By Sam McPherson
San Francisco 49ers fans don’t have a lot to be excited about this season, other than perhaps getting a chance to draft the team’s quarterback of the future next spring. With a 1-6 record and not a lot of victory opportunity on the schedule ahead, the 49ers season is going to quickly take a back seat for local sports fans to the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of another NBA title.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s been all clouds and rain for the 49ers this season. Even the worst teams in the NFL have players that are busting their chops every week on the field and rising above the rest to shine in the bleakest moments. The 49ers have their fair share of those players, too, despite the looming reality of a decline from last year’s 5-11 record.
Rising: Jeremy Kerley, WR
The 28-year-old veteran wideout had spent his first five seasons with the New York Jets, and when he signed with San Francisco just before the season started, not too many people took notice. After all, in 16 games with the Jets last year, Kerley caught just 16 passes.
This season, though, he’s turned into the 49ers main possession receiver, replacing the departed Anquan Boldin. Kerley has 30 receptions through seven games, which puts him on pace for 68 catches. His career high is 56 receptions, set in 2012. Kerley has never played with top-notch QBs in his NFL career, so everything he does under the current circumstances is quite impressive. The 49ers have to consider keeping him for the near future as a settling, veteran presence for whichever young QB takes the franchise reins in 2017.
Rising: Eric Reid, S
After posting 91 tackles as a rookie in 2013, Reid has struggled a bit since then due to injuries and other factors. In 2014, his production dropped to just 42 tackles in 15 games, and last year, he did post 66 tackles in a full season. However, this year Reid is poised to set a career-high mark with his current tackling pace (45 stops in seven games).
If he stays healthy and keeps going like this, Reid will top 100 tackles in a season for the first time in his career. He’s also forced one fumble this year and defended three passes downfield. With the 49ers defense struggling up front due to retirement and injury issues, every stop Reid makes is a touchdown-preventing effort, and that’s what San Francisco needs the most right now.
Falling: Torrey Smith, WR
Once a very productive deep threat with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith has struggled in San Francisco since arriving before the start of the 2015 season. Part of that, of course, is due to poor QB play, but Smith also has to be held accountable for the drastic decline in his production this year. He’s hauled in a career-low 40.6 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2016.
Although he set a career-high mark of 20.1 yards per catch in 2015, Smith also caught just 33 passes last year—his lowest season total ever. This year, he has just 13 receptions through seven games, a pace that would set a new career low (30 receptions) if it holds up through the 49ers’ final nine games. While the poor QB play has been a factor for Smith since moving to San Francisco, the 27-year-old speedster just isn’t making an impact at all these days.
Falling: NaVorro Bowman, LB
While this doesn’t seem fair because of the truly nasty injuries Bowman has suffered in his short career, the facts are what they are: He is a 28-year-old player that has already started the career decline at this point (probably). In his four full NFL seasons, Bowman averaged 145 tackles a season. Now, after his second devastating injury in the last three seasons, it’s hard to imagine the 49ers star ever being the same player again.
Remember, after the horrible knee injury suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game against Seattle, Bowman missed the entire 2014 season. He came back to be just as dominant in 2015, but after tearing his Achilles tendon this year after just four games, it’s hard to see Bowman making it back onto the field in time to start the 2017 season. Even if he does, age and circumstance are against him. If anyone can do it, Bowman can, but this amazing 49ers defensive hero may have seen the premature end of his NFL career, sadly.