2016 cheat sheet: San Francisco 49ers
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
The San Francisco 49ers experienced a rough 2015 season following the Jim Harbaugh era—a tenure which saw them to the NFC Championship game three times. A tumultuous 2014 led to Harbaugh’s firing, and the promotion of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach. Injuries and several retirements depleted the championship-caliber defense, however, and the 49ers will head into the 2016 season with their third head coach in as many years.
Three biggest things to know
1. Chip Kelly’s scheme will be put to the test.
When Chip Kelly came to the NFL from Oregon, he inherited a talented but dysfunctional offense in Philadelphia, taking a unit that ranked 30th in PFF grades to third in his first season. In the Bay Area, he will try to do the same, as the 49ers’ offense ranked 31st in PFF grades last season and has far less talent than the Eagles team he left. Chip Kelly has a no-huddle, up-tempo offense that stresses the opposing defense (and his own). If he can turn around a San Francisco offense with this many holes, it’ll be a testament to his coaching and scheme.
2. Carlos Hyde can be a top running back when healthy.
Third-year RB Carlos Hyde has been plagued by injuries during his first two pro seasons; when healthy, though, he has flashed the potential of an elite NFL running back. While averaging just above 4.0 yards per carry, Hyde has earned his yards, as he’s totaled 57 missed tackles on just 198 carries with an average of 2.8 yards after contact—a number that equals Marshawn Lynch’s career average. His sample size is small, but if Hyde can stay healthy, he has the speed, power, and vision to be one of the best running backs in the league.
3. NaVorro Bowman needs to return to pre-injury form.
ILB NaVorro Bowman earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2015, but he was far from one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Despite leading the league with 129 tackles and 73 stops, and grading in the top-10 against the run, Bowman was a complete liability in coverage, grading fourth-worst among linebackers in that facet, allowing a passer rating of 110.9 when targeted. Bowman ranked among the bottom five LBs in catch percentage allowed (90.3), yards allowed (604), yards after the catch (383), and receptions allowed (65). The 49ers linebacker was always going to have some rust to shake off after a year and a half of recovering from injury, but Bowman needs to get back to his former self to help turn the defense around.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: DE DeForest Buckner (Round 1, pick No. 7 overall, Oregon), G Joshua Garnett (Round 1, pick No. 28 overall, Stanford), CB Will Redmond (Round 3, pick No. 68 overall, Mississippi State)
Signed in free agency: QB Thad Lewis (Eagles), G Zane Beadles (Jaguars), WR Eric Rogers (CFL)
Left via free agency: WR Anquan Boldin (Lions), G Alex Boone (Vikings), HB Reggie Bush (Bills), TE Brian Leonhardt (Vikings)
Cut: HB Jarryd Hayne
Rookie to watch
DeForest Buckner, DI, Oregon (Round 1, pick No. 7 overall)
The 49ers were fortunate that Buckner fell to them at No. 7 in the 2016 draft, as PFF analysts rated the former Oregon Duck as the No. 2 overall prospect. Buckner dominated at the collegiate level the past two years with just two negatively-graded games in 2014. He was especially dominant in 2015, as he doubled his sack total from six to 12, and almost tripled the number of QB hits from six to 16, despite rushing the passer just nine more times. If Buckner can handle NFL offensive lines at half the efficiency as he did in college, he’ll still have a very good rookie season.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Joe Staley, LT, 86.5 overall grade
Staley peaked in 2012, grading as the second-best OT overall and best run-blocking OT. Since then, the former Central Michigan Chippewa has declined in grades, but has still played at a good, but not great, level. Don’t expect Staley to be the top player in 2016, but he should still grade as a top 10–15 offensive tackle in the NFL.
Breakout player to watch
Arik Armstead, DI
Most will look at the 2015 first-round pick’s first season and think it was a disappointment, with just two sacks and 16 tackles as a backup in sub packages, but the former Oregon Duck graded very well in the limited opportunities he was given. Armstead ranked first in pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 DEs—ahead of even Texans DE J.J. Watt. If Armstead can match that productivity and earn a starting spot, the 49ers will have a formidable defensive line with Quinton Dial and DeForest Buckner.
Base defense (2015 season grades shown)
Base offense (2015 season grades shown)