aaron Lynch, Linebacker
Lynch leads the defense with six sacks, which puts him on pace for double digits in the category. He’s not a tackling machine like his fellow linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite, but at just 22 years old, Lynch has already tied his career-high number. Look for him to become the 49ers next truly-feared pass rusher as he makes a Pro Bowl run this year as an unsung hero on a transitioning defense. Not many players get double-digit sacks at this age in the NFL.
Rising: Bradley Pinion, Punter
For 11 years, the 49ers had one of the best punters in NFL history on their roster in Andy Lee. Remember, he led the NFL with a 50.9 punting average in 2011. San Francisco decided that at age 32, Lee was getting too expensive for them, so they transitioned to Pinion. The 21-year-old rookie is averaging 44.4 yards per kick this year, just a little bit behind the average Lee put up (46.2) with the team over his 11 seasons. Pinion is only going to get better and as the 49ers offense develops, Pinion’s value will rise in terms of being able to pin opponents deep in their own territory.
Falling: Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
He’s evidently done as the 49ers QB. Sure, he may play again if Gabbert is truly atrocious or gets hurt. However, all indications are the team will release or trade Kaepernick before a roster bonus kicks in next spring, thus freeing the team to choose a franchise quarterback in the NFL Draft. He just never learned the nuances of the position in this league, and when he doesn’t run, Kaepernick’s effectiveness is mediocre at best. The 49ers are last in the league in offense mostly because Kaepernick just never developed as a QB after his flashy debut in 2012.
Falling: Vernon Davis, Tight End
Another reason the 49ers traded Davis to Denver was that he just wasn’t using his immense physical presence on the field. Of course, his success is somewhat dependent on the QB, but Davis averaged 67 receptions a season from 2009-11 with a few different QBs throwing him the ball. He rarely had any chemistry with Kaepernick in the last two seasons (just 44 catches in 20 games), and Davis was more of a headache off the field than ever before as well. He dominated the 2011 postseason with 10 receptions, 292 yards and four TDs in two games, but Davis never really played like that monster again.
Falling: Ahmad Brooks, Linebacker
He’s been replaced as a sack threat by Lynch and overall, Brooks averaged just two tackles a game; that’s poor field coverage from a starting linebacker. In 2013 as a part-time player, he averaged three tackles a game. At age 31, he’s slower and less effective than ever, mostly because the supporting cast around him has been depleted; and Brooks isn’t a dominant talent on his own. His opportunities mostly came because his teammates were getting double teamed. We know he lost his sister this season, and we can’t underestimate that emotional pain; but overall, this is still a business and Brooks isn’t very good any more at what he used to do well.
Seven-Game Stretch Ahead
The 49ers need to come out of the bye with a new identity, whatever that may be, especially on offense. While Boldin and Hyde get healthy, look for Gabbert and Celek to keep connecting on short-yardage downs. Defensively, as Bowman gets stronger coming back from injury, Lynch will be more effective too. The organization also needs to decide if it’s going to play for wins in the second half or play for a higher draft pick. The health of Boldin and Hyde could end up making this choice for the staff.
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.