Looking at the expectations vs. reality of the 2017 season to predict 2018
To say expectations were low for the 2017 49ers is putting it nicely. The team was coming off three consecutive seasons at .500 or below, with a first time head coach/general manager combo and possibly the least talented roster outside of Cleveland. The first thing new head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch instituted was a sweeping roster turnover. As it sits now, only four players on offense are hold overs from the Trent Baalke era (Joe Staley, Josh Garnett, Garrett Celek, and Aaron Burbridge) with three projected starters on defense (DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and JaquiskiTartt). The team gained a massive influx of talent through both free agency and the 2017 draft. Because of this, some analysts were projecting the 49ers to win anywhere from eight to ten games, with some even seeing the team as a dark horse for the playoffs. We’ll take a look at how expectations and reality compared and see where that points the team for the future.
Shanahan is regarded asan offensive genius throughout the league, so expectations were high on that side of the ball. The team brought in two key free agents that had experience in Shanahan’s offense, Pierre Garcon and Brian Hoyer, and believed that these two players would help bring along the current players and assist in the installation of the new and complicated playbook. The roster as it stood did limit the playcalling, since Shanahan relies heavily on the outside zone, a running concept that didn’t suit some of the players on the roster. Halfback Carlos Hyde is an effective inside zone runner but lacked the decisiveness and speed needed to effectively run outside; also right tackle Trent Brown, while one of the best pass blockers at his position, was too lumbering and lacked the agility to consistently get to the second level on the outside runs. Hyde also held the offense back by not being a reliable receiver out of the backfield, something that running backs are required to do in Shanahan’s offense. Free agent addition Brian Hoyer failed to impress with his starting role and on October 31,the team traded for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who breathed new life into the offense after being named the starter in Week 13 against the Chicago Bears. Previous to Garoppolo being inserted as the starting quarterback the 49ers were scoring on just 29% of their offensive possessions versus an NFL average of 35%. Over the final fiveweeks of the season the scoring efficiency jumped to 62%, 11% higher than the New England Patriots. This offseason Hyde and Brown both moved on and were replaced by players that are better suited for Shanahan’s offense. Jerick McKinnon was added at running back and has shown the speed to execute the outside zone and also the receiving skills out of the backfield to flourish in his new role. To revamp the offensive line the front office brought in center Weston Richburg from the New York Giants and drafted tackle Mike McGlinchey from the University ofNorte Dame. Both players excel in the zone running system with McGlinchey showing the skills and athleticism needed at the tackle position to reach the second level in the outside zone. A point that has been missed often this offseason when looking at additions is the previously mentioned Garcon. Garcon was on pace for an 80-catch 1,000-yard season with Hoyer and C.J. Beathard at quarterback, but due to a midseason neck injury, Garcon never had the chance to play with Garoppolo, and should be an asset to the quarterback this season. I’d expect the offense to take a major jump this season possibly earninga top-10 ranking.
As expected the new regime also installed a new defense when they took control. Gone was the 3-4 base that the team had run for the last decade and in came the Seattle style Cover-3 defense. The difficulty with this is simple:players that had been drafted or signed by the Baalke front office were geared to a different style then what the Shanahan coaching staff planned to run. For some players it’s equivalent to putting a round peg in a square hole. Luckily, the coaching staff led by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was able to think outside the box and make the best of what they had. Former defensive end DeForest Buckner was moved inside to defensive tackle,where he thrived, finishing with a 90.1 score from Pro Football Focus, a score good enough to finish the season as their sixth-ranked defensive lineman. The team knew coming into the season that pass rush and coverage by the secondary were going to be issues. Each area proved to be a weakness throughout the season. Elvis Dumervil was signed during training camp to bring much needed speed from the edge but considering his age and recent injury history he was a part time player and viewed as little more than a stop gap. The defense finished with only 30 sacks for the season, tied for 26th in the league. Starting cornerbackRashard Robinson, who was viewed as the best corner on the roster going into 2017, showed aninability to turn his head and run with a receiver, which resulted in multiple penalties and long plays given up. He was eventually jettisoned to the New York Jets and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon was inserted as thestarter opposite Dontae Johnson. While Witherspoon showed promise, Johnson was consistently targeted by the opposing offenses, was a liability throughout the season, and was not re-signed. To replace Johnson the 49erssigned cornerback Richard Sherman from the Seattle Seahawks. The three-time All Pro is coming off an Achilles tear but is expected to be ready by training camp. During the 2018 draft the team focused heavily on the backend of the defense while passing on edge rushers. The belief seems to be that the improved pass coverage will give the defensive line and linebackers more time to get to the opposing quarterback. I think overall the defense will take a step forward, but so much will hinge on the coverage of the secondary. If they’re able to slow opposing receivers like the coaching staff hopes, everything will run smoothly. But if not, the team could be in for many high scoring shootouts during the year.
While the team’s struggles were apparent earlier in the year, their 0-9 record wasn’t as bad as it seemed. They were the first team in history to lose five straight games by three points or less. Would it be safe to assume that having Garoppolo under center could have swung two or three of those games? I’m inclined to say yes. With a full off season to learn the playbook and time to work with the receivers there could be a major jump with the offense. The defense was clicking pretty well last year despite some glaring holes. If Sherman is healthy as expected, he’ll be a huge upgrade to the secondary. The 49ers finished with a -8.4% Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) from Football Outsiders. DVOA is a statistic that takes into account all plays run and assigns values on them based on numerous criteria (down, field position, etc.), with an offensive score of -3% and defensive score of 8.3% showing them deficient on both sides of the ball. But keep in mind that this ranking is for the full season, the final five weeks pulled them out of a serious hole from earlier in the season. I’m confident that’s a trend we’ll see in the 2018 season with the offense and defense each finishing in the top half of the league. I believe 10-6 is a realistic record and that we should expect the see the 49ers in the post season for the first time since 2013.
For more on DVOA, check out Football Outsiders.
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