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Now that the preseason is officially in the books, the 49ers can finally turn to getting back to real football. Most of us can agree that this has been one of the craziest offseasons for the organization in at least a decade and that is the biggest reason that nearly the entire sporting world is not expecting much out of our beloved 49ers.
I can agree with tempered expectations to a degree, but I can also disagree with them just the same. It wasn't long ago that the 49ers were put in the same situation they are in now with a new coach, new staff, and a many unproven players. That team, then under coach Jim Harbaugh exceeded expectations coming out of the players strike and nearly made it to the Super Bowl. I will admit that going into that 2011 season, I was very skeptical of how good the team would be, mostly due to the team's schedule.
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Fast-forward four years to this season, and you see a lot of the same opponents that our last new head coach faced in his first year. Outside of the six divisional games that are always on our schedule, the 49ers face six of the teams they faced in 2011, mostly due to the match-up with the AFC North this season. The 2015 squad and storylines are oddly familiar to the 2011 team. The 49ers are breaking in a new secondary much like they were that season. The 49ers had issues with the center and guard spots leading into the 2011 season as well. All the 49ers did in 2011 was go 13-3.
It is a big leap to say that 2015 49ers will be able to catch that same magic and put together a successful campaign. There are a lot of question marks on this team that surely will cost us some big plays and games, but I do think that there is talent on this team. While my gut instinct says this team will likely go 6-10 or 8-8 under Tomsula in the first season, it wouldn't shock me one bit if this team went 10-6 or even 11-5 because there are some winnable games on our schedule and you have to think the 49ers will sneak in and steal a few on the road late in the season based on their defense and run game.
A few thoughts on the 49ers' preseason...
Early Returns: All signs point to Jarryd Hayne making the team and there is no reason that he shouldn't. The 49ers have not had a fearless return man like Hayne since the days of Vinnie Sutherland. While that is a rather odd reference, you might recall in 2011 the 49ers brought in another electric return man in Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn himself practically beat Seattle in game one of the 2011 season with two returns for touchdowns. With the passing game likely to struggle this season due to the offensive line, the 49ers need yards anyway they can get them. As long as Hayne is careful with the ball, I see no reason why he shouldn't be our primary punt returner.
Getting Defensive: While the offense was offensive against Denver in the regular season tune up, how about the defense? Bowman clearly is showing no signs of his injury and appears to be close to his All-Pro form. Even the secondary played really well against Manning and company. The biggest question for this team will be pass rush and how it equates to getting off the field on third down. Opponents were 27 of 65 against the 49ers on third down this preseason - which is about 41.54%. The 2014 team gave up 43.35% (88/203) while picking up 52 sacks and 23 interceptions. In 2013, the team was much better with 34.08% (77/223) and picked up only 38 sacks and 18 interceptions. If the team can get under that 40% conversion mark again, I think you are going to see a pretty good team. I was a little surprised by the Darnell Dockett release, but it makes sense to get the young guys playing time this season if the team is playing the long game on developing players. They have sat some potentially good defensive linemen behind other starters the last few years, and now is the time to see what they have.
Wide Open Wide Outs: It is clear the team is going to focus around a two wide-receiver and two tight-end set, but there will be times when the team will need to go deeper into the wide receiver stable. This is where I was hoping that Jerome Simpson would be able to contribute, but we won't see that until mid-season. The question is, 'Who will fill the void?' That likely will fall on Bruce Ellington who proved he has speed to play the slot. The biggest key to our passing game this season (outside of the offensive line) is Vernon Davis. The success of Davis and Torrey Smith are directly related because both are big play threats. Early season success with deep passes could make for a field day for Boldin and others on the underneath routes.
Offensively Offensive Offensive Line: Good thing we are a running team right? The passing game is going to be interesting for sure. While the 49ers have a few interesting prospects on the line, they are nowhere ready to contribute on a regular basis. While I called Boone moving to the left side of the line earlier in the off-season, I was really shocked they didn't try him at tackle in a game situation. He has experience there and could have been a pleasant surprise. Don't be shocked if the team makes a move after the cuts to bring in a guard or tackle. I'm assuming the team will go to a short passing game that relies on Kaepernick to get rid of the ball quick and reserve deep shots to a few times a game. This line is simply not ready for the vertical passing game being the centerpiece of the offense. Hopefully Colin Kaepernick is ready to run this season and would be well served to study some tape of Jeff Garcia circa 2000-2001 when he was a very advantageous runner when forced to be.