It’s hard to believe that as recently as three years ago the Oakland Raiders were a laughing stock and the San Francisco 49ers a serious Super Bowl contender behind a highly promising quarterback somehow available in the second round.

Things have almost exactly reversed in the Bay Area. Now the Raiders are a serious Super Bowl contender behind a highly promising quarterback somehow available in the second round, and the 49ers are a laughing stock.

But with overwhelming change at the top, is this the year things start looking up at Levi’s Stadium?


2016 summary

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The San Francisco 49ers had just about as bad a 2016 season as you can imagine.

They were inept enough to lose 13 consecutive games. Chip Kelly proved that whatever inspiration he had in 2013 had long since vanished. People were talking about their quarterback, but mostly because Colin Kaepernick was a lightning rod for political debate in a polarised America during a dispiriting Presidential election campaign. Their defense were historically awful against the run, allowing 165.9 yards per game (in an era of constant pass-heavy football!) at a horrific 4.8 YPC and conceding more rushing touchdowns on the road (16) than 22 teams did in their entire season despite using two consecutive first-round picks on 3-4 defensive ends. The case against Chip in the NFL can’t be made much more simply than that.

As if that weren’t bad enough, they were gifted the top pick in the draft when the Cleveland Browns contrived to beat the then-San Diego Chargers… and promptly returned it to sender when they failed to lose to a Los Angeles Rams team whose only incentive to win was reducing the draft value of the pick they handed the Titans for Jared Goff.


 

Personnel changes

Fortunately, Kelly and GM Trent Baalke were replaced by Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, both signed to unfathomable six-year contracts. Either they’re getting serious job security from unpopular owner Jed York, or he has more money than he knows what to do with. Given that they took a player-turned-analyst with zero front office experience to be GM, one suspects the latter.

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Not that Lynch got off to a bad start. Even a neophyte GM can fleece the incompetent Chicago Bears these days, coaxing them into a trade they didn’t need to make for a quarterback they didn’t need to take while Lynch gleefully took the extra picks to pair with Solomon Thomas, who lit up the back end of the 2016 college football season. Look for him and those previous two first-rounders – Oregon duo Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner – to combine one way or another to create havoc in a new even-front D. Further manipulation of their picks led to further defensive help with a trade up to get Reuben Foster at the back end of the first; Foster would have been long gone but for character and injury concerns, as his play at middle linebacker was pivotal to the historically great Alabama D of the last two years.

Shanahan is now also armed with two players he’s worked with before to make the passing offense slightly less bad – Brian Hoyer at QB, Pierre Garcon at WR. The team also picked up Olympic long jumper Marquise Goodwin based on the theoretical possibility that Hoyer might actually throw a deep ball once in a while, and signed a fullback to a contract worth $21m over four years, because that’s how cap-strapped this hollowed-out team isn’t. Besides, when that fullback is Kyle Juszczyk, you can expect him to be essentially a TE who happens to line up in the backfield.

On the defense, veteran additions include nose tackle Earl Mitchell and edge rusher Elvis Dumervil. The latter is probably taking “veteran” too far, as he’s 33 and in sharp decline, but at least he’ll provide some leadership.


Team strengths

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While Shanahan hasn’t been a head coach before, he has a proven record of building an offense, as anyone who got run over by the 2016 Atlanta Falcons (the Niners included) can vouch for. Getting scheme-familiar players will help this team overcome the learning curve the Falcons faced in 2015.

That would also translate into a vaguely acceptable level of time in possession, which should allow the four recent first-rounders on the defensive front to be fresh enough to cause havoc.


Team weaknesses

If you think Hoyer is the answer at QB you’re probably answering the wrong question. He doesn’t have much blocking help either, with a line bad enough to start Joshua Garnett – whose rookie year didn’t even live up to his third-round billing, let alone his inexplicable first-round selection – at guard. Aging Joe Staley and trade acquisition Jeremy Zuttah are the only two acceptable pieces up front for the 49ers.

Besides, there’s an absolute ton of player turnover on offense – players no longer on the team accounted for 240 carries and 218 targets in 2016, both of these figures being top-five in the NFL. That might be a feature rather than a bug given the “effectiveness” of the offense last year, but it’s still a worry.


Best case

The 49ers actually look like they have a plan this year, and it works well enough for them to be immediately competitive. Not enough for an instant return to the playoffs, but enough to look like there’s a belief that they soon will. 8-8, second in NFC West


Worst case

All those moving parts on offense predictably fail to work together, Foster gets hurt again, and the team’s generally plain weak roster can’t get anything going. Shanahan becomes yet another second-generation coach to fail in his own right, fans call for a third consecutive end-of-season firing (what is this, Cleveland?!?), and all hope is tied to finding the right option in the loaded 2018 QB class. Assuming we still think it’s loaded by next spring. 2-14, fourth in NFC West


Prediction

There’s just not enough talent here to truly believe the Niners will get things going this year. Besides, Shanahan’s complex offense will take time to bed in, and while Hoyer has run it before, he’s still easily one of the worst starters in the NFL. The secondary will continue to be burnable, the team will continue to lose, but at least there will be flashes of promise here and there from rising rookies. It’s a ghastly season that produces another top-three pick… but if Kirk Cousins engineers his escape from Washington to reunite with Shanahan, the 49ers could make seriously tasty lemonade out of a lemon of a season by way of receiving an RG3-esque trade offer for that top-three pick to get one of those incoming QBs. 3-13, fourth in NFC West

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