Grant Cohn: 49ers’ best offseason moves might be a coaching staff with promise

Are the 49ers getting better?

We know they’re not good. Last season, they won five games. They’re rebuilding, and will do most of their building this offseason during the draft.

But, where do they stand before the draft? Have the Niners improved at all?

They haven’t improved at quarterback. They signed a backup, Thad Lewis, who probably won’t make the team. Other than Lewis, the Niners have the same quarterbacks they had last season, minus maybe Colin Kaepernick, who wants out, requested a trade. So, Blaine Gabbert probably will start all 16 games next season.

Not an upgrade.

The Niners haven’t upgraded at running back, either. They have the same guys they had last season minus Reggie Bush, a free agent rehabbing a torn ACL. He’s history. The Niners still are searching a for a durable, quality backup who can start if Carlos Hyde gets hurt again. Not an upgrade.

At wide receiver, the Niners lost their best player, Anquan Boldin - he’s a free agent. In his place, they signed a guy named Eric Rogers, who played in the Canadian Football League last season. Not an upgrade.

They also will add a receiver they drafted in the fourth round last year - DeAndre Smelter, who missed his rookie season with a torn ACL. Call him a red-shirt rookie. He might be good, or he might be non-functional, like the rest of the players with torn ACLs the Niners have drafted the past few years. Not an upgrade.

At tight end, the only new player the Niners may get is Rory Anderson, a seventh-round pick in 2015 who missed his rookie season due to an injury. Not an upgrade.

On the offensive line, the Niners let Alex Boone, their second-best player, sign with the Minnesota Vikings, even though the Niners had more than enough cap space to keep him. Instead of keeping him, the Niners signed veteran guard Zane Beadles, a cheap downgrade.

The Niners offense definitely has gotten worse. And the defense and special teams have not upgraded - the team has added no new players to those units. The Niners haven’t improved a single area of their roster and we’re almost three months into the offseason. Based on talent alone, the Niners seem like a three-win or a four-win team.

But, we haven’t factored in coaching, and this is where things may get interesting. The Niners have a brand new staff. Is it any good? We don’t know, although it should be better than the previous staff. It should be better by default, although it may be better by being better.

Take a look at the current job status of last season’s coaching staff.

Jim Tomsula didn’t know football. He was totally unqualified to be a head coach, let alone a coordinator. He is unemployed.

Chip Kelly, Tomsula’s replacement, knows football - offense in particular. Kelly certainly could be a coordinator in the NFL if he weren’t a head coach.


Geep Chryst, the previous offensive coordinator, hadn’t held that position since 2000. He was a retread, and he currently is unemployed. His replacement, Curtis Modkins, was the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills from 2010 to 2012, and the running-game coordinator for the Detroit Lions for part of 2015. He’s an ascending young coach.


Eric Mangini, the previous defensive coordinator, hadn’t held that position since 2005. He was another retread, and currently is unemployed. His replacement, Jim O’Neil, was the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator the past two seasons. He seems to be ascending.


Most of the members of the previous coaching staff no longer coach, not even in college, not even in Canada. Nowhere.

Of the 19 coaches on the previous staff, 10 are unemployed, including the head coach, the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator, the quarterbacks coach, the defensive line coach and the defensive backs coach. That’s an amazing record of non-accomplishment.

That coaching staff may have been the worst in NFL history. The Niners currently have a coaching staff full of young guys with futures, guys who will continue to coach after they leave the Niners. That’s something.

Perhaps the new staff will bring out the best in the team even though it lost talent this offseason. Who knows how good this team can be with a functional coaching staff?

All things considered, players and coaches, the Niners may actually be getting better. Let’s see what Chip Kelly’s guys can do.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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