Changes are coming, 49er Faithful. It's unavoidable. The extent of those changes remains to be seen, as rumors out of 4949 Centennial suggest that the York family is looking for reasons to believe in Chip Kelly – reasons enough to bring him back in 2017. Without a doubt, the roster must change for the 49ers to return to competency. With that in mind, we'll take a look at the existing 49ers roster and identify players that a competitive team can be built around. The team will undoubtedly keep more players than I have listed here, but these are players that could serve important roles in allowing the 49ers to return to prominence.
NaVorro Bowman: Yes, he's had two major injuries in 2.5 years, but his talent, his will, and his leadership are unquestionably tops on this roster. Unlike most of the leaders on the 49ers roster, Bowman has a strong voice, and he knows how to use it. His play and his work ethic inspire his peers, but his message is unrelenting: the 49ers can be as good as they want to be when they are willing to work for it. Chip Kelly has praised the professionalism of the 49ers players this season, but there is no question that the defense has been out of position more frequently as starters have fallen. If Bowman was still leading the way out on the field in practices and games, would it be a stretch to suggest that the young players forced into service would be more diligent in their preparation and more disciplined in their assignments?
Support this writer and shop Amazon
It speaks great volumes about his presence and influence that he's been on the IRL for months, but the 49ers bring him to away games. He is not required to travel with the team while on Injured Reserve, and the team has no obligation to pay his way to games. Clearly, he is personally invested enough to be on the sideline with his team, and the team recognizes something in him that makes him a worthwhile addition to the travel manifest.
Joe Staley: It's overly simplistic to suggest that Staley is to the offense what Bowman is to the defense, but there are similarities. Staley will not have any opportunities to tour as a motivational speaker after his career, but he is hard, honest, and blunt to the point that he seems incapable of BS. In a training camp media session I attended, he used at least 5 separate adjectives to describe the poor play of the 2015 offensive line. At least one of those descriptive terms isn't fit for publication here. He was right; they were terrible, and the man who brashly declared, "We don't stink!" about a struggling, still jelling unit early in 2011, called them out publicly for it this summer. When Trent Brown was impressing everyone who saw him with his size, length, strength, and footwork, Staley was out there saying that Brown should be the best in the league, and only a failure to work toward realizing his potential could limit his greatness.
Beyond his outspoken nature, he remains the 49ers best offensive lineman, still draws the most difficult blocking assignments on most plays, and still does a pretty good job executing those assignments. While he doesn't seem quite as consistent as he was 2-3 years ago, he is still an impressive athlete at the position, and he holds his linemates accountable for mistakes, often immediately. With the ever-increasing likelihood that the 49ers will be breaking in a new quarterback next season, that QB's protection becomes paramount to the future of the franchise. At 32 years old, he's getting up there in age, but the youth of some of his fellow starters helps stave off the dreaded Rule of 150, a widely accepted harbinger of doom for offensive lines that I'll touch on soon in a piece about the future of the offensive line.
Carlos Hyde: He's the only star on the 49ers offense this year. The performance and potential on the offensive line go widely unnoticed by most fans, but Hyde's performance in a struggling offense has been impossible to ignore. He's running hard, running with patience and vision, and staying relatively healthy. Again, the 49ers are likely to have a new and inexperienced starting quarterback next year, and inexperienced quarterbacks are aided immensely in their development by a consistently productive running game. Hyde is unquestionably the best runner on the 49ers roster, and his physicality at the end of runs can set the tone for an offense.
DeForest Buckner: 3-4 Defensive Ends that play every snap without taking plays off are rare. Adding in Buckner's ability to win occasionally as an edge rusher, in addition to the interior dominance that is expected of elite 3-4 DEs on passing downs, and you have a special talent. His length, power, agility, and stamina are all extraordinary. Buckner needs to work hard through the offseason to get more comfortable settling low on his anchor against double teams, but he has demonstrated no lack of work ethic to train out that one deficiency.
