Four years ago, the San Francisco 49ers began a stretch of playing in three straight NFC Championship Games, from 2011-13. The past two seasons, the 49ers have been in a bit of turmoil.
San Francisco parted ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 season after he finished with an 8-8 record and third in the NFC West. The team then promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach, but he was fired after just one season following a 5-11 finish.
After making yet another coaching change, 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke decided to hire former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.
The biggest decision Baalke and Kelly will have to make this offseason is if they want to move forward with either Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert as their starting quarterback. In his introductory press conference on Wednesday, Kelly was noncommittal to either player.
“I think specifically when it comes to quarterbacks, or any other position here, it’s an ongoing process and evaluation,” Kelly said. “I’ve had a chance to meet Kap, he stopped by the facility the other day. Part of the CBA rule is you’re not allowed to discuss football with anybody until April 4, so it was just a hey, how are you, get to know you. I’ve talked to him a couple times on the phone. I also met Blaine [Gabbert]. I talked to Blaine on the phone. Blaine stopped by to say hello. I think the process itself, we have a lot of time."
If Baalke and Kelly decide that neither Kaepernick or Gabbert are in their future plans, the 49ers will have a number of draft picks in their arsenal. San Francisco will have 12 selections in the 2016 NFL Draft. The team also could potentially have more than $46 million in cap space to work with, according to Spotrac.com
Should the 49ers decide to draft a quarterback, the names the team will likely look at are California junior Jared Goff, Memphis junior Paxton Lynch or North Dakota State senior Carson Wentz.
Goff is the highest QB prospect on most draft boards right now, but at pick No. 7, he may not be available when the 49ers select. The Cleveland Browns, who pick second overall, have been on record saying they are looking for a quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys (fourth pick), who could be looking for an heir apparent to Tony Romo, also could be in the market for a quarterback in the upcoming draft.
Kelly could just keep both Kaepernick and Gabbert and select a quarterback in the later rounds of the draft. Kaepernick appears to be a good fit for Kelly's spread offense system because of his running ability and athletic skill set.
There also have been rumors that the team could prefer to keep Gabbert and move on from Kaepernick. Either way, Kelly and Baalke will have to decide can either guy lead the 49ers moving forward.
"Everything’s under evaluation as coach mentioned and we’re going to take a hard look at this roster," Baalke said. "The number one thing is getting a staff in here. Once we get the staff complete, then we can sit down. The guys that are on staff already are already sitting down and going through the evaluation process. That will continue over the next couple of weeks and then we’ve got free agency, we’ve got the draft to get ready for. There are a lot of things coming up in a hurry and we’ve got to get to work on them.”
Another major issue the 49ers will have to address this offseason is how can they improve their defense. After San Francisco ranked in the top five in total defense from 2011-14, the unit slipped to 29th in 2015.
Reportedly, Kelly has offered the defensive coordinator position to Houston Texans linebacker coach Mike Vrabel, according to ESPN. If the 49ers can find quality players to put around All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, the team could reload rather quickly.
San Francisco’s hire of Kelly is a high-risk, high-reward move for the team. If Kelly has learned from his downfalls while with the Eagles, this team could potentially contend in a few seasons. If Kelly’s communication problems follow him to the Bay Area, it could be a rocky ride for 49er fans.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)