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Grant Cohn's Inside the 49ers blog


2016 RECORD: 2-14

COACH: Kyle Shanahan (first season)

NEW FACES: QB Brian Hoyer, WR Pierre Garcon, WR Marquise Goodwin, WR Aldrick Robinson, DE Elvis Dumervil, DT Earl Mitchell, RB Kyle Juszczyk, OL Laken Tomlinson, K Robbie Gould, rookies DL Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster, QB C.J. Beathard, TE George Kittle.

KEY LOSSES: QB Colin Kaepernick, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jeremy Kerley, WR Quinton Patton, S Antoine Bethea, LB Ahmad Brooks, CB Tramaine Brock, TE Vance McDonald, DL Quinton Dial, LB Gerald Hodges.

STRENGTHS: Three consecutive first-round picks on defensive linemen make the foundation of team. Arik Armstead adjusting well to new role as outside rusher in third NFL season. Second-year pro DeForest Buckner shown signs of being dominant from interior. Team has high expectations for No. 3 overall pick Thomas. Also used first-round pick this season on Foster, who shined in preseason. Teams with NaVorro Bowman, who looks to regain All-Pro form after Achilles tendon injury cut last season short.

WEAKNESSES: Team coming off two-win season has plenty, but key could be running back. Carlos Hyde has failed to develop into back Niners hoped for when they drafted him in second round in 2014. Hyde missed nearly one-third of his games and rushed for just 1,791 yards in three seasons. Behind Hyde are undrafted rookie Matt Breida and journeyman Raheem Mostert.

EXPECTATIONS: Niners at start of what could be long rebuild after precipitous fall in recent years from team that made three consecutive trips to NFC title games from 2011-13 under coach Jim Harbaugh to one that won just two games in 2016. Shanahan is the team’s fourth coach in as many years, following one-year tenures by Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly. Shanahan given six-year deal along with new GM John Lynch in sign organization might finally show patience. That could lead to growing pains this season as San Francisco tries to lay foundation for future success. Hoyer will be QB but is likely little more than bridge to longer-term solution that could come next offseason, or from promising rookie Beathard. Few proven playmakers on offense with almost all of recent high draft picks having been used on defensive players or offensive line. Main goal this season will be improving on last year’s win total and identify some building blocks for better days ahead.

— Associated Press


Sunday Carolina 1:25 p.m. Fox

Sept. 17 at Seattle 1:25 p.m. Fox

Sept. 21 Los Angeles Rams 5:25 p.m. NFL Net

Oct. 1 at Arizona 1:05 p.m. Fox

Oct. 8 at Indianapolis 10 a.m. Fox

Oct. 15 at Washington 10 a.m. Fox

Oct. 22 Dallas 1:05 p.m. Fox

Oct. 29 at Philadelphia 10 a.m. Fox

Nov. 5 Arizona 1:05 p.m. Fox

Nov. 12 New York Giants 1:25 p.m. Fox

Nov. 19 Bye week

Nov. 26 Seattle 1:05 p.m. Fox

Dec. 3 at Chicago 10 a.m. CBS

Dec. 10 at Houston 10 a.m. Fox

Dec. 17 Tennessee 1:25 p.m. CBS

Dec. 24 Jacksonville 1:05 p.m. CBS

Dec. 31 at Los Angeles Rams 1:25 p.m. Fox

OK, 49ers fans, a little season preview test: All together now, tilt your heads back and take a big, deep breath. Take it in right up through the nostrils and down into the lungs. And don’t forget to exhale.

There now. Feel good? Smell good? Thought so. You may not have experienced that sweet sensation in a while, but that’s what is known as fresh air.

Fresh air is important to all living things, and at long last, the 49ers recognized just how important during the 2017 offseason. They performed a full-scale fumigation. They found the largest can of football Febreze available and sprayed the entire joint top to bottom.

Forget combines and drafts and free-agent debates for now. Clearing the air and starting fresh was the greatest thing the 49ers could have done these past six months. For three years, their operation had grown increasingly stagnant and many would say polluted. It started to get really bad in Jim Harbaugh’s final tumultuous year, and if the 2015 season under Trent Baalke and Jim Tomsula was like four consecutive months of a smoggy temperature inversion, 2016 under Baalke and Chip Kelly was like wrapping one’s lips around an exhaust pipe and turning the ignition.

Add to that the final two seasons of Colin Kaepernick’s inconsistent escapades as a quarterback and his noble but competitively distracting social injustice stand last year, and the objective was all too obvious, even for an owner who has made as many missteps as Jed York.

Disinfect. Decontaminate. Purify. To that, everyone’s sinuses say thank you. While it may not immediately translate into many more victories or a playoff berth in 2017, it’s going to do wonders for the general mood, not to mention proper fan mental and physical health, right away.

