San Francisco 49ers: Identifying Most Important Figures in Chip Kelly’s Offense

Oct 22, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Bruce Ellington (10) escapes Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cassius Marsh (91) on a kickoff return during the second quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Bruce Ellington (10) escapes Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cassius Marsh (91) on a kickoff return during the second quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

Chip Kelly will aim to engineer an offensive turnaround for the 49ers in 2016, here we analyse the key figures that will help him to do so.

The San Francisco 49ers offense was a trainwreck in 2015, proving an overly conservative and ineffective unit that never looked like consistently putting up enough points to contend as the team limped to a 5-11 record.

A big reason why the 49ers finished No. 28 in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders metrics, was the head coach Jim Tomsula, who came from the defensive side of the ball and worked above an offensive coordinator in Geep Chryst, who had enjoyed little success in the role in his previous stint with the San Diego Chargers.

Tomsula and Chryst never put together a game plan to help the offense succeed, although it can be argued the group lacked the overall talent to regularly threaten defenses regardless of who was running the show.

San Francisco has added little at the offensive skill positions in the offseason and, therefore. the pressure will be on new head coach Chip Kelly to make his uptempo scheme work if the Niners are to enjoy a rebound on that side of the ball.

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There are a number of players who will be pivotal to any success enjoyed by the 49ers offense. Naturally, there will be great emphasis placed on whichever quarterback — Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert — wins the starting job under center.

However, both Kaepernick and Gabbert are, at best, average starters based on their 2015 performances and will need all the assistance they can need to move the ball effectively this coming season.

And that help starts up front, where the contribution of the most experienced member of the offensive line, Joe Staley, will be all the more vital.

With Staley now 31, and entering his 10th season in the league, it is natural to begin talking of his decline. Yet, while his skills in pass protection have dipped somewhat — giving up five sacks in 2015, per Pro Football Focus — Staley remains one of the better left tackles in the league.

PFF rated him as the No. 70 player in the NFL for the 2015 season and, with Staley — per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee — expecting the starting O-line to once again be fluid in 2016. His consistency at left tackle will be doubly important for the 49ers as they aim to pick the starters at the other four sports from a relatively inexperienced group of linemen.

The blind-side protection Staley will provide is imperative to the passing offense working, but the key to Kelly’s scheme is a proficient running game, the fate of which rests on the health and performance of running back Carlos Hyde.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

In two seasons, Hyde has demonstrated he can do damage to opposing defenses, scoring four touchdowns in his rookie year playing behind former 49ers back Frank Gore before adding a further three in a sophomore effort heavily impacted by a stress fracture to his foot.

Even with his injury issues, Hyde averaged 67.1 yards per game on the ground in the seven games he played in 2015. If you stretch that production out over 16 games, Hyde would finish the year with over 1,000 yards on the ground.

Given his impressive college career and the flashes he has demonstrated when healthy, it is fair to expect Hyde to exceed that yards-per-game average should he stay on the field.

Hyde has been full go since April and Kelly — in a May interview with KNBR — labelled him a stud. Kelly praised Hyde’s agility and elusiveness for a man of his size but the former Ohio State Buckeye also relishes contact, which should raise questions over whether he can hold up under the heavy workload he will get in 2016.

Not known as a great pass-catcher out of the backfield, Hyde will cede some snaps to one or two of the many players competing for playing time behind him. But he is easily the best back on the roster and how effective this Niners offense is will hinge significantly on his ability to stay healthy and produce on a week-to-week basis.

While it is known Hyde will be the starter at the running back spot, questions reign over who the primary pass-catchers in Kelly’s offense will be. Torrey Smith — as the most experienced member of the Niners’ group of receivers — figures to be the No. 1 wideout yet, although he is a fine deep threat and underrated as an overall talent, San Francisco needs another player to emerge at the position to complement the former Baltimore Raven.

And — based on his performance in OTAs — Bruce Ellington appears to be staking a claim to become an integral part of the passing attack.

Ellington has just 19 catches over three seasons but — per Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat — is developing an excellent rapport with Gabbert:

"Gabbert’s favorite receiver by far was slot receiver Bruce Ellington, who caught three of Gabbert’s passes and dropped two. Don’t be shocked if Ellington becomes one of the Niners’ leading receivers next season. He already seems to have better chemistry with Gabbert than any other receiver including Torrey Smith."

The ex-South Carolina Gamecock has also drawn praise from Smith, who described Ellington as playing “better than ever”, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.

Smith’s words need to be taken with a pinch of salt given the time of the year but — with his raw speed and athleticism — Ellington could develop into an extremely useful weapon as a slot receiver if his play in OTAs translates to the regular season.

With the Kelly offense relying heavily on the quick passing game and the receivers’ ability to make things happen after the catch, look for Ellington to become key to how San Francisco moves the ball through the air in 2016.

If Ellington is able to have success, he could provide a safety net for the quarterback out of the slot. One player who is already considered something of a safety net is Bruce Miller, who figures to be crucial to the Niners despite the fullback not being used in Kelly’s offense.

Miller has flourished since being drafted by the 49ers in 2011 and shifted from defensive end to fullback, proving a very proficient lead blocker in the running game while also showing himself as a more than capable receiver out of the backfield with decent hands and a surprising ability to make things happen after the catch.

He is making the transition to tight end and, according to Kelly, has adapted to his new position very well — per Barrows.

He’s [Miller] playing both tight end and move tight end for us. And he’s playing a little bit of wide receiver for us. And he’s really adapted well to it. – Chip Kelly

Barrows reported Miller said he finds blocking easier from the tight end spot as he is closer to his target than he was when playing at fullback.

That is no surprise but, although Garrett Celek and Blake Bell played well in spells last year, the 49ers need Miller to excel as a receiver to give San Francisco somebody the team can trust at tight end.

If Miller can fine-tune his route-running from the tight end spot then he will become a more prominent weapon in the offense and — given the lack of experienced talent at wide receiver — he would be a much-needed option for whoever is throwing the ball in 2016.

Next: Jaquiski Tartt: Identifying 49ers Safety's Scheme Fit In 2016

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.