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"I know the 49ers are bad." Dan LeBatard, star of Highly Questionable on ESPN spoke those words on Tuesday when the question was posed as to whether Monday night's 28-0 49ers victory over the Rams was because the Rams are a bad team, or the 49ers are a good team. LeBatard seemed to opt for none of the above, asserting that both teams are bad.
Bomani Jones, LeBatard's co-star, chimed in on his on syndicated ESPN radio show, The Right Time with Bomani Jones. "Wow, this roster is bad," added Jones while scrolling through the 49ers' depth chart.
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In both of their defense, they are both hosts on national platforms that don't only cover football, but all sports. Even analysts who focus on football can only watch but so much film on 32 teams. How many national sports personalities ever actually watch an entire 49ers football game that doesn't appear on national TV? Why would they have any incentive to do that? Why would they follow the team's progress to see how draft picks are developing?
Look no further than the preseason Power Rankings of most respected national publications to see how the 49ers roster is viewed. They were ranked in the bottom three of all 32 teams in virtually every publication. Do the 49ers have a bad roster? Absolutely not.
Looking at talent alone: the ability to play the game of football at a high level, the 49ers have plenty of talented players. There are other variables that determine whether or not the talent will translate into wins, but a close look at the talent level, or supposed lack thereof, reveals a lot more talent than the average national pundit would have you believe the 49ers possess.
Let's start up front in the trenches where coaches consistently insist that games are won and lost. Right tackle Trent Brown was drafted in the 7th round of the 2015 draft. He only appeared in 5 games last year, and started 2. Why would LeBatard, Jones, or anyone else think Trent Brown is a good player? Why would they pay any attention to him?
The Denver Broncos' Von Miller, one of the most dominant edge rushers of this generation said of Brown, "He's 6'8, he knows how to use his arms, knows how to use his wingspan, he has length. So I feel like, he's young, and people haven't really seen him, but I feel like he's one of the better tackles in the National Football League."
Why would anyone who doesn't watch the 49ers games know that Andrew Tiller is a talented guard? From weeks 6 through 15 last season, Pro Football Focus ranked Tiller as the #4 guard in the NFL. How many people really know that Daniel Kilgore is a talented center?
Starting left guard Zane Beadles is a former Pro Bowler who played well enough in camp and the preseason to keep 1st round pick Joshua Garnett out of the starting lineup. Joe Staley has the respect of all of his peers and has long been considered one of the best left tackles in the NFL. The offensive line is talented enough that you have two first round picks, Garnett and tackle Anthony Davis, who can't even crack the starting lineup.
The 49ers defensive line rotation includes the much heralded defensive end duo of former Oregon draftees Arik Armstead and this year's first round pick Deforest Buckner. Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell played significant minutes in the opener, while the presumptive starter at nose tackle, Glenn Dorsey, fully recovers for a knee injury. By any measure, this is a talented defensive line group.
Behind them, the linebackers include Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, and Aaron Lynch who's currently serving a 4-game suspension. Outside linebacker Eli Harold has stepped in during his suspension. Ray-Ray Armstrong seems to have emerged as the victor of the three-way competition to start alongside Bowman at inside linebacker. Bowman is still arguably the best in the NFL at his position, and Top 5 at worst. Brooks' best days may be behind him, but he is still a good player, if not always consistently, and an improved defensive line only helps that. Lynch has solidified his place as the team's best pass rusher, and the replacement combination of Harold and Tank Carradine played well in the season opener. That linebacker corps certainly doesn't rival the famed group of 2012, but it is not a group that is devoid of talent by any stretch of the imagination.
The secondary is anchored by one of the better safety tandems in the NFL: Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid. Bethea is a three-time Pro Bowler and Reid made the Pro Bowl his rookie year, before consistently proving to be one of the more talented young safeties in the league. Concussion problems seemed to hinder his aggression a bit, but it returned full force towards the end of last year.
According to Pro Football Focus, starting cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Jimmy Ward were the highest rated 49ers' defensive players in week one. They will be tested, and with their relative lack of height (Ward is 5'11", Brock is 5'10"), it will be interesting to see how they matchup against bigger wide receivers, beginning with the Carolina Panthers' 6'5" wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. However, there is no denying that they are talented.
Running back Carlos Hyde is obviously talented. The only question people have about Hyde is his durability and ability to stay on the field. Backup Shaun Draughn is a journeyman who seems to have found his niche with the Niners, but it is understandable that people question his ability considering that the Niners are his 6th team in 5 NFL seasons.
The two position groups that are probably the least talented overall are the quarterbacks and wide receivers, and that may be where much of the perception that the 49ers have an overall lack of talent comes from. They are the glamour positions in the NFL, and if you don't have players putting up big numbers at these two positions, especially in today's fantasy football-crazy climate, casual observers will take that as a reflection of the overall talent level of the team as a whole. There are players in both of those groups looking to dispel that notion, and in Chip Kelly's offense they might, but it is fair to question the talent level of those two groups as compared to the better teams in the NFL.
However, as a whole, upon closer observation, the 49ers clearly have a lot of talent on their team. Again, talent has to be realized, players have to be coached, and they have to work hard to see the desired results from the talent. How far this group can go remains to be seen, but if the 49ers do finish with a poor record, it will not be because of an overall lack of talent.
There are several teams who are considered Super Bowl contenders with glaring holes at key positions, and starters who would not even be on their team if they could help it. The 49ers had that situation last year in a couple of instances. This year they don't. Observers who think the 49ers have very little talent might be surprised if they take a closer look.