The San Francisco 49ers enter 2016 with new head coach Chip Kelly trying to turn around the team’s fortunes. While the team may still be bad this season, Kelly will certainly maximize the talent available.
Head coach Chip Kelly is inheriting a San Francisco 49ers team coming off a 5-11 season a year ago and largely devoid of the talent needed for a deep postseason run.
“Despite playing the league’s toughest schedule, the 49ers will be better than many think, even if they don’t eclipse the five wins from 2015. They are building a solid foundation, even as they go through a rebuild.” – ESPN’s John Clayton
Going up against the league’s toughest schedule, Kelly and his 49ers probably aren’t going to be playoff bound in 2016. No, this is a rebuilding year. And the Niners are just beginning the early phases of that arduous process.
And Kelly’s tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t end well either. That cloud still hangs over Kelly.
But let’s cast all that aside for a moment and make this assessment — coach Kelly will make this 49ers team much better in 2016.
As good as they can be.
There really isn’t anything more that should be asked of Kelly. Not at this point. The 49ers realize this. Fans should too.
So let’s try to understand why San Francisco’s new head coach will get the most out of this roster.
The Uptempo Scheme
One common misnomer of a Kelly-led offense is his uptempo offense puts his own defense at risk.
Indeed, we saw this a bit during the preseason. Opposing teams frequently ran at the 49ers defense as much as possible to retain possession and wear down San Francisco’s D. It made sense, although the Niners didn’t suffer much because of expanded rosters.
This might be a liability now the team’s roster is down to 53 players.
A fast-paced offense puts the defense at risk. That’s the common theme. But, according to Oscar Aparicio of Niners Nation, one has to look closer at the numbers. Aparicio wrote:
"In each season [in Philadelphia], Kelly’s defense actually performed better in the second half of games than they did in the first. And in Kelly’s first two years his defense also performed better over the final eight games, indicating that time on the field was not really to blame for the defensive performance. The only season where we see what’s “expected” is 2015. The data simply does not support the prevailing narrative that Chip Kelly’s offense negatively impacts his defense."
Keep this in mind as well — San Francisco’s defense will be practicing against an uptempo defense throughout the week.
Despite the in-game differences, opposing teams will appear to be running at a much slower pace.
Focusing on the Ground Attack
The 49ers probably aren’t going to be a very good team through the air this season.
San Francisco lacks proven wide receivers, outside of No. 1 guy Torrey Smith. And quarterback Blaine Gabbert isn’t exactly a top-tier option.
So this means Kelly’s offense will be relying heavily on the ground game. And it’s not a bad approach either, especially when factoring in opposing defenses’ need to hurry back to the line.
We saw a bit of this during the preseason. The 49ers led the league in preseason rushing yards (737). While the majority of focus will be on No. 1 tailback Carlos Hyde, the Niners can take some rest knowing second-year running back Mike Davis racked up 148 rushing yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
A big difference over Davis’ 1.7 yards-per-attempt stat line from a year ago.
San Francisco’s offensive line will make a big difference too. Gone are the likes of linemen Erik Pears and Jordan Devey.
Instead, the 49ers drafted run-mauling guard Joshua Garnett in Round 1. And the emergence of second-year tackle Trent Brown was enough to push former first-round pick Anthony Davis inside to right guard.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Niners O-line 30th in run blocking last year. This unit won’t be at that lowly mark in 2016.
Projecting the Future
The 49ers have a young roster. But it’s not close to the youngest in the league. According to Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice, San Francisco’s current roster averages out to 26.08 years old, which ranks 16th in the NFL.
But just imagine if 41-year-old kicker Phil Dawson wasn’t in the mix.
Regardless, the 49ers are going to rely on some up-and-coming talent. That’s the hallmark of a rebuilding process.
San Francisco does have some pieces with which Kelly can work though. And ESPN’s John Clayton was one such expert who feels Kelly will make this 49ers squad better than what many perceive it will be:
"Don’t be misled, though. Despite playing the league’s toughest schedule, the 49ers will be better than many think, even if they don’t eclipse the five wins from 2015. They are building a solid foundation, even as they go through a rebuild. New coach Chip Kelly has some interesting pieces with which to work."
Clayton also pointed out a number of role players — or “blue collar” talent — who could increase San Francisco’s prowess.
A lot of that falls upon a head coach’s ability to get the most out of his roster.
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When in doubt, we should simply ask PFF’s Jeff Deeney what he thinks Kelly will do with San Francisco this season:
Kelly’s 49ers may not be dominant. But they’ll be vastly improved.
And that’s the most fans should ask for right now.