It’s tough to recall the last time any Bay Area sports franchise undertook such a radical makeover. Yes, the Warriors from Chris Cohan to Joe Lacob turned out to be a pretty majestic metamorphosis. But you may have to go all the way back to 1979, when a young Eddie DeBartolo brought in Bill Walsh and John McVay, and they in turn brought in Bobb McKittrick, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Bill McPherson and George Seifert, to find a transformation this all-encompassing.

The Faithful can only hope this clean-slate overhaul 38 years later works nearly as well. We won’t know for a while. But for now, just that new car aroma suffices as a most welcome first sniff of change for the better. There’s a new general manager (John Lynch) who’s never been a general manager before. There’s a new head coach (Kyle Shanahan) who’s never been a head coach. There’s a new defensive coordinator (Robert Saleh) who’s never been a defensive coordinator. There’s an almost entirely new coaching staff that has only four men who’ve worked for the 49ers.

There’s a new starting quarterback (Brian Hoyer) who’s been an NFL starting quarterback but has never created a national stir during the national anthem. There is a new backup quarterback (C.J. Beathard). Anchored by a proven veteran, Pierre Garcon, there are numerous new faces in the receiving corps looking to make a first down and a name. There’s even a new kicker (Robbie Gould), and get this — he’s actually under 40.

There is a clearer sense of core values. The 49ers kept the most respected veteran leaders in Joe Staley and NaVorro Bowman. They also kept the younger players with the most promise — Eric Reid, Carlos Hyde, Aaron Lynch, Jimmie Ward — and pretty much ditched the rest.

There might be an area of real dominance developing. The 49ers drafted a stud defensive end from Stanford in Solomon Thomas, and teamed with prior top picks DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, there’s a trio up front that could wreak trench havoc for years to come. To nurture that potential, there’s been another important change: It’s back to the 4-3, where the 49ers can utilize those young big guys up front so much more efficiently and effectively. The 49ers won five Super Bowls running the 4-3. No shame going back to it.

On the other side of the ball, there will be things happening that should be a lot more reminiscent of the classic Walsh-ian West Coast offense. Remember, Kyle Shanahan’s pappy Mike was the offensive coordinator for the team’s last Super Bowl champion. More run-pass balance should be expected. More high-percentage precision routes, swing passes, screens and concerted-effort throws to the tight ends should once again become familiar.

Naturally, the skill positions — particularly at quarterback — will be a work in progress, perhaps over a couple of years. Hoyer will never be mistaken for Montana or Steve Young, but could he be Jeff Garcia for a while? Or perhaps Alex Smith near the end of his 49ers run, when he became a master of game management and at least didn’t beat himself as Kaepernick so often did? That would do for now.

One cannot help but take notice of Hoyer’s injury-shortened 2016 season with the Chicago Bears in which he threw for more than 300 yards in four consecutive games with six touchdowns, a 68.3 completion percentage and zero interceptions. During that run, he also took just four sacks. Kaepernick only had five 300-yard passing games over the past three seasons. Over those same three seasons, he completed less than 60 percent of his passes and took 116 sacks despite a pair of legs that once filled everyone with wonder.

With Hoyer, you are now free to forget these two words: read option. His career rushing total in 49 NFL games (31 starts) is 117 yards. Heck, you could have called Blaine Gabbert “Crazy Legs” next to Hoyer. But there are certain advantages to quarterbacks who stay in the pocket. Linemen can better trust their angles against pass rushers. The backs know where they need to be to throw a pivotal block. Second- and third-option receivers can run routes knowing they may actually get the ball.

Hoyer won’t be Tom Brady, but he won’t be Kaepernick, either. Even if he isn’t the long-term answer, the team isn’t rushing to judgment on who the future QB will be. That’s a good thing. Let’s not forget, the 49ers have roughly $67 million in cap space. They could have gone crazy this summer. But with so many staff changes and roster alterations, it’s not such a bad idea to hold onto that cap cash, play a season under the new regime to determine the most specific needs, and then address them through free agency.

By that time, all the Kirk Cousins dialogue may make more sense … or a better alternative could surface.

For now, just be thankful for the crisp, reinvigorated atmosphere. You’ve got a young defensive mind running the front office and a young offensive mind running the team on the field. You’ve got a psychological and emotional arc among players that’s actually back on the upswing after three years of a depressing downward spiral. You’ve got significantly more transparency and general openness with Lynch than you ever saw with the reticent, almost reclusive Baalke. And one would hope with Shanahan providing youthful zeal and ambition to his first lead assignment as a head coach, fans can finally cure themselves of the Harbaugh’s-gone hangover.

Dare we ask it? Could the 49ers really be on their way back? Pretty simple answer, if you just take a deep breath: It’s in the air.

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