San Francisco 49ers: Predicting Team’s Positional Needs in 2017
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers are more concerned with what happens in the upcoming 2016 NFL season but, with a roster laden with question marks, it’s easy to understand the rebuild will be a multiyear process. Niner Noise tries to predict what the team’s needs will be in 2017.
Pick a position on the San Francisco 49ers roster entering 2016 and, chances are, the Niners could stand for some upgrades there.
Fortunately, general manager Trent Baalke had an influx of 11 NFL Draft picks to come in and reinforce an underachieving and a bereft-of-talent roster this year. Hopefully, a good chunk of Baalke’s selections pan out at a good-to-great rate.
Still, one draft or one offseason isn’t going to solve the majority of issues the 49ers face this season. San Francisco is going through a multiyear rebuild, reload, overhaul or whatever else you want to call it. It’s a process that will take time.
So Niner Noise wants to break down what we think might be positional needs in 2017. We’ll base this off what the 49ers have now, where the emphasis for improvement might be this season and where Baalke’s attention may be directed when this season comes to a close.
We won’t go into draft prospects or free-agent targets the Niners may pursue. That discussion is best saved for a later date.
Instead, let’s break down some of what we believe to be the top positional needs for San Francisco when Week 17 comes to a close.
The Pass Rush
This one is the easiest, so let’s get it out of the way first.
You’ll never read about a team having too many pass-rushers. Even the best pass-rushing defenses look to add more firepower each offseason.
The 49ers aren’t a pass-rushing powerhouse. Their 28 sacks in 2015 ranked No. 29 in the NFL — a paltry number, even though linebacker Aaron Lynch is still an up-and-coming defender yet to reach his full potential.
OK, so former defensive end, turned edge-rusher Tank Carradine should benefit from his role change this season. And the addition of rookie defensive end DeForest Buckner adds some prowess along the line of scrimmage.
But there’s a good chance San Francisco won’t have the eye-popping sack numbers and quarterback pressures ideal for an above-average defense.
Unless second-year pro Eli Harold exceeds all expectations or veteran linebacker Ahmad Brooks plays like he’s five years younger.
As our friends over at NFL Spin Zone pointed out, the 49ers are pretty well stocked at guard entering 2016 and have a good crop of young players with which to work moving forward.
The same can’t be said about the tackle positions though.
True, left tackle Joe Staley — coming off another Pro Bowl season — remains the Niners’ best offensive lineman. But Staley is on the wrong side of 30 years old, and it’s only a matter of time before age catches up to him. At best, how many seasons does he have left in which he can play at a high level? Three? Four?
And the right tackle spot is completely unsolved. Erik Pears isn’t a long-term solution, and second-year pro Trent Brown may not be either.
While the 49ers would like rookie tackles John Theus and/or Fahn Cooper to develop into more than just an adequate backup, it’s safe to assume the 49ers will be looking closely at adding a top-tier tackle (or two) in 2017 — especially one who fits head coach Chip Kelly’s inside-zone scheme.
Just like offensive tackle, the 49ers have plenty of questions at wide receiver entering 2016. Aside from Torrey Smth and, to a lesser extent, Bruce Ellington, the Niners crop of wideouts don’t exactly provide us with a lot of confidence moving forward.
Can fourth-year pro Quinton Patton finally prove he’s more than just a fringe player? And what will the 49ers get out of rookie receiver Aaron Burbridge?
How suited is second-year pro DeAndre Smelter — a talented collegiate prospect, but someone coming off an ACL injury — to making an impact at the next level?
And is former CFL standout Eric Rogers the real deal, or is there a reason why he had to go north of the border to gain some recognition?
Pick any one of the remaining 49ers wide receivers, and it’s easy to see why this position is of concern. There isn’t exactly a lot of proven depth and/or experience here.
So there’s a good chance Baalke and the Niners top brass will be looking at an impact receiver at some point during the 2017 offseason — someone to offer a major boost at a skill position.
Yes, we would all love either quarterback Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert to thrive under Kelly.
That’s the narrative. And it might work too. Kelly turned a relatively unheard-of quarterback Nick Foles into a 2013 Pro Bowler with the Philadelphia Eagles and also resurrected former St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford following his trade to the NFC East.
The best-case scenario is twofold. Either Kaepernick rediscovers the same magic he had back in 2012 and 2013, and Kelly makes all the difference. Or, on the other hand, Gabbert proves all that happened to him with the Jacksonville Jaguars was not indicative of his true talents.
It wouldn’t be the first time a maligned and bust-status quarterback resurrected his career with another team.
Yet the reality differs from the hope. Just as equal a possibility is both Kaepernick and Gabbert struggle to prove they are long-term answers under center.
Therefore, San Francisco is left with even more questions at quarterback when 2016 is in the books.
Unless the coaching staff is fully embracing rookie QB Jeff Driskel emerging as the next unheralded draft pick, turned superstar (see New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady), there’s a good chance the Niners will be looking to spend an early draft pick on the next franchise signal-caller.
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There are going to be some other team needs as well but, for the sake of importance, we won’t go into them here.
San Francisco may want to consider another inside linebacker, especially if the trial-and-error approach of Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong don’t pan out. But with sub packages being more prevalent in today’s NFL, and safety Jaquiski Tartt assuming more of a hybrid role, this need is lessened to a certain extent.
The defensive line is deep enough, and we already know the 49ers have more than a few cornerbacks already on their roster.
Of course, we’ll know more when 2017 rolls around. And we can make better assessments over the course of the regular season.
But for now, these positions look to be the ones of most need come January.
Next: Ranking Each 49ers Position by Strength
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.