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Know Your Enemy: San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers finished 8-8 in 2014 which was a major disappointment after three straight NFC Championship appearances from 2011-2013 and Super Bowl loss in the 2012 season. The 49ers have gone through a plethora of changes in the 2015 off-season. Former Head Coach Jim Harbaugh left the 49ers for the same job University of Michigan. Former DC Vic Fangio became the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears. Former 49ers OC Greg Roman left for the Buffalo Bills with the same job. The 49ers promoted Jim Tomsula from defensive line coach to head coach. Tomsula promoted Geep Chryst from Quarterbacks coach to Offensive coordinator. Finally, Eric Mangini takes over as defensive coordinator while retaining the 3-4 defense in San Francisco.

The 49ers were 4-4 at home and 4-4 on the road in 2014. They beat Washington, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Arizona at home but lost to Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis and lowly Chicago. The 49ers beat the Cowboys, the Rams, the Giants and the Saints on the road. The 49ers lost at Denver, at Seattle, at Arizona and at lowly Oakland to cap off their disappointment.

Retirements

The 49ers had an insane amount of players retire after the 2014 season. Long time stud ILB Patrick Willis retired along with backup Chris Borland (who played exceptionally well before injury in 2014). Starting Right Tackle Anthony Davis is taking a year off from football after concussions. Finally, stud 3-4 DE Justin Smith retired as well. This will be a lot of veteran firepower to replace by the 49ers.

Stats and Upgrades

The 49ers offense struggled to the tune of 19.1 PPG (25th in the league) in 2014. Giraffe/QB Colin Kaepernick returns as the starter after throwing for 60.5% completion and 19 TDS and 10 interceptions on only 478 attempts. Kaepernick dealt with some injured weapons in WR Michael Crabtree and poor protection. Kaep was sacked 52 times and under pressure 37.3% of his drop backs. The 49ers must protect Kaepernick better if they want to improve on their offense.

San Francisco lost Left guard Mike Iupati in free agency to rival Arizona. Iupati is a great run blocker but struggled in pass protection. Right Tackle Anthony Davis retired but struggled in pass protection as well in 2014. Stud left tackle Joe Staley and Daniel Kilgore will have to right the ship in 2015.

The 49ers defense despite Patrick Willis’ injury, Navarro Bowman’s recover from injury, Chris Borland’s mid-season injury, Tramain Brock’s Week 1 injury and Aldon Smitth’s suspension in 2014 was still a top 10 defense. They allowed 21.3 PPG which was ranked 10th in the league. The 49ers rush defense gave up 4 YPC which was 11th. The retirement of Justin Smith and departure of domestic violence offender, Ray McDonald to the Bears/free agency leaves the 49ers with questions at 3-4 DE.

Strengths

Pass Rush

The 49ers pass rush should be revitalized with a full year from Aldon Smith. Smith served a long suspension in 2014 but should be ready for 16 games again in 2015. Navarro Bowman can blitz well from the ILB spot and Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch each had 6 sacks apiece in 2014. Eli Harold was drafted in Round 3 to round out the depth at OLB.

The 49ers may have lost Justin Smith (+15.6) and Ray McDonald (+15.2) but they still have some 3-4 DE talent. Tank Carradine had 3 sacks in limited playing time but was average overall in pass rush. Tony Jerrod-Eddie struggled with a -13.0 grade but should be moved to a backup role. First round pick Arik Armstead brings talent from Oregon to the 3-4 DE spot. If Armstead can find a motor, he can be a disruptive force at defensive end. Ian Williams offers some solid pass rush from the nose tackle spot (+4.0) as well as backup Quinton Dial (+1.1). Finally, Darnett Dockett was added in free agency in February. Dockett missed all of the 2014 season but has been a disruptive force most of his career with Arizona. If Dockett has anything left in the tank, the 49ers have some depth at 3-4 DE behind Carradine and Armstead.

