Another year, another head coach for the San Francisco 49ers. After pushing Jim Harbaugh out the door after the 2014 season in a messy breakup, the 49ers turned to Jim Tomsula in 2015, Chip Kelly in ’16 and now Kyle Shanahan, who spent the past two seasons as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Only this time, the 49ers added a twist: They also fired longtime general manager Trent Baalke and hired John Lynch.
Shanahan, 37, has never been a head coach at any level. Lynch, 45, played 16 years as a safety in the NFL and spent the past eight years as a football analyst for Fox Sports, but he has never been an NFL general manager or held a front-office job.
San Francisco CEO Jed York, however, signed both to six-year contracts and appears willing to give them time to resurrect what was once one of the NFL’s elite franchises.
“I believe in these guys and I think they’re going to be here a lot longer than that,” York said at their introductory press conference.
Shanahan and Lynch will need time to fix what’s gone so wrong for the 49ers. The 49ers sank to 5–11 under Tomsula and 2–14 last year under Kelly.
Shanahan’s No. 1 job will be to get the offense back on track after it veered so far off course. Shanahan didn’t hire an offensive coordinator. He’ll handle that job and call the plays, as he did in Atlanta. Last year the Falcons ranked second in the NFL in total offense, third in passing and fifth in rushing. Of course, Shanahan won’t have Julio Jones, Matt Ryan or any of Atlanta’s other offensive stars to work with this year.
The 49ers parted ways with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and signed journeyman Brian Hoyer, who started 13 games for the Cleveland Browns in 2014 when Shanahan was their offensive coordinator. Hoyer has 31 career NFL starts in eight seasons, including five last year for Chicago. He will be a placeholder at the position until the 49ers acquire or develop a franchise quarterback, but he’s familiar with Shanahan’s offense, and Shanahan likes his work ethic, fearlessness in the pocket and ability to run his scheme.
The 49ers bolstered what was one of the NFL’s weakest receiving corps last year by signing three wideouts on the first day of free agency: Pierre Garçon (Washington), Marquise Goodwin (Buffalo) and Aldrick Robinson (Atlanta). Garçon, who’s in his 10th NFL season, had career highs for catches (113) and receiving yards (1,346) for Washington in 2013 when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator. Goodwin, drafted by Buffalo in the third round in 2013, had 29 catches for 431 yards last year, both career highs. The 49ers also re-signed wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, who’s coming off a career year. San Francisco added tight end Logan Paulsen to an unspectacular group that includes Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell. McDonald was shopped during the draft and could be on his way out.
Left tackle Joe Staley, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, will anchor an offensive line that helped the 49ers rank fourth in rushing last season. Left guard Zane Beadles, a seven-year pro who made the Pro Bowl with Denver in 2012, had a solid first season with the 49ers after signing as a free agent. The 49ers added center Jeremy Zuttah, a nine-year veteran coming off his first Pro Bowl, in a trade with Baltimore and signed center Tim Barnes, who started the past two seasons for the Rams. Returning starting center Daniel Kilgore is also in the mix at center and could also add depth at guard. Right guard Joshua Garnett, a first-round pick in 2016, started 11 games as a rookie and struggled at times. Right tackle Trent Brown could get pushed by free-agent pickup Garry Gilliam, who started 30 games in three seasons with Seattle.
Running back Carlos Hyde rushed for a career-high 988 yards on 217 carries last season but missed two games with a shoulder injury and the finale with a torn MCL. He missed nine games in 2015. The 49ers added fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who caught 78 passes the past two years for Baltimore, and tailback Tim Hightower (New Orleans).
The 49ers ranked last in total defense and rushing defense and 14th against the pass last season. They gave up the most rushing yards (2,654) and rushing touchdowns (25) in franchise history. It’s safe to say that former Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh faces a huge challenge in his first job as a defensive coordinator at any level. Saleh spent three seasons as a defensive quality control coach for Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and the past three as a linebackers coach at Jacksonville under Gus Bradley, Carroll’s former defensive coordinator. Saleh will install a version of Carroll’s attacking 4-3 defense and scrap the 3-4 that San Francisco has used for years. “Moving forward, stopping the run is our No. 1 priority,” Saleh says. “The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players, we will stop the run on this defense.”
Saleh got some help for his defense when the 49ers drafted defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster in the first round. The return of inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a four-time All-Pro, should be a huge help, too, especially against the run. Bowman missed the entire 2014 season with a knee injury and the final 12 games last season with a torn Achilles tendon. The 49ers also added linebacker Malcolm Smith and nose tackle Earl Mitchell early in free agency and veteran pass rusher Elvis Dumervil late.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks will spend most of his time in Saleh’s system close to the line of scrimmage in attack mode, which suits his skill set. Brooks has 51.5 sacks in his eight full seasons with the 49ers. The 49ers invested first-round draft picks on former Oregon defensive linemen Arik Armstead in 2015 and DeForest Buckner in 2016. Buckner, who had 73 tackles and six sacks as a rookie, and Armstead are versatile enough to play inside or out and should thrive in an aggressive one-gap scheme. Thomas will likely play end in the base defense then move inside in the nickel, next to Buckner. Once Armstead fully recovers from shoulder surgery, he’ll likely get a shot to start at right end. Aaron Lynch could revive his career as a defensive end in Saleh’s scheme after missing the first four games last year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and five games with an ankle injury. Lynch had a combined 12.5 sacks in 2014 and ’15.
Eric Reid, who missed the final six games last season with a torn biceps, will move from free to strong safety, where he’ll be able to make a bigger impact against the run. A Pro Bowl pick in 2013 as a rookie, Reid will replace Antoine Bethea, who signed as a free agent with Arizona. Jimmie Ward is the prime candidate to roam center field as the 49ers’ single-high safety, although he might be needed at cornerback. The 49ers released starting cornerback Tramaine Brock on April 7 after he was arrested in Santa Clara for domestic violence. Cornerback Rashard Robinson, a 2016 fourth-round pick out of LSU, started six games as a rookie last season and will likely open this season as a starter. Dontae Johnson is another candidate to start, as is rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round pick out of Colorado.
Phil Dawson signed with Arizona as a free agent, and the 49ers replaced him with veteran Robbie Gould. Gould made all 10 of his field goal attempts last season for the Giants, including two in the playoffs. He spent his first 11 seasons with the Bears. Bradley Pinion had a league-leading 100 punts, but he averaged just 44.0 yards, tied for 26th, with a net of 39.8, tied for 20th. The return of Bruce Ellington, who missed last season with a torn hamstring, could boost an anemic return game. He averaged 25.6 yards on 26 kickoff returns in 2015. Last year, Kerley averaged 7.5 yards on 21 punt returns.
Under Shanahan and Lynch, there’s hope for a brighter future, but it looks to be a long rebuilding job. The 49ers could triple their number of wins from last year, but they won’t be serious playoff contenders until they find a long-term answer at quarterback and significantly raise the level of talent on both sides of the ball.