Arik Armstead: In 2015, Armstead was the big, long, surprisingly athletic 3-4 defensive end out of Oregon who needed to work on pad level. In 2016, during training camp, he was an unblockable force. His leverage was right, his feet were too quick, his arms too long, and his hands too violent. The 49ers were expecting a breakout year from him, and it was impossible to watch him and not see why. His shoulder injury before the start of the season robbed him of that breakout opportunity, but his healthy return, along with Buckner's further development, has to be cause for optimism on a defense that has little to feel good about.
Trent Brown: Wow. His size, length, and footwork were impressive the first time he stepped onto the practice field. The work he has put in to get more efficiency and performance out of his body has been equally impressive and is still ongoing. That's the scary part for front seven defenders throughout the league: Trent Brown is going to keep improving by leaps. He needs to be more consistent in all aspects of his game, but his flash plays show complete dominance, both in the run game and in pass protection. Last week in Atlanta, he so completely neutralized the Falcons' star edge defender, Vic Beasley, as a pass rusher that Atlanta changed tactics and set Beasley on the offense's left side to get him away from Brown. With further development of overall fitness and more fluid, consistent knee bend, he could be the eventual replacement for Joe Staley at Left Tackle, which would answer a HUGE question for this team going forward.
Jimmie Ward: Yes, he might be the 49ers' best cornerback. What's more impressive is that he's also likely the team's best safety. While he hasn't had much opportunity to play safety for the 49ers, his college film shows a fast, hard-hitting, sure-tackling enforcer, who was able to change games with his instincts, ball skills, and acceleration to the point of the catch. As good as he has been at CB and nickel back, using his agility, acceleration, and strength to stick with WRs through their breaks, he was so much more impressive at safety reacting swiftly and explosively to plays as they happened in front of him. With enough development by other candidates to man the outside at CB, it's possible we could see Ward playing up to his full potential as a starting safety in the future. Injuries could be a concern, as they often are with undersized safeties.
Vance McDonald: I know. No, stop it. I KNOW. I've seen the drops, too. While they were less frequent this year, they were still occurring too frequently, and often on easy catches. The thing is, McDonald doesn't actually have bad hands. He has inconsistent concentration. Guys who can extend for difficult catches in traffic, but who doink perfect passes that drop into the bucket do not have bad hands. There is no doubt that McDonald can and certainly should continue to work to decrease the drops, through distraction drills and endless repetitions in front of the jugs machine. With all of that, he has been the only consistent big-play threat in the passing game, and young QBs need big TEs as safety valves. McDonald needs to be that guy.
Jaquiski Tartt: The defensive secondary needs a big, strong safety who makes wide receivers afraid to roam between the numbers and deeper than eight yards. Tartt could be that guy. Tartt NEEDS to be that guy. WRs have had nothing to fear in the 49ers' backfield for too long. For an oversized safety who hits like a truck, Tartt runs amazingly fast, showcasing his speed by running down kick returners and WRs from behind. He occasionally needs to take better angles on defense, so he's squaring up more of those WRs from the front, rather than running them down from behind, but all of the tools are there. With Eric Reid out for the year, Tartt is getting the reps he needs to correct those angles, increase his read and react skills with repetition, and let the game slow down for him. A future combination of Tartt with Ward at safety could grant the 49ers the fastest pairing of safeties in the NFL, with the added bonus that both players can deliver punishment when they arrive at the ball.
Joshua Garnett: He's everything we expected. He is a punishing, angry physical blocker in the run game, whose aggressiveness leads him to occasionally overextend and lose position in pass protection. While he needs to calm down and let the action come to him as a pass protector, he's an enthusiastic, intelligent, and dedicated young player who will work diligently as he continues to correct that hole in his game. He brings a lot of what Mike Iupati used to provide, without the frequent nagging injuries and the 5 WTF???? blocks per game. Someone on every good offensive line needs to be nasty. This guy is nasty.
