Why the 2016 NFL Season Really Matters to the San Francisco 49ers

Jun 8, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly smiles during minicamp at the San Francisco 49ers Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 8, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly smiles during minicamp at the San Francisco 49ers Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

Few experts and pundits think the San Francisco 49ers will be very good in 2016. But the team’s record after 16 games isn’t the crucial stat for this franchise right now. What’s really important is how the Niners match up against the rest of the NFL.

Let’s throw out the idea of wins and losses for a moment and pretend the San Francisco 49ers are playing in one of those non-competitive leagues, where there are no winners or losers and everyone gets a trophy.

As much as those types of leagues should make us cringe and, let’s face it, the NFL is a wins-and-losses league, the 2016 Niners shouldn’t focus on their record when Week 17 comes to a close.

They will, of course, because it’s what teams do.

But the real reason why this year is important to San Francisco is because 2016 provides a new benchmark — an arrow pointing in the sand directed to the area in which this franchise should go.

Still not clear? Well, here’s the scoop. The 49ers aren’t much higher than a laughingstock of the league right now. Coming off a 5-11 season a year ago and plagued with all kinds of questions about the roster, front office and coaching staff, it’s easy to understand why San Francisco isn’t favored to win any of their games in 2016.

That doesn’t matter. What does matter is how well this team winds up performing against the competition they’ll face this year.

Let’s face it, the 49ers aren’t going to be a 10-win team. And an 8-8 record would still be a real reach. But the Niners spent the offseason realizing the mistakes of last year and geared up in ways that make sense when trying to build a franchise from the ground up.

For better or worse, it starts with general manager Trent Baalke. One could argue his net value of draft picks in recent years, especially all those ACL-injury selections, haven’t panned out to a desired return.

But one has to give him credit for reinforcing the trenches over the last two seasons. Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are no longer mainstays of the franchise, but fans could now be treated to a defensive line tandem of back-to-back first-overall picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.

Strong up front — an aspect in which the 49ers weren’t particularly great last season. At least not according to Football Outsiders, who ranked the Niners’ defensive line 27th against the run and 29th against the pass a year ago.

On the flip side of the ball, San Francisco’s offensive line could actually be, you know, a really big strength this season.

Honestly, it could. There aren’t any concerns about left tackle Joe Staley who, per Eric Branch of SFGate.com, wasn’t particularly thrilled with this unit’s efforts in 2015.

To Staley’s right will be Baalke’s big free-agent acquisition, left guard Zane Beadles.

True, Beadles may be a castoff, who struggled the last two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars but, according to Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney, should see a resurgence in head coach Chip Kelly’s inside-zone scheme.

Daniel Kilgore holds down the center position, which is fine, and the Niners tabbed former Outland Trophy recipient — awarded to the best interior collegiate lineman — Joshua Garnett at the tail end of Round 1. On the right, once-retired right tackle Anthony Davis has returned, and he looks to be in awesome shape.

San Francisco 49ers
Aug 5, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive guard Joshua Garnett (65) and offensive tackle Anthony Davis (76) train at SAP Performance Facility at Levi /

That’s what, three first-round draft picks back on the O-line? Yeah, much better than last year.

The play from the trenches will work its way out. Slowly, but surely. The 49ers running game, especially No. 1 tailback Carlos Hyde, should enjoy better success. And we should assume San Francisco’s starting quarterback, whoever it might be, will have a little more time with which to work under center.

There’s more up-and-coming talent too, not just along both sides of the line of scrimmage. Defensive back Jimmie Ward has been impressive since the midway point of last season. And fans should probably expect a little more out of second-year safety Jaquiski Tartt.

All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is healthier, and maybe some of the remaining pass-rushers on the roster will benefit from the strength up front from Buckner and Armstead.

Yes, there are questions. No one knows, but we can predict, who wins the quarterback competition between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. Chances are, head coach Chip Kelly will be able to work with either one adequately enough.

The same could be said of the wide receiver crop. One might think the 49ers didn’t target any free-agent wideouts simply because Kelly wanted fresh, up-and-coming talent he could mold into players who fit his system.

So maybe 2016 will be the year in which receivers Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton finally contribute on a large-scale basis.

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Yeah, the 49ers still play in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions. And facing off against deep-playoff teams like the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers this season won’t help the win-loss record all that much.

But it doesn’t matter.

What counts is this — the 49ers may even wind up having a worse record in 2016 than their 2015 mark, and yet this year’s Niners will probably be a vastly improved team. So that’s why the wins and losses don’t mean much this season.

Instead, focus on the statistics and the on-field play. Focus on whether or not San Francisco is in ballgames in the fourth quarter. Is the team boring, or are the Niners fun to watch again? Heck, an improved 49ers squad with a poor record still means a better draft pick, right?

That’s your measuring stick. Your new benchmark for this new phase of 49ers football. And it’s just fine that way.

Next: Why the 2016 49ers Are Better and Worse than You Think

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