sharesShare this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Google+ Share this on Tumblr Flip into Flipboard Share this on Reddit Share via SMS Share via Email
After what's seemed like an endless offseason, the San Francisco 49ers are finally ready to kickoff their exhibition slate. Like any team that's rebuilding, the Niners face a myriad of questions throughout the entire roster. But while the defense seems to have some promising cornerstone pieces in place, the other side of the ball is a complete mystery. Here are five burning questions facing the San Francisco offense in 2016.
1) Who's the quarterback?
When l look at Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, I see two quarterbacks headed in different directions. After taking the league by storm in 2012, Kaepernick has seen his career go off the rails the past two seasons, and has regressed as a passer. In his last 13 starts, Kaepernick has thrown for 174 yards or less in nine of them, and the team averaged a league worst 14.38 points per game. Not surprisingly, the Niners are 3-10 during that span. It seems like the more Kaepernick is asked to do, the worse he gets.
On the other side is Gabbert, who improved dramatically last season from the non-functional player we saw with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In eight games last year, Gabbert threw for 2,031 yards, completed 63.1 percent of this throws and had a TD/INT ratio of 10/7. By comparison, Brock Osweiler threw for less yards (1,976), had a lower completion percentage (61.8) and also had 10 touchdown throws in eight games of his own with the Denver Broncos. Osweiler, who is only a year younger than Gabbert, saw his performance get him a $72 million free agent contract with the Houston Texans.
Those in Gabbert's camp would argue that if he can improve under Jim Tomsula and Geep Cryst that he could absolutely continue to get better under Chip Kellly. On the flip side, Kaepernick supporters would say that he's already shown he can play on the big stage, and he just needs a coach like Kelly to get him right again. Either way, the past is the past, and this competition will come down to whoever moves the offense better during the preseason games.
2) Is there anyone to throw to?
Other than Anquan Boldin and (at times) Michael Crabtree, the 49ers have actually struggled to find consistent receiving options since Terrell Owens left town. 2016 looks to be another year of question marks as the there isn't a whole lot of proven production behind Torrey Smith. While Smith can provide the big play, the Niners will need someone to help move chains. Bruce Ellington is an option to keep an eye on, as he could be a target monster in the slot. Still, it's hard to put all your faith in someone who has 19 career receptions. The same can be said for Quinton Patton, who has impressed in camp and looks to be the front runner to start opposite Smith on the outside. Patton saw career highs in targets (57), receptions (30) and yards (394) last season, but has yet to prove he can be a consistent starter in the league.
Jerome Simpson is a veteran presence, but he hasn't played meaningful snaps since 2013 while a member of the Minnesota Vikings. There are also youngsters like DeAndre Smelter, DeAndrew White and Aaron Burbridge, but in reality you probably can't expect too much from them so early in their development (if at all).
3) Could the offensive line be better than people think?
Anyone saying the 49ers still have one of worst fronts in football simply isn't paying attention. Sure, the o-line was terrible for most of last season, but it started to show some promise when youngsters Andrew Tiller and Trent Brown were inserted late in the year. This season, the line looks to be deep and talented, as the additions of rookie Joshua Garnett and the returning Anthony Davis will go a long way in solidifying the once shaky unit.
Garnett (who was recently moved to left guard) and Davis are currently seeing snaps with the second team, but both should be promoted sooner than later. That would make your starting five from left to right, Joe Staley, Garnett, Daniel Kilgore (who may have been the team's best o-lineman before getting hurt in 2014), Tiller, and Davis. That means Brown and Zane Beadles, both of whom looked like starters not too long ago, would headline a deep reserve group. The arrow is, without a doubt, pointing up in the trenches.
4) Can we put Carlos Hyde in bubble wrap?
While he only has 198 career carries, you wouldn't be wrong in saying that Hyde looks the part of a feature back. The 49ers are going to lean on their talented runner, and it's possible he'll get upwards of 350 touches in 2016 if he can stay healthy. That "if" is a big one though for a back who's already missed 11 games over his first two years in the league. It remains to be seen if Hyde will change his punishing running style, and attempt to avoid contact instead of trying to run through it.
If Hyde does miss time, the options behind him are a little scary. Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris are currently listed as Hyde's main backups, but neither has been able to stick with a team in the league for very long (although both playing well at times last year). Rookie Kelvin Taylor and second-year runner Mike Davis will have every opportunity to earn snaps, and both should get a long look in the preseason. Davis especially must show his worth, after only gaining 58 yards on 35 attempts in 2015 (and that was with a 13-yard gain mixed in there).
5) Will anyone separate themselves at tight end?
Did you know that Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell only have six more career receptions combined (82) than Bruce Miller has all by himself (76). Moving Miller to tight end was a smart move by Kelly, who can still utilize the versatile former fullback in different packages. Still, no one knows how Miller will take to the position, or how many snaps he'll actually play. What the 49ers really need is someone to step up and show they can make plays in the passing game. McDonald developed a nice rapport with Gabbert last year and caught 23 passes in seven games. He'd only managed 17 receptions in 30 games with Kaepernick. Bell also came on a bit with Gabbert under center, pulling down 12 of his 15 catches with him. Celek is probably better suited as a blocker, but did have a career high in receptions (19), yards (186) and touchdowns (3) last season. Can anyone in this foursome separate themselves and become the undisputed starter?
Al Sacco has been covering the 49ers since 2013, and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via Twitter @AlSacco49