Can 49ers compete with Chip Kelly in 2017?

Sitting with just one win entering Week 13, will the 49ers' rebuild under Chip Kelly see success next season?

| 1 week ago
Chip Kelly, Colin Kaepernick

(Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Can 49ers compete with Chip Kelly in 2017?


In the 2016 offseason, I wrote about how the biggest acquisition made by San Francisco was the hiring of head coach Chip Kelly and his up-tempo, no-huddle style offense. When he took over the Philadelphia Eagles, he inherited an offense that ranked 30th in PFF’s cumulative grades, and turned it into the third-best offense in his very first season. Much of that can be chalked up to a talented Philadelphia unit not playing to its fullest potential in 2012, as well as Kelly taking the NFL by storm as defenses struggled to quickly adapt to his schemes and speed.

Once NFL defensive coordinators had enough film on Kelly’s system, however, it struggled to maintain its high level of play, and eventually became fairly easy to stop, leading to the head coach’s firing in Philadelphia (along with several questionable personnel moves). 49ers GM Trent Baalke had fired the team’s most successful head coach since Bill Walsh a year prior, and the Jim Tomsula era lasted all of one season before Baalke brought in Kelly, hoping to ignite a San Francisco offense that ranked 31st in PFF’s grades.

Clearly, Chip Kelly’s system isn’t suited to taking inferior offensive talent and turning it into a sum that is better than it’s parts, as the 49ers’ offensive unit currently ranks 31st in PFF grades once again. While Kelly should be given more time to coach his players and be allowed to adapt his schemes—he has added some wrinkles in his run game, with the addition of the pistol helping to lead to the fourth-ranked rushing attack in yards per game (126.5)—the 49ers needs some serious offensive talent, starting at quarterback.

Building through the draft

While it’s uncertain exactly where the 49ers will draft come April, they’re currently slated to pick second; one Cleveland Browns victory, however, would boost them to first, based on strength of schedule at the time of this writing. The 49ers’ remaining opponents include the Chicago Bears and New York Jets, so losses to those teams would only weaken their strength of schedule and tighten their lead there. Regardless, they’re on track to pick in the top three, and now sit at No. 2, so I will focus on what they can do with the second overall pick.

Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo slated Texas A&M superstar DE Myles Garrett to the 49ers in his most recent mock draft, with the Browns selecting Alabama DT Jonathan Allen at No. 1. Either player would immediately be an upgrade to a 49ers’ defense that currently ranks 30th in our NFL Power Rankings entering Week 13. Garrett has consistently graded as one of the best edge defenders in the nation the past three seasons, and took his play to another level in 2016 with good production in the run game, despite playing through injury. Allen, on the other hand, would help a defensive line that lacks depth after losing Ian Williams to injury; he currently grades out as the best college interior defender in the nation, and is easily the best player on an extremely talented Alabama defense.

If Baalke decides to select an offensive player at the No. 2 spot, the picture becomes much less clear. All of the top touted quarterbacks for the 2017 NFL draft are underclassmen and haven’t established themselves as sure-fire, top-five draft talent. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was slated to the Bears at No. 3 in the mock draft, but his disappointing 2016 season is pause for concern—although he put on a passing clinic against South Carolina State this past weekend.

Other choices at QB are North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. It’s clear that Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert aren’t the long-term answers for Chip Kelly’s system, even if Kaepernick brings a dynamic running ability that was much-needed for the team. Kaepernick has played better in recent weeks, but his four-year level of play since his Super Bowl run leaves him with a track record of poor performance and shouldn’t inspire confidence.

Frankly, the team has a lot of holes at this time, needing upgrades at nearly every position; trading back to acquire extra picks this draft may be a good strategy. Rookie DeForest Buckner has played well in spurts, but his weakness at taking on double-team blocks is a big concern in the NFL. Guard Joshua Garnett has recorded a below-average rookie season, but should continue to improve with more experience, and has graded positively in run blocking. CB Rashard Robinson has shown flashes of dominant play, and could develop into a fourth-round steal.

Baalke is a good talent evaluator, and has drafted some very good NFL players, but a coaching carousel has simply set this team back. Bringing LB Gerald Hodges from Minnesota was a good move, as he grades as one of the better defenders on the team, and CB Tramaine Brock has played consistently well, despite not recording an interception this year, but ranking sixth in pass breakups. RB Carlos Hyde has talent, but can’t seem to stay healthy for an extended period, so even his position should be questioned.

