It’s easy to be overhyped for any NFL team during the offseason. On the surface, each franchise is equal at this point and teams’ records are all 0-0. For the San Francisco 49ers, what are the realistic expectations for this team going through a youth movement and rebuilding period in 2016?
Nothing is ever guaranteed in the NFL.
And yet fans are always going to come out with the same optimistic hopes and dreams that “this will be the year” and “let’s shock the world.”
This especially rings true for the San Francisco 49ers and teams in a similar situation. The Niners are coming off a 5-11 season last year, are employing an entirely new coaching staff and are going through a widespread youth movement across the roster.
But the 49ers are 0-0 in the standings right now. Every other team, regardless of how good or bad it was a year ago, is as well.
It’s a fresh start. Fresh starts breed hope.
Let’s curb any enthusiasm for a moment. Will the 49ers be better in 2016? It’s possible, perhaps even likely. And it’s a surefire bet San Francisco will improve under head coach Chip Kelly in comparison to what was seen under former head coach Jim Tomsula.
At least according to Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney:
Better? Yes. Great? Probably not.
So what are some realistic expectations for San Francisco this season? It’s highly doubtful the Niners finish with an above-.500 record this year or even secure a playoff berth.
And Niner Noise has already discussed why fans shouldn’t be overly concerned with the team’s 2016 record anyway.
Let’s dive a little further into the more modest expectations for this team over the upcoming season.
One of the focal points from the above Niner Noise-linked article was to look for players who will wind up being cornerstones for the franchise moving forward.
It would be great if young players like defensive end Arik Armstead earns a Pro Bowl nod or fellow DE DeForest Buckner earns NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year accolades.
Possible? Sure. But the reality will likely fall somewhere a little lower.
Instead, simply look for these two to make regular contributions along the defensive front. Can these two provide the pocket-collapsing prowess so desperately needed by San Francisco’s defense?
If so, that’s a good expectation. It’s a solid starting point.
And what of other players? Linebacker Aaron Lynch might see his 6.5 sack total from a year ago increase. But don’t expect him to suddenly challenge former linebacker Aldon Smith’s 2012 numbers.
But 10-plus sacks would be great.
How about wide receiver? Will someone other than Torrey Smith emerge as a bona fide No. 2 option? And while a 1,000-plus yard receiver may be a reach, it isn’t out of the question under Kelly.
Maybe running back Carlos Hyde emerges as a 1,000-yard rusher. That is a realistic expectation for a player perceived to be a team standout.
Last year, the 49ers finished dead last on offense (238 points scored) and also ranked 29th in total passing yards (3,316) and passing touchdowns (16). The team was No. 31 in overall yards gained (4,860) and had 1,544 of these yards on the ground — good for 21st.
Defensively, the Niners allowed the second-most yards overall in 2015 (6,199) but clamped down a bit in points allowed (387) — good for 18th in the NFL.
It’s hard to suggest the 49ers will be markedly better, defensively, with Kelly’s uptempo offense likely putting the defense at a disadvantage. This was an argument made by NFL senior films editor Greg Cosell (h/t CSN Bay Area) earlier this year.
To offset this, the Niners spent considerable efforts in the 2016 NFL Draft reinforcing this side of the ball.
That will help, but only to a point.
Defensive numbers may be similar to what was seen a year ago. But if the Niners’ red-zone defense can manage to perform similarly to how it did in 2015, things might not be too bad.
The bigger changes will be on the offensive side of things.
Kelly should be able to utilize whatever players he has on offense to a far-better potential than former offensive coordinator Geep Chryst.
So we should see the Niners offense finish somewhere around the middle of the pack, offensively, and post numbers which, at least, make this a respectable unit.
Remember though, the 49ers don’t exactly have a lot of proven commodities at the receiver positions outside of Smith. And some of the same concerns — namely quarterback and the offensive line — still resonate to start this year’s campaign.
Speaking of quarterback…
Gabbert vs. Kaepernick
Who starts under center for the 49ers in 2016? Will it be Blaine Gabbert of Colin Kaepernick?
We don’t know. We likely won’t know until Week 1. Although there may be hints leaning towards Gabbert emerging as the favorite — a topic discussed in the video atop this article.
Regardless of who starts, either quarterback may experience a surge in numbers under Kelly. And yet neither quarterback should totally be seen as a perfect fit in Kelly’s system.
Check out Niner Noise’s Rich Madrid’s assessments on why Kap or Gabbert may not be viewed as long-term options.
Whoever starts under center, look for San Francisco’s quarterback to be OK, not great, and able to moderately manage the 49ers offense. Exactly how dynamic and impacting either QB will be is hard to gauge.
But we shouldn’t suddenly find ourselves feeling as if the quarterbacking question in San Francisco has been solved.
So what will the 49ers’ 2016 regular-season record be when it’s all said and done?
Well, it doesn’t help San Francisco boasts the toughest strength of schedule this year, according to CBS Sports’ John Breech.
And while each year is different — and top teams can fall from grace in short order — things don’t look good for a Niners team having to face the likes of the Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots and NFC West rivals the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
Each one of these aforementioned franchises are likely going to be playoff-bound after 17 weeks of NFL action.
Is a 10-6 49ers 2016 record possible? Sure. Is it likely? No.
Is 8-8 possible? Maybe a little more than a 10-win season. But even that seems like a stretch.
Realistically, the 49ers could easily finish with the same record as last season. That’s a tough pill to swallow, considering how hard it was to watch the Niners a year ago.
More from Niner Noise
- 49ers 2023 NFL Draft tracker: Pick-by-pick news and analysis
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- 2023 NFL Draft: EDGE Byron Young could be impact player for 49ers
- 5 low-key NFL Draft options for 49ers who are flying under the radar
It’s a modest, easy-to-make prediction. But it’s far more realistic than the bolder, more-enthusiastic hopes out there.
The record shouldn’t matter much anyway. San Francisco has far more pressing questions to answer in 2016. These should be the primary concerns for a team going through a wholesale transition and rebuilding phase.
So let’s all hope for the best, prepare for the worst and expect the reality to fall somewhere in between.