New Gold Rush: The 49ers' Offseason Departures
Last week, OT Anthony Davis joined DE Justin Smith and LBs Patrick Willis & Chris Borland as the fourth 49ers starter to retire since March. It was just another chapter in a whirlwind offseason that saw San Francisco lose five additional starters to free agency; G Mike Iupati, RB Frank Gore, WR Michael Crabtree, and CBs Perrish Cox & Chris Culliver all signed deals out of town. Perhaps most unsettling of all for 49ers fans is this recent report from ESPN's John Clayton, suggesting that QB Colin Kaepernick might be the tenth major departure, via trade. This news all comes following similar turnover in the coaching staff. San Fran enters the 2015 season without OL coach Mike Solari, DC Vic Fangio, and, of course, HC Jim Harbaugh.
This 49ers team has been rendered almost unrecognizable compared to its 2012 Super Bowl runner-up squad:
(This list is actually out of date; three-time Pro Bowler P Andy Lee was traded for a Cleveland 2017 seventh-rounder.)
Before we relegate them to the cellar of the NFC West or try to understand this rush out of San Francisco, let's take stock of what each of these losses means to the Niners, on both sides of the ball.
The defensive unit certainly cannot be blamed for the 49ers' regression in 2014: they boasted the 10th-fewest points allowed and the 5th-fewest yards allowed last season. More advanced statistics tell the same story: San Francisco ranked 5th per DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), meaning they were the 5th-most efficient defense in the league on a per-play basis. Their dominance was due especially to their pass defense, which was 4th per pass-DVOA and 5th in pass yards against.
Most impressive is the fact that the Niners managed this feat without full seasons from Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith. The pass rush was largely anchored by Justin Smith and Borland--two guys who won't be on the team next year. They'll get Bowman and Aldon Smith back, but it's been three years since Smith played a full season. The 49ers nabbed Darnell Dockett off waivers to bolster the line, but he also missed all of last season in Arizona due to a preseason ACL tear. There's plenty of talent in the front seven, but the retirees are all big losses, especially the veteran presences of Willis and Smith. Even if third-year end Tank Carradine realizes the potential he showed in flashes last year, expectations ought to be tempered for this unit.
The story is more or less the same in the secondary: terrific last year, and due for regression. San Francisco led the league in team interceptions with 23, mostly a statement about Fangio's brilliance--whom the 49ers are now without. Departed CBs Cox and Culliver were responsible for five and four of those interceptions, respectively. Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid are both young and solid DBs (though Reid apparently considered retiring too--yikes), but they have a lot of weight to pull to even approximate last year's production.
The foundation--principally Smith, Bowman, and Bethea--is very good, but a great defense needs depth and continuity. Neither is present in San Fran. The sheer amount of loss probably pushes the defense to the middle of the pack in 2015.
If you're still wondering how this team could only muster an 8-8 record despite such a tough defense in 2014, look no further. Following their Week 8 bye, the 49ers managed a measly 16.3 ppg, which would be the fourth-worst figure if stretched over a full season, above only the futility triumvirate of Tennessee, Oakland, and Jacksonville.
The ground game was good last year, finishing eighth in rush-DVOA and maintaining a surprisingly cohesive line, tenth in adjusted line yards. They'll notice the loss of Iupati, but Davis missed seven games in 2014 anyway, and Gore will probably be ably replaced by Carlos Hyde and newcomer Reggie Bush. Even with some big contributors gone, the running game might maintain status quo.
The outlook isn't as bright when the Niners decide to throw. As good as it was at run blocking, San Francisco's offensive line was dismal last year in pass protection--third-worst in the league by adjusted sack rate, above the Redskins and the Jaguars--and none of the guys stepping up to replace Iupati and Davis suggest improvement on this front.
Without better line play, it's tough to imagine big things for the passing game. New signee Torrey Smith is probably an improvement over Crabtree in the receiving corps, but neither he nor Anquan Boldin is particularly dependable. Meanwhile, tight end Vernon Davis fell off a cliff in 2014, finishing in the bottom-five among qualified tight ends in nearly every advanced statistic (Davis was 46th in TE DVOA. Recall there are only 32 teams in the NFL). Kaepernick also struggled mightily in 2014, placing 28th in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and 29th in individual DVOA among qualified quarterbacks, after placing 8th and 7th, respectively, by those measures in 2013. The 49ers will be relying heavily on the new-look defense to keep them in games; with an air attack like this, behind a line that was porous even with Iupati and half a season of Davis, playing catch-up will be tough.
Short version: There's trouble with a capital "T" in the Bay Area.
Long version: Championship windows are often narrow in a sport as physically demanding as football, and there's fear that it's closed for the 49ers. With that fear is the temptation to blow it all up, hence the trade rumors surrounding Kaepernick. However, it seems like a trade for the QB is pressing the panic button too early. The immense roster turnover shrouds the Niners in mystery, but doesn't necessarily make it much worse. This is still more or less a young team, so their talent might overcome the identity crises, especially on defense. It's worth giving the new starters a year to prove their worth--plus, they'll have about $30 million more in cap space to work with in 2016.
Any way you cut it, this mass player exodus out of San Fran makes next season a pivotal one for the 49ers' near future.