There will be talent for hire via free agency, but if the last year few offseasons are any indication, Baalke won’t go after it, opting to build through the draft—which is a good strategy. The team was depleted by several unexpected retirees, and will take time to rebuild. Many will blame Kelly’s system for this season’s struggles, but the team simply lacks the talent to win consistently right now. The head coach’s system does put undue stress on his defense, but if the talent is there, it doesn’t matter as much. The team has played better the past three games, so there is a seemingly upward trajectory in place, but the key for the San Francisco 49ers moving forward is to hit on their picks in the 2017 NFL draft.

| Analyst

John is an analyst for Pro Football Focus and former safety for the University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004–2006).

  • Ed

    Niners should have never dumped Harbaugh. They ditched a top-5 NFL HC for a carousel.

    The bad news for Niners fans is Jed York is young, so the Niners may have to endure his leading the franchise dysfunctionally for decades.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Being both a Bears and Michigan fan I should be a big Harbaugh fan but I’m not. Though he is a solid coach he just rubs people the wrong way with his arrogance. He had an excellent staff when with the Niners but tried to convince people that most of the success was his doing.

      • Jacob M. Lundeen

        I don’t understand how people can make this argument. Look at everything he has done at San Diego State, Stanford, the 49ers and now with Michigan.

        Part of being a great HC is being able to put together great coaching staffs, that isn’t a knock against him. You aren’t going to knock Bellicheck or Myers or Saban for having great staffs, so why is it okay to use that against Harbaugh?

        All Harbaugh does is win wherever he goes.

        • crosseyedlemon

          Huh? I stated that Harbaugh was a good coach and smart enough to surround himself with good assistants. Nobody is knocking him on that. The issue is his personality which was the primary reason the Niners FO wanted him gone.

          • Jacob M. Lundeen

            You said he is a solid coach and insinuated in your last sentence that his success had/has more to do with his staff then with him. And yet he is the one that continues to win wherever he goes.

            And yes, he has a tough personality, but the FO wanted him gone because of ego. Jed and Trent didn’t like Harbaugh getting all the credit. When your winning as much as Harbaugh was, you put up with his personality, you don’t fire him after an 8-8 season.

          • crosseyedlemon

            Well wishing that Harbaugh or Bill Walsh was still the Niners coach isn’t going to change anything. I think Chip Kelly can bring the team back to respectability if he gets the kind of players that fit his philosophy. The Eagles gave up on Kelly too quick but that’s to be expected from a team that also let Andy Reid walk.

          • Jacob M. Lundeen

            I completely agree with you about the well wishing, it is still a painful topic for a fanbase that got fleeced by the ownership. And I agree with you about Chip, which is why I think Baalke really needs to go, two different philosophies.

  • Jacob M. Lundeen

    I liked this article a lot until I read the comment about Baalke being good at evaluating talent. The 2010 draft was setup by McCoughlan before he left, 2011 has only Kap and Kilgore left (who is a bad center), 2012 was a complete bust, 2013 was okay but outside of Eric Reid (who hasn’t really played well since his rookie season) there are no starters, 2014 got Ward and Hyde and 2015 is shaping up to maybe three players being decent. Every metric out there for determining how good a GM is has Baalke at the very bottom of the list. The entire 49ers fan base wants him gone and for good reason.

    • @PFF_JohnKosko

      2011 also had Aldon Smith. 2013 was pretty good considering the sheer lack of talent in that draft. 2014 also had Borland who was beasting before unexpectedly retiring, and Aaron Lynch who graded extremely well last year. 2015 is still young as is 2016. He’s definitely on the hot seat but I honestly am not very optimistic about the future. He has to hit big on this draft (if he gets the chance).

      • Jacob M. Lundeen

        You mean the same Aldon Smith that has been suspended what, six times now and isn’t on the team anymore? And I’ll give you Borland, no one saw him retiring. Lynch was a nice surprise last year, but since coming back from suspension, he’s either been overweight or injured. And we still haven’t even brought up his all ACL team either. Baalke is a bad GM and deserves to be fired.

    • Michael Ordoña

      Right on. There’s simply no way to know if Kelly is the man for the job, considering the empty cupboard he inherited. Baalke has brought in some good players, but not nearly enough to balance his ugly misses. And even the vaunted 2011 draft doesn’t look so good now – especially considering Aldon’s flameout and the presence of JJ Watt on the board behind him. Then there’s the mysterious refusal to plug holes with the $53 million in cap space… think Danny Trevathan would look good now? Baalke has stubbornly refused to get top talent at OL and ILB and the Niners are paying for it now. He fired Harbaugh without a plan. He believed in Gabbert. He’s got to go.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I’d like to see the Niners target another stud in the draft to play along side Buckner.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      arik armstead?

  • cka2nd

    The expression is “cause for concern,” not “pause for concern.”