Grant Cohn: 49ers season report card — there is talent, just not enough
As the search continues for the next general manager and head coach of the 49ers, Jed York is the focus of 49erland. How he'll lead the search. Whom he'll consult. Why he may screw everything up.
Enough of that. Take York out of the equation. Let's look at this another way. When potential GMs and head coaches size up the 49ers, what do they see? What does this team have? Is it a total loss? Or, are there things to build around?
I actually think there are. I think this roster is better than it seemed under Chip Kelly. Better than its 2-14 record. Much closer to 8-8. That's my hypothesis.
Let's test it. Let's break the roster down position by position, starting with defense.
This is the foundation. As Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie put it earlier this season, 'The little people can't play unless the big people are there to help.'
The Niners have big people. They spent their past two first-round picks on defensive linemen who are 6'8' – DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Both are extremely talented and will be just 23-years old next season.
They could become superstars if the Niners use properly. This is where the past two coaching staffs failed. They played Buckner and Armstead at defensive tackle in the base defense, where their height worked against them. Shorter centers and guards easily moved them out of their gaps in the run game, where the lower man typically has the advantage
The new coaching staff should use Buckner and Armstead as defensive ends in the base defense – they would be much better run defenders on the edges of the line. Then on third down – a passing down – move them to defensive tackle and let them rush the quarterback against guards who aren't athletic enough to stay in front of them.
The foundation of the defense is set. All this group needs is a base-defense run-stuffer to replace free-agent nose tackle Glenn Dorsey.
Aaron Lynch should be part of the 49ers' future — he's only 23. But, he's overweight, he can't stay healthy and he was suspended the first four games of 2016 after failing a drug test. The Niners can't count on him. Anything he gives the team going forward is a bonus.
The other starting edge rusher is Ahmad Brooks. He is not part of the 49ers' future. He's entering the final year of contract and will be 33 next season. The Niners must find a replacement pronto, perhaps in the first round of the draft. One quality edge rusher could transform this defense.
NaVorro Bowman's play diminished after he returned from knee surgery. His play will diminish even further if he ever returns from an Achilles tendon tear he suffered this season. The Niners should proceed as if he won't return.
The Niners' best linebacker is Ray-Ray Armstrong. He seemed on the verge of a breakout season in 2016 until he tore a pectoral muscle Week 2, but this injury shouldn't affect his future. He should be a starter next season.
The rest of the linebackers are backups at best. The new GM should sign a linebacker and draft one at some point during the first two or three rounds.
Rookie Rashard Robinson was the team's best defensive back this season. He's a tall bump-and-run corner, similar to Richard Sherman, although Robinson may not be quite as talented as him. Still, Robinson should start on this defense for a long time.
The other starting cornerback is Tramaine Brock, a solid veteran who will be 29 next season. He's entering the final year of his contract. The Niners should not re-sign him.
They may already have his replacement, though — Will Redmond, a third-round pick from 2016. He missed his rookie season due to ACL tear he suffered in college. He should be ready to play next season, although the Niners need another corner just in case Redmond doesn't recover. ACL tears are dicey.
You may be wondering why I didn't mention Jimmie Ward in the cornerback section. I don't consider Ward a cornerback. He's athletic enough to hold his own at that position, but he could be special at free safety.
Cornerback is all about technique — how to follow a receiver with your back to the quarterback. Ward's technique is nothing special.
Safety is all about instincts — how to read the quarterback's eyes — and range. How much ground you can cover in center field. Ward's range and instincts are terrific. He should be the starting free safety.
The starting strong safety should be Jaquiski Tartt, who's big – almost as big as a linebacker – and a very hard-hitter. He's the prototypical 'eighth man in the box.'
Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are serviceable backups.