The 49ers’ coaching carousel continues to turn at an alarming rate, and a once-dominant franchise that has won five Super Bowls appears to have lost its way. San Francisco will have its third coach in three years, going from Jim Harbaugh to Jim Tomsula and now Chip Kelly, who brings his warp-speed offense to the 49ers after being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Harbaugh was shoved out the door after going 49-22-1 (including postseason) and leading the 49ers to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance over four seasons. The 49ers promoted defensive line coach Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, but that experiment failed quickly. Tomsula was fired after going 5-11 in his rookie season. Enter Kelly, who went 26-21 with one playoff season in three years.
San Francisco has lost a wealth of talent — including Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis — since its run of three straight trips to the NFC title game under Harbaugh. There are no signs that this is going to be a quick fix. The 49ers entered free agency with a ton of salary cap space, but GM Trent Baalke’s biggest signing was ex-Jacksonville guard Zane Beadles. “We haven’t done much,” Baalke said of free agency at the NFL owners meetings. “We’re a draft-and-develop team. That’s what we are.”
Kelly is known for his fast, cutting-edge attack, but he faces a huge challenge getting San Francisco’s offense up to speed. The 49ers averaged an NFL-worst 14.9 points per game last season. They ranked 31st in total offense, 29th in passing and 21st in rushing.
During their Super Bowl championship seasons, the 49ers had Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Kelly will have to make do with Blaine Gabbert and, barring a trade, Colin Kaepernick, who lost his starting job after eight games last season. Kaepernick asked for and received permission from the 49ers to seek a trade, but a deal to Denver collapsed when he refused to take a major pay cut. Kaepernick has spent most of his offseason recovering from left shoulder, right thumb and left knee surgeries. Gabbert was drafted No. 10 overall by Jacksonville in 2011 but nearly played his way out of the league. He was traded to the 49ers in 2014 to be their backup and threw seven passes that season. But last year he threw for 2,031 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He has the size, arm strength and athleticism that might work in Kelly’s system. Kaepernick has more speed and arm strength, but he lacks the passing accuracy and touch that Kelly likes.
The 49ers’ wide receiver and tight end corps won’t scare any opposing defensive coordinators. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who was still a free agent as of mid-July, tied for the team lead in touchdowns last year with four. Boldin led the team with 69 catches for 789 yards. Smith ranked second with 33 catches for 663 yards. No other wide receiver or tight end had more than 30 catches. Surprisingly, Baalke took only one wide receiver in the draft, Aaron Burbridge, a sixth-round pick from Michigan State.
Kelly relies heavily on the run game, and he should have a healthy Carlos Hyde to carry the load. Hyde, who missed nine games last season with a foot injury, averaged 4.1 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons. The question is whether the 49ers’ offensive line will open enough holes. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is still one of the league’s top linemen, but his supporting cast is in flux. Beadles and rookie Joshua Garnett, a first-round pick from Stanford, are expected to be the 49ers’ new starting guards. Trent Brown, a seventh-round pick last year from Florida, should get first crack at right tackle after a strong rookie season. Daniel Kilgore, who has battled injuries, will start at center. The 49ers lost guard Alex Boone to free agency. Former Pro Bowl tackle Anthony Davis, who sat out last season, has said he plans to play this year but had yet to apply to the league for reinstatement as of mid May.
Just three years ago the 49ers had one of the NFL’s elite defenses. Last year they ranked 29th in total defense, were 29th against the rush, 27th against the pass and 18th in points allowed. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who spent the past two seasons in the same role with Cleveland, faces a huge challenge. O’Neil will direct a young defense that had only one Pro Bowl player last season, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He’ll also have to adjust to likely having his group on the field longer than any other defense in the NFL. Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia ranked last in time of possession over the past three seasons.
Bowman came back last season after missing a year while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and led the NFL with 154 tackles. He’s the leader on a young defense that needs to grow up in a hurry. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch showed signs of becoming a dominant player in his second season; he had 6.5 sacks, tying for the team lead with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Free safety Eric Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie three years ago, anchors an inexperienced but promising secondary that is loaded with talented safeties. The 49ers used a first-round pick on Reid in 2013, a first-round choice on safety Jimmie Ward in 2014 and a second-round pick on safety Jaquiski Tartt in 2015. Starting strong safety Antoine Bethea missed the final nine games last season with a torn pectoral muscle and could have competition for his job. Starting cornerback Tramaine Brock had a bounce-back season last year after an injury-plagued 2014. After missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury, cornerback Kenneth Acker started 13 games in 2015. He should get competition from Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson, among others, for the starting job.
The 49ers are rebuilding what was once a dominant defensive line. One year after drafting Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead with the 17th overall pick, Baalke used the No. 7 choice on DeForest Buckner, another former Ducks defensive end. They should eventually wind up as bookends on the line in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. Veterans Quinton Dial, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie, among others, will provide competition on a line that will need to take full advantage of its depth to keep from wearing down. Nose tackle Ian Williams played all 16 games last year but had surgery on his left leg during the offseason, putting his availability for the start of this season in doubt. Mike Purcell could fill that gap early.
Kicker Phil Dawson returns for his 18th NFL season after making 24-of-27 field-goal attempts last season. Bradley Pinion averaged 43.6 yards per punt and handled kickoff duties as a rookie last season after the 49ers drafted him in the fifth round. Bruce Ellington showed some explosiveness at times as the 49ers’ top punt and kickoff returner, but this is an area that needs improvement.
The 49ers have their third coach in three years and did little in the offseason to upgrade the talent on a team that went 5-11 in 2015. It’s been just four seasons since San Francisco reached the Super Bowl and lost 34-31 to Baltimore, but that seems like ancient history. If the 49ers finish .500 this season, Kelly should get some votes for Coach of the Year.