Coverage

The 49ers lost Chris Culliver (+8.0) in free agency but get Tramain Brock back at the corner spot. Brock had a +9.6 grade in 2013 and only played 84 snaps in 2014. Perrish Cox was solid with a +1.2 grade but was also lost in free agency. Dontate Johnson or Shareece Wright will have to step up after bad performances in 2014. Jimmie Ward is a converted safety to slot corner that had a poor rookie season. The former 2014 1st round pick has talent but disappointed in 2014. Ward must progress if the 49ers want better coverage.

Former 1st rounder Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea (+12.7) are good coverage safeties. Jaquiski Tartt was added in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft due to Bethea’s age. San Francisco has plenty of safeties to cover the back-end.

Weapons

The 49ers have plenty of weapons. Anquan Boldin had 1,062 yards and 5 TDs in 2014. Boldin is getting a little long in the tooth but still has the talent to be a top receiver. Crabtree was lost in free agency to Oakland but the 49ers actually upgraded with speedster and former Raven Torrey Smith. Smith doesn’t always have great catch percentage but he is a legitimate deep threat with 12 TDs in 2014. Jerome Simpson was added in the slot to complement Boldin and Smith. Simpson is athletic but never managed to match his athleticism with more production with the Bengals and Vikings. Vernon Davis had a terrible 2014 season battling some injury. Davis had only 245 yards and 2 TDs. He must return to his all pro form to get the 49ers offense back on track.

Reggie Bush was added after an injury plagued season with the Lions in 2014. Bush can be a big time weapon as a receiver in open space and had 4.5 YPC when healthy in 2013.

Weaknesses

Run Defense

The departures of Willis, Smith and McDonald put the 49ers run defense up in the air. The return of Navarro Bowman and Aldon Smith should help with an influx of talent. Bowman is a beast in run defense at ILB. Nose Tackle Ian Williams is a good run defender (+7.7). Darnell Dockett, Arik Armstead and Tank Carradine have the talent but need to prove it during 2015. Former backup, now starting ILB Michael Wilhote, struggled with a -7.0 run defense grade. Ahmad Brooks is average in run defense but had success in the past. Eric Reid is strong in run support (+3.0) but Bethea had an average +.1 grade. The 49ers run defense with new pieces should be a key to how their defense performs in 2015 but with questions at DE and ILB/OLB, it is considered a weakness.

Quarterback

Colin Kaepernick must do more in 2015 than 19 TDs and 10 interceptions. Kaepernick can run (6.1 YPC on 104 carries) but he needs to become a good passing QB. Kaepernick has the weapons in Boldin, Davis and Smith and should have some run support with Carlos Hyde (4 YPC) and Reggie Bush (4.5 YPC in 2013). Bush is a good receiving threat and is dangerous in open space. Kaepernicks’ play is the biggest key to the 49ers 2015 season but having a first time offensive coordinator in Geep Chryst may stunt his development.

Blocking

The loss of Mike Iupati (free agency) and Anthony Davis(retirement) greatly hurts the 49ers’ run blocking. Carlos Hyde had 4 YPC in his rookie season but Frank Gore carried the load with 255 carries at 4.3 YPC. Gore left in free agency to the Colts. The long time 49er will be a big loss to replace. Hyde has the talent and Reggie Bush can run well if healthy. Joe Staley and center Daniel Gilgore can run block. Anthony Boone, Marcus Martin and Erik Pears will have to prove their worth to make holes for Hyde and Bush.

Staley has the blind side taken care of for the 49ers in pass protection. He is a great protector. Boone, Kilgore Martin and Pears are all major question maker from left guard to right tackle in regards to pass protection.

Schedule and Outlook

The 49ers went to three NFC championship games in a row with most of the same talent. Their weapons are better with Smith and Bush additions and a possible revival of Vernon Davis. On defense, the 49ers get Smith and Bowman and Brock back for possibly a full season. They can maintain good coverage and pressure the opposing quarterback. They should not be taken lightly despite an 8-8 2014 season, a struggling offense, retirements, losses in free agency and coaching changes.

The 49ers host the Vikings to open the season on the late Monday Night football game. They host Green Bay during Week 4 in San Francisco. The 49ers travel to Chicago during Week 13 and to Detroit during Week 16. The 49ers should not be taken lightly. A split with the North is on the table for the 49ers.