Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers are rebuilding, but who are they rebuilding around?

Al Sacco
Oct 21, 2016 at 9:33 AM8

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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
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Carl
    Pro football rather boring this season. Low scoring games. Drop in quality and skilled players ,which might explain drop in tv rating. Problem college players are not learning fundamentals and techniques especially offensive. Qb,Oline,and WOs. When drafted by pros. Takes a while before they can get on field. Most come from spread or pistol type offenses with simplfied play books. You would think these players would work on running crisp routes and Qbs work on playing under center during college careers. Prior to being drafted. Whatever their reason for not doing so. They are overwhelmed when they get to nfl. Finding the it's not just about power or speed ,which worked on college level. For my 49ers ,we suck! Baalke drafts the ways he does and won't change no matter what
    Oct 25, 2016 at 8:57 AM
  • Matt1
    This season reminds me of the 2004 season with the 2-14 record... that's when Dennis Erickson was the coach, in his 2nd year after Jed's father, John York, fired Mariucci. QBs were Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. If you're a real 49ers fan, you know the games are becoming unwatchable... When the team becomes the laughing stock of the league and as bad as the Cleveland Browns, the season ticket holders have every right to demand a refund of their expensive seat licenses and tickets.
    Oct 22, 2016 at 11:08 PM
  • Frank M
    Right now I'd say they're building around their OL and DL. It's kind of an unorthodox way to do it, but it can bear fruit IF they acquire the skill players on offense and a dominant NT on defense. The OL has already improved significantly from a year ago. Unfortunately, Kelly has neither a good receiving or RB corps. How well Kap can execute Coach's offense remains to be seen, but his effectiveness will still be limited by a less than stellar receiving corps and a thin backfield. Armstead & Buckner have taken their lumps, but are showing signs of improving play. There again, lack of a dominant NT and weak ILB play has cost the defense dearly. The weak pass rush is due in large part by the front 3 being overmatched on a weekly basis. The stronger the front 3 becomes, the better the pass rush and more positive plays from the secondary.
    Oct 22, 2016 at 12:10 PM
  • Mikecortese
    Trent Baalke has lost his ability to get this team back on track to win games, period. Granted Chip Kelly worked wondering with the Eagles but the Eagles had more talent then the Niners. We lost so many significant defensive players and offensive players that Kelly is trying to scrap up left overs to win games. Other than Torrey Smith, no real proven receivers. Now that Bowman is done, we have no solid backup linebackers that can stop the run. the Yorks have almost 60 millions dollars left in their pocket and the fans are paying for it. Fellow fans this season is over as we know it. We will be picking in the first round after the Jets and the Browns.
    Oct 22, 2016 at 9:23 AM
  • Fahad M
    SF problem in a nutshell: Their front office is very business oriented with a general manager who is defensive minded as their head coach is offensive minded who hired a subpar defensive coordinator. As you can see each hierarchy has a different agenda and mantra. The successful organizations like Pittsburgh, Denver, New England, and a few others everyone is on the same page and their respective hierarchies all have a common goal. SF can fire Baalke and maybe land a franchise QB but I am not sure that will solve all of SF 49ers problems.
    Oct 21, 2016 at 5:17 PM
  • RishikeshA
    Thank Al, It's interesting that you say that the money went toward the coaching position, not the stockpiling of players. Baalke must have convinced the Yorks that he can rebuild through the draft. One slight problem, he has shown no eye for offensive football. Chip is smarter than Baalke he will win out in a battle to stay employed.
    Oct 21, 2016 at 3:25 PM
  • Shawn
    It's unbelievable that Baalke still has a job. The guy has destroyed a Super Bowl roster. Absolutely destroyed it.
    Oct 21, 2016 at 3:14 PM
  • Niner
    They are clearly building around the salary cap. Yorks goal is to be the most under the cap team of the decade.
    Oct 21, 2016 at 12:51 PM

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