Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports



With a slew of changes this offseason, the 2017 San Francisco 49ers are both better and worse than you might think.


The 2017 San Francisco 49ers will be a vastly improved team compared to last year's product.

And yet the changes brought in by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan aren't going to turn the Niners' fortunes around anytime soon.

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In many ways, San Francisco will be both better and worse than you might think this upcoming season. Let's start off with the problems. Those are always the tougher pills to swallow.

How the 49ers Are Worse


The 49ers aren't suddenly going to be a playoff team in 2017. No, this rebuild will take time. We get that. But there are a number of pressing issues not quite addressed.

First and foremost, the offensive line is a pressing problem. While the 2016 grouping was vastly better than what was featured the year before, San Francisco's O-line still struggled to support the rushing attack and wasn't particularly impressive in pass protection either. According to Football Outsiders, the 2016 O-line ranked 30th in pass protection and dead last in run blocking. Outside of veteran left tackle Joe Staley, not one of the Niners starters posted a Pro Football Focus grade above 80. And guards Zane Beadles and Joshua Garnett finished with 40.2 and 42.4 overall marks, respectively.

Sure, adding center Jeremy Zuttah to the mix helps. The 2016 Pro Bowler is going to be essential in head coach Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme. And perhaps free-agent pickups, including Brandon Fusco and Tim Barnes, add to the competition here.

Scheme will be important, though. Right tackle Trent Brown isn't an ideal fit, Staley is aging and the 49ers have major questions at guard heading into training camp. Competition is good, but are the players who make the top of the depth chart going to be substantially better than last year?

It's important to remember how good O-lines can make OK quarterbacks and tailbacks look almost elite. If the opposite applies, even the best offenses can get stagnant in a hurry.

Onto the defense.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will implement his 4-3 under scheme in 2017 and will also feature a lot of Cover 3 with a single-high safety. That's ideal if a defense's pass rush is performing at a high-level and if a team's defensive backs can operate effectively in one-on-one coverage.

The problem here is San Francisco lacks an elite pass-rusher. In this scheme, the best pass-rushers will be featured in the right defensive end spot, or LEO position in this particular grouping. Ideally, edge rusher Aaron Lynch will fill the void here. But according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Grant Cohn, Lynch showed up to minicamp overweight and could wind up on the team's chopping block:


Perhaps defensive end Arik Armstead fills this role and does well enough. But he's not your prototypical EDGE, rather more of an interior pass-rusher.

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Any lack of pressure up front could easily expose a very young crop of cornerbacks. We figure second-year pro Rashard Robinson and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon will start here -- since San Francisco's depth at corner isn't particularly great. But young defensive backs take time to adjust to life at the NFL level. Robinson went through his own during the second half last year after a strong start. And that was in a much different scheme, frequently featuring help over the top.

There will be growing pains, and the pass defense could look ugly for quite some time.

How the 49ers Are Better


Not all the news is bad. In fact, the Niners may be much better than the 4.5 wins at which Vegas odds are currently set.

One of the key weaknesses San Francisco dealt with last year was its run defense. It was historically bad, to put things lightly. But adding nose tackle Earl Mitchell via free agency, as well as defensive end Solomon Thomas via the NFL Draft, helps tremendously.

Thomas, in particular, received lofty grades for his collegiate run defense, per Pro Football Focus. Much better than his two defensive line predecessors, Armstead and DeForest Buckner:


And as long as rookie linebacker Reuben Foster (shoulder) enters the 2017 season with a clean bill of health, the Niners may actually have four bona fide playmakers within the front seven -- Foster, Thomas, Buckner and NaVorro Bowman.

That's not bad at all. Actually, it's pretty good.

Offensively, the 49ers took a blue-chip approach to most of their upgrades. While wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin wouldn't be considered No. 1 receivers on most good teams, both are easy second-target options capable of both stretching the field and providing reliable hands. Paired with returnee wideout Jeremy Kerley, who led San Francisco with 667 receiving yards last year, the Niners actually boast something that resembles a receiving corps. Again, an improvement over last season.

And don't sleep on tight end George Kittle either. Had he not played at a relatively obscure Iowa program, Kittle might have been in the discussion for a day-two draft pick instead of Round 5, where the Niners nabbed him.

But let's shift our focus for a second to quarterback Brian Hoyer.

Hoyer will get the start for most, if not all, of 2017. And that's fine. The veteran journeyman managed a career-high 13.7 passing-yards-per-completion average back in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns, which was tops in the NFL. His offensive coordinator then? Shanahan. And that Browns team had even fewer weapons at Hoyer's disposal.

Hoyer isn't going to wow or electrify San Francisco's offense this season. He's a stopgap option, but it's not the worst quarterback situation out there. If anything, it's pretty good. He knows the system and has had success when given the opportunity to start.

Sure, the 49ers are still going to be pretty bad this season. Perhaps worse in some areas this year than last. But they've also made strides in the right direction, which may force some critics to turn heads over the course of 2017.

For this rebuild project, that's all Niners fans could hope for.

Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise and 49ers Webzone and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to @PeterPanacy on Twitter.