Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports



It's no secret that 2017 is a rebuilding year for the San Francisco 49ers.

49ers general manager John Lynch would never admit it – nor would he attempt to rebrand the team's rebuild a "reload" like his predecessor – but his offseason actions speak louder than his words.

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49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, like all competitors, hates to lose. He doesn't try to hide his frustration during post-game press conferences, or after errant third-down pass attempts:


Every NFL franchise wants to win, but over the offseason, the 49ers prioritized winning in the future over winning right now. Lynch and Shanahan inherited a 2-14 team that was multiple key pieces away from becoming a playoff-caliber team. The 49ers were fairly active in free agency, signing a number of starters, including quarterback Brian Hoyer, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and wide receivers Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin. Still, the Niners could have been much more active, as they currently lead the league in salary cap space after failing to spend nearly 40-percent of the 2017 salary cap.

The 49ers were also active during the 2017 NFL Draft, executing two first-round trades to land a pair of potential stars in defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster. The Niners finished the weekend with 10 new draftees, and then immediately signed a number of undrafted free agents. The 49ers initial 53-man roster was shockingly rookie-heavy, featuring every one of the team's 2017 draft picks – save running back Joe Williams who was placed on injured reserve – and five additional undrafted free agents. The 2016 49ers may have been a two-win team, but every team has talented players on its roster, so the 49ers' influx of new blood meant some productive players had to go.

Wide receiver Jeremy Kerley – whom the team obtained in a late-preseason trade -- was the 49ers' leading receiver in 2016, with a 40-percent market share of the team's wide receiver receptions. Lynch and Shanahan rewarded Kerley with a new three-year, $10.5 million contract, with $1.8 million guaranteed – and then they cut him.

The 49ers released Kerley so they could keep three rookie wide receivers on their roster: Trent Taylor, Victor Bolden and Kendrick Bourne. Taylor was penciled in as Kerley's direct replacement at starting slot receiver and punt returner. Bolden was the team's new kick returner, and Bourne was the lone 49ers receiver over 6-feet tall.

In Kerley's first four games of 2016, and just weeks after his initial signing, he amassed 18 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown. Week 5 would be his coming-out party, with an additional eight receptions for 102 yards and a score. Kerley also returned four punts over the first four weeks, averaging 14.3 yards-per-return.

In Taylor's first four games of 2017, he has 11 catches for 93 yards and one score, and as a punt returner, he has a very respectable 11.0 yards-per-return. Bolden has been active in three games, but predominantly on special teams; before Goodwin's Week 4 injury, Bolden played only two offensive snaps. In the kicking game, Bolden has averaged 22.9 yards-per-return, while cornerback Chris Davis averaged 24.5 yards-per-return in the 49ers' first four games of 2016. Bourne has been active in only one game in 2017 and has seen the field for just three offensive plays.

Tight end Vance McDonald was one of the more polarizing 49ers in recent memory; the former second-rounder could as easily drop a ball in the open field as he could take a three-yard pass and outrun the defense for a 65-yard score. As a parting gift to the team before his firing last year, then-general manager Trent Baalke signed McDonald to a five-year, $35 million extension, with $9.1 million guaranteed.

McDonald – like Kerley – never played a down under his new contract. In late August, the 49ers traded McDonald to the Pittsburgh Steelers for meager compensation, electing to begin the season with rookie George Kittle as the team's starting tight end, along with Logan Paulsen and Garrett Celek. It was a surprising move, given the fact that tight ends usually have difficult transitions from the NCAA to the NFL; in fact, in the last 25 years, only one rookie tight end drafted as late as Kittle amassed as many yards as McDonald did in 11 games last season. And ironically -- for those who complained about McDonald's drops – both Paulsen and Celek had worse drop rates than McDonald last year.

In McDonald's first four games of 2016, he caught seven passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns. In Kittle's first four games, he has 10 receptions for 83 yards – and his two drops are tied for the most among tight ends. Meanwhile, Paulsen and Celek have a combined two catches and one drop on four targets.

It's unfair to blame Kittle for his lackluster performance, since he's a rookie tight end experiencing predictable growing pains; even if he continues at his current rate of production, a 40-reception, 332-yard rookie season vastly exceeds expectations for a fifth-round rookie. The real problem for the 49ers is their lack of a second tight end option in the passing game, which limits Shanahan's ability to call passing plays out of heavy sets – a staple of his offensive scheme. Last week, the 49ers used a single tight end on each of their 22 third-down plays, and were largely unsuccessful. However, Shanahan and Lynch may have recognized their self-imposed offensive limitation, as they began working out free-agent tight ends earlier this week.

With a quarter of the season completed, the 49ers are a winless team that could easily be 3-1; the Niners lost their last three games by a combined eight points, with a handful of plays determining win or loss. What would the team's record be if its front office hadn't decided to go young before the season? Lynch and Shanahan – with their six-year contracts – are betting that by sacrificing now, the 49ers' future will be brighter, and that current growing pains will translate to future success.