What Is the 49ers’ Biggest Weakness on Offense?
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers’ 2014 inept offense was one of the primary reasons why the team finished with an 8-8 record in the final season of the Jim Harbaugh era.
Aside from a running game, which produced the fourth-best rushing total in the NFL (2,176 yards), the 49ers struggled to get their offensive game going in an effort that resulted in this unit finishing with the 25th most points scored over the year (306).
A lot has changed since the conclusion of last season.
San Francisco now has an entirely new coaching staff. The team added speed to the wide receiver position with the offseason signings of Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson. The 49ers got younger at running back by electing not to re-sign Frank Gore and promoting Carlos Hyde to the featured-back role.
The 49ers also have a dynamic pass-catching threat out of the backfield with running back Reggie Bush. And general manager Trent Baalke brought in supplementary pieces via the NFL draft with running back Mike Davis and tight end Blake Bell.
Still, no team is ever perfect. And the offense remains a significant question mark in head coach Jim Tomsula’s first year at the helm.
So what will be the offense’s biggest liability in 2015? Will it be the new-look offensive line? Should we expect more question marks surrounding the tight end position? Or will the biggest issue be the playmaking abilities of quarterback Colin Kaepernick?
The Receiving Game
Jun 11, 2015; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith (82) during minicamp at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers’ primary offensive weakness last year was the lack of a dynamic receiving game. San Francisco ranked No. 30 in the league with just 3,063 receiving yards on the season.
A major factor was the lack of speed. While both wideouts Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson had speed to offer, the 49ers offense never found a way to have either contribute on a regular basis. Both are gone now, and the 49ers hope to have found the answer with the additions of Smith and Simpson.
“They’ve been huge so far,” said Kaepernick of Smith and Simpson via Joe Fann of 49ers.com. “They bring a lot of speed to the field and a deep vertical threat.”
San Francisco’s passing offense should be substantially better as a result. Deep threats will open up plays underneath, which should help No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin maintain his numbers despite his aging body.
But what about the tight end position?
Tight end Vernon Davis is coming off a poor year in which he blamed his lowly statistics on poor game planning per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. The hope is that Davis bounces back to the elite level that made him notable in the first place.
Yet Davis’ supporting cast at the position doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence. No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald has done little more than serve as a viable blocking option, and the 49ers have lacked a true complementary piece at this position since tight end Delanie Walker left via free agency in 2013.
Perhaps this is where fans will see more of Bell and less of McDonald should the latter’s struggles continue.
The Offensive Line
Alex Boone could wind up playing at one of three spots along the offensive line in 2015. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A more-pressing question should revolve around San Francisco’s offensive line. This unit will be tasked with imposing its will in the 49ers’ ground attack as well as preventing pressure for Kaepernick under center.
Last year, the oft-injured O-line gave up a whopping 52 sacks, which ranked No. 3 in the league. While many of those fell on Kaepernick’s shoulders, it was clearly an indication of how troublesome this unit had become.
Even more of a concern was the loss of two standout O-linemen during the offseason. Left guard Mike Iupati departed the team via free agency, and right tackle Anthony Davis decided to retire after only five seasons at the NFL level.
The only clear starter so far is left tackle Joe Staley. Right guard Alex Boone remains one of the better linemen on the roster and could feasibly line up at a variety of positions per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
One of these could be in Davis’ stead. But offensive coordinator Geep Chryst stated via Taylor Price of 49ers.com that Boone will likely shift over to the left side of the line alongside Staley.
“(If) you lose a guy of the caliber of Joe Staley, what’s your answer?” Chryst noted. “By getting Alex repped on the left side, it’s more natural to move him from left guard to left tackle than, hey, he’s a right guard, right tackle and you flip him over to the left side.”
Next: 49ers O-line Will Be Fine in 2015
That leaves the right side of the O-line with some major holes to fill.
Another plausible solution to replace Davis will be to insert rookie tackle Trent Brown into the void. He impressed head coaches during offseason activities, but isn’t guaranteed to earn a starting spot per Tomsula via the team’s website.
And we could end up seeing Erik Pears get the starting job as well.
Left tackle Joe Staley is, perhaps, the only lineman who knows his starting spot in 2015. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Second-year pro Brandon Thomas is also a favorite to land a starting guard position, which will likely be on the right side of the line if Boone shifts to the left.
The problem is that this would provide San Francisco with relatively untested NFL-level talent along this side especially if Brown wins the starting job. Is that something that will come back to bite the 49ers over the course of the season?
And what about center Daniel Kilgore’s knee injury? He was lost for the season after Week 7 last year, and there is no guarantee that he will return at 100 percent.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick
Jun 11, 2015; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) looks on during minicamp at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
One could also make a strong argument that the 49ers offense will only be as good as the play of Kaepernick in 2015.
Kaepernick’s 2014 quarterback rating was 86.4, which was down from 98.3 and 91.6 in 2012 and 2013, respectively. And he also tossed a career-high 10 interceptions last season.
The four-year pro spent a portion of the offseason working with legendary quarterback Kurt Warner and quarterbacking coach Dennis Gile. Kaepernick also retooled his throwing motion, which should hopefully improve his standing from a year ago.
But the true test will be whether or not Kaepernick can put all of these developments together in game-time situations.
A new motion will not necessarily help Kaepernick make better decisions. Nor will it play a role in his tendency to lock in to one receiver.
Next: 49ers' Success Depends on Kaepernick
True, Kaepernick should benefit from the additions of players like Smith, Simpson and Bush.
Yet it’s safe to say that Kaepernick won’t have the excuses this year. He needs to showcase his true talent and reach the potential that fans have been waiting for since he was named starter in 2012.
So what is the biggest weakness on offense?
The receiving game should be much better that what it was in 2014. As long as injuries don’t play a factor, the combination of Smith, Simpson and Boldin should give the wide receiver position enough depth and skill-set variety to make a substantial impact.
And this should, in theory, open things up for Davis and the remaining crop of tight ends.
Kaepernick should benefit from this element as well. The lack of speed in 2014 meant that Kaepernick’s targets got open more rarely than an offense would ideally envision. That meant fewer passing lanes, holding onto the ball longer and an increase in sacks.
Hopefully this translates into a better season for the 49ers signal-caller.
But it all starts up front with the O-line.
The lack of continuity along the line could be the detrimental factor that influences almost everything San Francisco does on offense. If this unit plays poorly, the 49ers offense could be in for a rough season regardless of the personnel brought in over the offseason.
Let’s hope the truth is far different than the worry.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
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