Zane Beadles: I was unhappy when Beadles got the starting nod over Andrew Tiller. I still think Tiller is the better guard. Beadles value doesn't lie in his performance at guard, though. As a guy who only played left guard his entire career, Beadles has provided shocking versatility. He filled in at left tackle and center in the same game, and it's hard to see much drop off from Daniel Kilgore to Beadles when watching the center position. Unlike Kilgore, Beadles doesn't lose time to injury, and he could potentially be the guy to solidify that position for the future. The biggest hole in his game is his lack of explosive power at the point of attack, particularly when pulling. As a center, he would rarely pull, and his power would be more than adequate.
Glenn Dorsey: Man, this defense needs a nose. The ends have not been perfect, but this defense works much better when a competent nose tackle is occupying blockers and allowing the inside linebackers to make plays. Dorsey is not a dominant NT, but he is an adequate one. He is also the oldest and most highly regarded voice in this position group. He's never going to provide the constant challenge and unreachable example of work ethic that shaped several young 49ers while Justin Smith was the man, but he can teach the young defensive linemen how to learn from film, how to maintain their bodies through the season, and how to use crafty tricks to gain an inch of leverage here and there.
Ray-Ray Armstrong: He can cover tight ends. That's got to be pretty exciting in of itself. Armstrong looks too lanky to play inside linebacker. The knock on him, as recent as 2015, was that his coverage skills were overshadowed by the liability he presented in the run game. As a converted safety who looked too light to play ILB, that assessment made perfect sense. Armstrong stepped up his play dramatically in the preseason and the first two games of the regular season, diagnosing run plays quickly and inserting forcefully to make plays at and behind the line of scrimmage. While the 49ers should not hesitate to bring in competition at this position, fans should not be upset at all if Armstrong again wins the competition to start next to Navorro Bowman.
Rashard Robinson: Talent. Confidence. Dogness. Okay, maybe "dogness" isn't a word. My word processor appears set on that conclusion. Here's the deal: Frank Gore said it, and few people know football better than Frank Gore. Everybody in the NFL has talent, and every one of those talented players has been the best guy on their team, at some point. Gore stated a few years ago that the 49ers needed players with "dogness," which he described at different times as a mix of nastiness, and unshakable confidence that prevented a player from being intimidated by an opponent or a situation. Robinson walked onto the practice field near the bottom of the depth chart, worked his way onto the field on Sundays, and never backs down from an opponent on the field. He can shake off big completions and stick to WRs like glue. He's been surprisingly willing and capable as a tackler. Film study, off season strength training, and technique work will make him a more consistent performer, but his length, speed, agility, and "dogness" could make him a star.
Tramaine Brock: He gets beat deep. He doesn't get beat often, but when he gets beat it really hurts. Maybe that's why so many 49er fans want him gone? Brock doesn't make an awful lot of money, and he is rarely in a bad position on a pass play, so it is occasionally confusing why 49er fans resent him. Yes, he does surrender deep completions and touchdowns at times, but he is also on an island more than he has been in the past. With Antoine Bethea slowing down and Eric Reid playing more cautiously, the 49ers cornerbacks haven't had the same protection over the top of the defense that they've had in the past, and that as hurt their stats and public perception. Brock is a good corner. He plays well in aggressive press-man technique, he reacts well as a zone defender, and he is intelligent enough to execute pattern match schemes seamlessly. On top of that, he tackles well. With better safety play, he'd likely be a fan favorite. If he continues to play at a high level and Robinson continues to develop, they could secure that better safety play by allowing Jimmie Ward to transition back to safety.
Aaron Lynch: How did he get down here? This was the guy who was going to make everyone but Aldon Smith forget about Aldon Smith. Suspension, injuries, and offseason conditioning concerns have slowed Lynch's development and hidden his potential. He has length, power, and surprising acceleration and lateral agility for such an oversized outside linebacker. He needs to pull those impressive attributes together with a professional's desire to develop his skills and dominate consistently. 2016 was supposed to be the year that he established himself as a star and ate into the vast salary cap surplus the 49ers had prepared to spend to secure their future roster by extending their most promising homegrown talent. Instead, he will have to prove his worth in his contract year in 2017.
