The San Francisco 49ers made numerous strides to improve the team from 2016, although both the offensive line and cornerback positions will likely be problems this year.
Despite his numerous efforts, general manager John Lynch couldn’t completely overturn the San Francisco 49ers from a 2-14 team into a top-to-bottom contender in one offseason.
The Niners have two pressing areas of concern heading into 2017 — cornerback and the offensive line. And as training camp has unfolded, neither position is looking to be one of significant strength.
Lynch needed to reinforce both sides of the ball, especially on defense, which explains why he used the team’s first two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to select defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster.
San Francisco 49ers
Subsequent draft picks, as well as free-agent pickups, largely upgraded the offense. But these moves came at the expense of both the O-line and cornerback crop.
It’s very likely, perhaps guaranteed, these two spots will be major problems for the Niners this season.
Let’s look at why.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will use plenty of Cover 3 schemes this upcoming season, which calls for a single-high safety and the strong safety down in the box.
That’s fine, but this scheme also calls for a lot of one-on-one coverage from corners.
Entering this season, the 49ers have one legitimate starting candidate — second-year pro Rashard Robinson. Starting Robinson is the right choice, but the No. 2 position opposite him is up for grabs.
In an ideal world, the Niners would employ third-round draft pickup, Ahkello Witherspoon, into this role.
Witherspoon needs to develop his abilities against the run — the 49ers’ worst area, statistically, last season — before becoming a starting candidate. And as is the case with many first-year defensive backs, the former Colorado product has shown his growing pains during camp.
Until Witherspoon makes some major strides, the Niners will be forced to roll with the best they have at the No. 2 spot.
And it’s not looking particularly great so far.
The biggest offseason move San Francisco made to address the O-line was to bring in 2016 Pro Bowl center Jeremy Zuttah.
Zuttah seems to be a favorite to take over a starting role, and that’s important for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. But the lack of established depth in the 2017 NFL Draft prevented Lynch from using a pick to address other areas of need.
Instead, left tackle Joe Staley is the only legitimate starter with little concern. And he’ll turn 33 years old later this month.
Right tackle Trent Brown isn’t exactly an ideal fit in a zone-blocking scheme, and he has issues in run support. Second-year guard Joshua Garnett experienced an underwhelming rookie season a year ago, so that’s an issue to watch.
Anyone else? Zane Beadles? Not exactly awe-inspiring.
It’s important to remember the 49ers O-line finished 30th in pass protection and last in run support in 2016, per Football Outsiders. Even with some changes, this group isn’t exactly overhauled heading into this season.
And even the slight change in scheme from an inside- to outside-zone blocking won’t make a drastic difference.
Most pundits and analysts will note this rebuild project in Santa Clara will be a long one. Lynch and Co. made huge strides to rectify a poor roster in one offseason.
Those moves helped a lot of different areas, but there’s a lot of work remaining.
And cornerback and the O-line remain key areas of worry until addressed.