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.



The Niners need a new kicker — Phil Dawson is a free agent. They also need new returners for kickoffs and punts. Former 49ers GM Trent Baalke never acquired good returners. This group needs an overhaul. The only decent special teamer is the punter, Bradley Pinion.



Remember Reggie McKenzie's quote about big people helping little people? That applies to offense, too. A quarterback can't be successful without an offensive line.

And the Niners have an offensive line. A good one. Joe Staley and Trent Brown are two of the best tackles in the NFL, and Brown is only 23. He's still improving.

At guard, the Niners have a first-round pick from 2016 — Joshua Garnett. And they have Zane Beadles, a veteran who moved to center when Daniel Kilgore, another veteran, tore his hamstring Week 14.

In case Kilgore can't play next season, the Niners need another interior offensive lineman. But, this group already is the strength of the offense.



When the 49ers went to the Super Bowl in 2013, they had two special tight ends — Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Both were extremely fast.

They're gone now, and their replacements aren't special. But, they're not bad, either. They're pretty good.

Vance McDonald and Blake Bell are quality young tight ends. They're not particularly fast, but each averaged more than 16 yards per catch last season. And each is taller than 6-foot-4, meaning they're dangerous in the red zone.

Garrett Celek is the No. 3 tight end, and he's good enough to start. The Niners have him under contract through 2020. This is another position of strength.



I count three starting-caliber wide receivers: Torrey Smith, Jeremy Kerley and Rod Streater.

All three are younger than 30, and all three have gained more than 800 receiving yards in a season at least once in their careers. Smith has done this three times.

If used correctly, Smith is a good No. 2 receiver. He's a deep threat. He needs two or three chances every game to catch deep passes. Chip Kelly hardly gave him any chances last season.

Kerley and Streater both are good No. 3 receivers, but they're different types of receivers. Kerley is a 5-foot-9 slot receiver. Streater is a 6-3 split end. They complement each other.

What this group needs is a No. 1 receiver. Someone who frightens the other team. Someone who commands double-coverage. Until the 49ers get that player, this group is merely average.



During the regular season, Carlos Hyde scored nine touchdowns in 13 games and gained 4.6 yards per carry — the eighth-best average among players who ran at least 200 times. He was one of the best running backs in the league.

But, he's often hurt. He missed two games with a shoulder injury during middle of the season, and missed the final game with a torn MCL. He may or may not be ready for the start of next season.

Even if he is ready, the Niners need another running back, someone who can split carries 50-50 with Hyde and perhaps replace him in a year as well. Hyde will be a free agent in 2018.



This is the biggest problem on the roster.

The Niners have no quarterback to build around. They have Colin Kaepernick, a future backup who may opt out of his contract this offseason. Or, the team could cut him.

Kaepernick finished the 2016 season with a quarterback rating of 90.7, which isn't bad. But, look closer. You'll see a disturbing trend. In the first half of games, his passer rating was 115.5. Outstanding. But in the second half, his rating dropped to 70.3. Awful.

That's Kaepernick's pattern. He always has been a first-half quarterback. His career quarterback rating in the first half is 97.1, and his career rating in the second half 80.6. That's one of the main reasons his record is 4-20 during his past 24 starts.

Kaepernick plays well when the game isn't on the line, when his coaches can stick to their game plan and call the plays Kaepernick practiced that week.

But in the second half, when circumstances change, when his coaches have to go off script, when Kaepernick can't just manage the game, when he has to be aggressive, when his success depends on his ability to make good decisions and throw accurate passes, he usually fails.

The Niners need a franchise quarterback. The question is can they get one this year or do they have to wait until 2018? And if they do have to wait, should they keep Kaepernick for one more season, or replace him with a free agent such as Mike Glennon, Tyrod Taylor or Matt Barkley? Tough questions.


TEAM AVERAGE GRADE: C. The 49ers have a strong foundation on their offensive and defensive lines, plus good players at safety, running back and tight end. They are no expansion team.

Now, they need special players at the most important positions. They need their Charles Haley, their Patrick Willis, their Jerry Rice, their Joe Montana. Can the new GM — whoever he is — find those players?

Let the search begin.

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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