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It's not a foreign concept for a professional sports franchise to tear down its roster and try to build from the ground up again. After all, players get older, they move on, and it wouldn't be realistic to think you can maintain the same exact core group for an extended period of time. Rebuilding happens, and fans have to be patient while the process plays itself out. The only expectation one can and should have during the undertaking is that the team in the midst of the rebuild has a specific plan. You know, like an idea of what they actually want their franchise to look like. That's where I take issue with the San Francisco 49ers, and the current approach they're taking in regards to the roster. CEO Jed York is obviously rebuilding, I understand that, but who exactly are they rebuilding around?
While frustration had been mounting with York and general manager Trent Baalke for some time, even more confusion came after the 2015 season. The disastrous events that unfolded during that campaign had forced the San Francisco brass to reassess what they were doing in terms of the coaching staff and fire the overwhelmed Jim Tomsula after just one year. You can give York credit for that, but in reality, I don't think it was something he wanted to do, but something he had to do to save face. York seems like a person who's content in his own little bubble. In that bubble are probably a lot of people who tell the young owner what he wants to hear. Those same people most likely told him that firing Jim Harbaugh and going to Tomsula was a brilliant move. But then something happened. The backlash started to come at York from every angle from fans flying banners over the stadium and calling for his head on social media. York had to fire Tomsula and he knew it. The uprising forced his hand. I really believe that.
So then came the decision of who the next head coach would be, and ultimately that person was the controversial Chip Kelly. A supposed offensive guru, Kelly was brought in hoping to breathe new life into a team that only scored 238 points in 2015, and be the man who would help shape the upcoming rebuild along with Baalke. With a roster filled with glaring holes and inexperience, it was time to go to work.
The 49ers entered the offseason tens of millions of dollars under the salary cap and, while never smart to overpay in free agency, could have made a serious push for one or two players who could get them moving in the right direction (i.e. someone like WR Marvin Jones). But other than some smaller signings like G Zane Beadles and backup QB Thad Lewis, the front office did nothing to improve the football team. Now my theory behind that approach is this: The Yorks shelled out big bucks for Kelly and gave him $24 million over four years. On top of that, they still owed Tomsula $3.5 million for the next three years. That means the notoriously cheap Yorks owe two coaches $34.5 million through 2019. So I think that John York told his son something along the lines of, sure you can spend big on a coach, but that means you can't splurge on players. Now you can make the argument that you build through the draft, and I think that's 100 percent valid, but you have to supplement that in free agency, especially when your roster is devoid of talent.
So after free agency came and went, hopes were high that Baalke would address some of the major holes via the draft. After all, the rebuilding Niners had no quarterback signed past the 2016 season (QB Colin Kaepernick had a year-to-year deal), one legitimate running back, one receiving threat, middling tight ends, mostly career special teamers at inside linebacker and no pass rush. The needs were so obvious they were practically rolling on the ground and screaming right there in front of you.
The first thing that would jump out is, obviously, the quarterback because you kind of need one of those. It's the most important position in sports and teams that don't have one generally aren't very good or have a hard time sustaining success. To be fair, there were not any quarterbacks worth taking at seven overall when San Francisco took DL DeForest Buckner, but that wasn't the case as the draft moved on. Let's start with QB Paxton Lynch who was taken by the Denver Broncos at 26 overall. Sure, John Elway and company made an aggressive trade to go up and get him, but it's a move the Niners could have made as well. Instead, they were content to trade up to 28 overall and select G Joshua Garnett. Could Garnett end up being a good football player? Absolutely, but the guard position is not one you rebuild your team around. Without a second round pick due to the trade, San Francisco used its third and fourth round selections CB Will Redmond and CB Rashard Robinson, even though Baalke had taken four corners in 2014. Why redraft the same position over and over when you have so many other issues? Didn't Baalke himself prove that you can live with defensive backs like CB Tarell Brown and CB Carlos Rogers if you have a strong front seven?
While Baalke was busy filling (and refilling) positions that aren't really all that vital to a complete rebuild, many quarterbacks worth taking a chance on in the early rounds were coming off the board, some of whom have already had early success. QB Christian Hackenberg (51 overall), QB Jacoby Brissett (91 overall), QB Cody Kessler (93 overall), QB Connor Cook (100 overall) and QB Dak Prescott (135 overall) were all attainable for San Francisco. You'd have to imagine the Niners at least liked one of those signal callers, and any would have been a worthy pick over, say, the rehabbing Redmond. Even though Robinson looks like a good player, he was taken two picks before Prescott. You had already taken a corner. You had multiple corners on your roster. What are you doing taking another one when a quarterback like Prescott is sitting there at the end of the fourth round?
Eventually, the 49ers took QB Jeff Driskel in the sixth round, which was around the same round they finally decided to take a receiver (WR Aaron Burbridge) and a running back (RB Kelvin Taylor). Driskel got cut by the way. At least they got around to kind of addressing those positions, though, as tight end, inside linebacker, and pass rusher were ignored. I'll give you that DE Ronald Blair was an intriguing option in the fifth round, but this a team that's been running out OLB Eli Harold, OLB Tank Carradine, and what's left of OLB Ahmad Brooks. They needed help rushing the passer.
Now as this season has progressed, we've seen that the 49ers are a very bad football team. They can't stop anyone (last in the NFL in points allowed and rushing yards allowed), they can't move the ball (averaging 292 total yards per game) and you'd be hard pressed to find another winnable game on the schedule. Chicago Bears maybe?
On offense, they have no answer at quarterback and all signs point to having three completely new players at that position in 2017. RB Carlos Hyde is a very good back, but he's often injured and behind him are journeyman RB Shaun Draughn and RB Mike Davis. Are two backups who have combined career yards per carry of 2.96 really the depth you want? The tight ends are middle of the road at best, and the receivers sans WR Torrey Smith are a disaster, although WR Jeremy Kerley's been a nice surprise. The offensive line might have a few good pieces, but T Joe Staley isn't getting any younger and guys like Garnett and T Trent Brown are still question marks. So basically, the 49ers have a good running back who can't stay on the field, a nice deep threat who doesn't have anyone to throw him the ball, and an aging left tackle. Not a good start.
As bad as the offense is, the defense is probably more concerning though because on paper there appear to be some nice young pieces. Despite the promise, the unit has been terrible so far in 2016, and that has to give you some pause. On the surface, you can say you're building around Buckner, ILB NaVorro Bowman, CB Jimmie Ward and Robinson. DL Arik Armstead is promising but is he more than just a pass rushing lineman? Can he stop the run or hold the point of attack? OLB Aaron Lynch has been productive at times, but 12.5 sacks in 32 career games aren't dynamic by any means. Would he be a better complimentary pass rusher, maybe like Brooks was to OLB Aldon Smith? S Eric Reid has his moments, but he often struggles in coverage and is yet to fully build on the promise he showed during his 2013 Pro Bowl season.
So as this once proud franchise tries to climb out of the abyss it's currently in, who can you legitimately say are real building block pieces at the most vital positions? I'm not sure they exist, and the fact that so many of them have been ignored or devalued is mind-boggling. York, Kelly and whoever the general manager is in 2017 has to change their outdated, archaic approach, or the 49ers could be in the basement for the foreseeable future.
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