Andrew Tiller: He should be a solid keeper. He consistently performs well, and he provides power at the point of attack that the 49ers aren't getting out of every starting offensive lineman. He can't be a fixture on the team if the coaches won't play him, though. While he may lack the foot speed and overall mobility that Chip Kelly seeks in an ideal guard for his scheme, Tiller just gets the job done. He can play either guard position, he consistently moves his man off the ball on running plays, and he has a strong anchor against bull rushes in pass protection.
Eli Harold: Harold will never be a sack master, but he gets enough leverage on is edge rush to prevent quarterbacks from escaping the pocket to the outside, setting the table for a more gifted rusher to make plays more easily on the QB. He is effective at setting the edge against outside runs, and he pursues aggressively to the football. He should not be a starter without significant further development, but he provides quality depth and dependable play at low cost and with a great attitude.
Cornelius Carradine: "Tank" Carradine has been a disappointment. He has not pressured the quarterback like everyone expected him to when he came out in the draft as a first round talent that the 49ers stole in the second round because he was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his senior season. At Florida State University, he displayed surprising speed for a large, heavily muscled 4-3 defensive end, and he consistently disrupted opposing passing offenses while attacking from a wide 9 alignment. Returning to the edge, after a failed experiment to play him as a heavier interior lineman, has not resulted in an uptick in production as a pass rusher. His speed hasn't been enough to compensate for his stiffness that limits his ability to bend around the corner, and his power hasn't been enough to drive tackles far enough in the pocket to consistently knock the QB off of his spot. While he has not performed like a "first round talent" should, he provides adequate containment on runs and supplies some push on the pocket during pass plays. He shouldn't be released until better depth is brought in.
Eric Reid: Reid has suffered scary concussions in the NFL, and they appear to have affected his play. He is not the game-changing hitter he was as a Pro Bowl rookie. He has cleaned up some issues he had with incorrect pursuit angles, but he doesn't provide enough in pass defense. His lack of elite ball skills is no longer offset by his speed and size, which he had previously employed to separate receivers from the football at the catch point. He appears to defend more cautiously, either consciously or subconsciously protecting himself from further concussive injury. The 49ers probably cannot afford to lose Reid and Bethea in the same offseason, so they should allow the younger of the two to play out his final contract year in 2017, hopefully relegating him to lighter service in sub packages, while allowing the more athletic, more aggressive Ward and Tartt to grow together as the new starting duo.
Will Redmond: He hasn't played a regular-season snap, but a few minutes watching his dominance in college should alleviate concerns over his lost rookie season. Redmond has elite agility, speed, acceleration, ball skills, and instincts. He looked terrible through much of the preseason, as he played before he was fully recovered, likely in a foolish attempt to make good on Trent Baalke's overzealous post-draft declaration that Redmond would play in 2016. He could and should immediately step into the role as the 49ers' best nickel defender, and he could threaten to unseat someone as an outside corner as well.
Daniel Kilgore: He can play center, and the 49ers can win with him there. He just needs to contribute 16 games in a season. Injuries have dogged Kilgore's career, affecting the ability of the 49ers' offensive line to develop cohesion and familiarity. If he can stay healthy, he's a valuable player to keep on this roster, but his repeated injuries may make him more valuable as a versatile backup who can play all three of the interior positions in a pinch.
Torrey Smith: He has a well-defined skill set that affects defenses when it is properly utilized, but that skill set hasn't been employed by the 49ers this season. Torrey Smith can win deep, pulling safety help his way to free up other receivers and unload the box to provide room for the running backs. In Baltimore, he racked up yards even when he didn't catch that pass, drawing more defensive pass interference calls than any other WR in the league. None of these benefits occur if the 49ers don't push the ball to him when he wins deep. Until he is used as an important weapon in the offense, he will not be an important player on the roster. He should be. Whoever coaches the 49ers in 2017 needs to find a way to make defenses respect Smith again, or pay dearly when they don't.