As the 49ers approach the 2015 regular season, just where do they stand after all their offseason changes?
All of the hard work is done, with the grueling two-a-days of training camp and three of the four exhibition games in the books. The final exhibition will be for the younger players to state their final case for a roster spot or for coaches to sort out any remaining position battles.
For the 49ers, they may want to play a few more of those regulars — especially on offense — as they gear up for the regular season.
Let’s start with the good
Despite suffering heavy losses on defense with the retirements of starting linebackers Patrick Willis and, shockingly, Chris Borland, as well as starting defensive lineman Justin Smith, the Niners have been solid during the preseason.
NaVorro Bowman, who hadn’t played since sustaining a devastating knee injury in the NFC Championship Game in January 2014, has looked very good in the two games he played and had two sacks of Denver Broncos superstar Peyton Manning in Saturday’s 19-12 exhibition loss. If Bowman returns to his All-Pro form, the defense could be decent — but not as dominant as it had been — with the linebackers still leading the way. Ahmad Brooks’ new legal issues could affect the depth, depending on if the team decides to cut ties with him like the 49ers did with defensive tackle Ray McDonald and linebacker Aldon Smith or if the NFL acts swiftly with discipline, which is unlikely since only charges have been filed and that was just last week. Second-year linebacker Aaron Lynch could be the biggest beneficiary from the personnel losses, with Corey Lemonier and rookie Eli Harold not far behind.
The defensive line has some nice mix-and-match pieces, with the bright light being top draft pick Arik Armstead. The former Oregon stud has the type of lengthy frame that could make him a dynamic force, but he has been inconsistent so far. In the secondary, the search continues for good cornerbacks, while Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are more than solid safeties.
But now we go to the offense, which remains a mess
The offensive line is a group in chaos and figures to remain that way throughout the season. Players will be shuttled in and out and flipped from one position to another. As much as anything, this will hold back the 49ers as a whole. It doesn’t matter who you have running the ball or at quarterback, unless they get time and space to do their thing, they won’t succeed. And considering the 49ers’ first-team offense hasn’t scored a touchdown in eight preseason possessions, the challenge facing the 49ers is immense.
Carlos Hyde, in his second season, looks ready to be a starting running back after franchise leading rusher Frank Gore left via free agency. Veteran newcomer Reggie Bush and veteran backup Kendall Hunter are excellent backups. Jarryd Hayne, an Australian rugby star playing American football for the first time, has been drawing a lot of preseason hype, but he is at best a wild card out of the backfield and will have more of an impact in the return game.
Anquan Boldin again will be the top receiver, with ex-Baltimore Ravens cohort Torrey Smith joining the group this year. Quinton Patton and undersized Bruce Ellington will be asked to step up. Vernon Davis was a giant question last year, but was his fault or the fault of the play-calling?
And then there is Colin Kaepernick. The fifth-year quarterback spent the offseason working with former NFL MVP Kurt Warner in hopes of shedding some of his bad habits and become a better passer. There is no doubting Kaepernick’s game-changing ability as a runner and that part of his game was kept under wraps in 2014. But Kaepernick has yet to develop as a passer, an especially disappointing fact considering QB guru Jim Harbaugh was his coach up until he and the 49ers parted ways immediately after last season.
All of this will make for an interesting ride for Jim Tomsula, the first-year head coach who was the Niners’ defensive line coach under Harbaugh. Safe to say, The offense still needs work as 49ers approach the 2015 season.