San Francisco seemed to have a revelation on its hands two years ago. At this time in 2013, the 49ers were about a month removed from a Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens. However, it was the team’s first trip to the NFL Title game since Steve Young was under center back in 1994. The Niners seemed set for years to come with a young gunslinger with incredible speed running the show in Colin Kaepernick. He was supported by a dominant running game led by Frank Gore and had Pro Bowl caliber receivers in Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. He had a top-tier offensive line in front of him as well. San Francisco’s defense ranked as the best in the business, with talent at all three levels. Fast forward these past two years to now and everything is falling apart. It is time for this Bay Area team to begin a rebuild.
The 49ers are seeing the foundation of the team crumble before their eyes. Aging running back Frank Gore is headed to Philadelphia. Michael Crabtree is searching for a new club to sign with. All-Pro guard Mike Iupati is entertaining other offers. Defensive stalwarts Justin Smith and Patrick Willis both announced their retirements. Oh and Jim Harbaugh is in Ann Arbor. This team is going through an extreme makeover right now and it will likely continue in the coming days as free agency opens. The 49ers have some major holes to fill and will not be able to in just one offseason.
Let’s start with Gore’s departure. The blow is lessened by his already declining play last year and the presence of Carlos Hyde but still this changes the dynamic of San Francisco’s running game. Neither Gore nor Hyde were transcendent in 2014 but together they formed a pretty good backfield tandem. Now Hyde is left to pick up the slack and it is unclear if he has what it takes to do that. Hyde is a downhill runner, much like Gore, who will drag a defender or two along with him but he is very limited as a pass catcher. Gore excelled in the pass game, meaning that the Niners will need to find a way to replace that element of their offense.
Crabtree’s imminent move out of San Francisco leaves the 49ers with very little talent at wideout. While he was not as productive this past seasons as he was in years past, Crabtree still provided Kaepernick with a big target. Boldin is still a good receiver, but as he will turn 35 this October, he is past his prime. The Niners have been searching for new talent at wide receiver for years now, adding players such as A.J. Jenkins, Brandon Lloyd and Quinton Patton in recent years, but none has turned into a solid contributor.
Iupati has been an integral part of San Francisco’s dominant ground attack in the past few seasons. If he leaves, the 49ers will be scrambling to find a replacement. Already, cracks have started to show in the offensive line, as they allowed the third highest number of sacks last season with 52. The two teams who allowed more are Jacksonville and Washington and the team that allowed the same amount was Tampa Bay. No, matter how you look at it, that is not good company to have.
For Smith and Willis, the impact will be felt fairly quickly but will not be as severe as many fear. This 49ers defense was outstanding last season ranking fifth overall in yards per game allowed and tenth in points conceded per game. Willis missed a lot of time last year due to injury and Smith saw his numbers slip. Their leadership will be sorely missed but San Francisco will recover well. Chris Borland is already in place to fill the void of Willis and with over $21 million in cap space, San Francisco could make a run at top defensive ends in free agency like Greg Hardy or B.J. Raji.
The 49ers have some work to do defensively but with most of the defense staying intact, offense will be the priority. The 49ers will still be competitive this year but look for the team to try to find new ways to utilize Kaepernick. They will also add a veteran running back, potentially C.J. Spiller or Ryan Matthews on short, “prove it” deals. The draft will be very important as the Niners are sure look to add a top end receiver and help along the offensive line. This team will still be competing for a playoff spot come December next season, but with how tough the NFC is, it will be a year or two before the cherry red and gold make it back to the postseason. Sure some rebuilding is needed, but much of the foundation can still stay the same.