The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers once had a great rivalry that lasted for all of about five games, including a classic NFC Championship showdown. Today, the 49ers struggle to find their identity in the post-Jim Harbaugh era while the Seahawks are in the midst of their Hyde phase once again.
To find out what the Niners have been up to since we last got a glimpse of these two teams “in battle,” I spoke with David Fucillo of Niners Nation. I sent him 5 Qs and in return, he sent me back 5 matching As.
Q: A lot has been made about Colin Kaepernick's pregame decisions, but what I'm curious about is what's going to happen when Chip Kelly tires of Blaine Gabbert. So far, Gabbert has been one of the least productive QBs in the NFL, averaging 5.8 Y/A with a rating of 74.4. It seems like he's still got the physical gifts that made him a high draft pick but after six seasons and basically no improvement, can we honestly expect him to remain a starter after this year? So my question is whether or not Kelly's second option is even Kaepernick or if the organization is going to make sure he never sees a single snap because of his injury guarantees and turn to Christian Ponder instead.
A: "[C]an we honestly expect him to remain a starter after this year?" - Honestly, I would be surprised if he remained a starter this whole season. He's had some solid moments, but they have been far outnumbered by bad throws. He is too frequently high, low, behind or in front of his pass catchers. When he does connect with a receiver, he often doesn't consider a better quality option with an opening. It's frustrating.
When the season began I figured Kaepernick would be RG3'd and kept out of games. But in the first two weeks, he has been the active backup over Christian Ponder. Trent Baalke runs the 53-man roster, but Chip Kelly gets control over the game-day 46. I imagine Baalke would like to see Kaepernick inactive the whole season, but he's been active, and got in some garbage time snaps in Week 1. If Kelly was going to put him in bubble wrap, Kaepernick would not be active. And so, I would be surprised if they went to Ponder instead of Kaepernick when they inevitably bench Gabbert.
Q: What's amazing to me is that the 49ers look to me like the worst offense in the NFL and yet they've scored SEVEN touchdowns, compared to the Seahawks pathetic one touchdown. Carlos Hyde is averaging 3.3 YPC, Jeremy Kerley is the leading receiver with 90 yards, and I don't really see any young players who appear to at least be the future of the offense. Yet, seven touchdowns. Do you think San Fran has one of the worst offenses in the NFL or is there more to Quinton Patton and Vance McDonald than meets the stats sheet?
A: It's been odd to watch this team because like you say, they've put up points, but the offense is not good right now. I don't know what was up with the Rams defense in Week 1. The 49ers offensive line held steady and they were able to get just enough done to get into the end zone four times, all on 9-11 play drives. In Week 2, they started one touchdown drive on the Panthers one, but they still had two other longer touchdown drives. It was boom or bust in Week 2.
You could say Vance McDonald is more than meets the eye. He's inconsistent, as seen by his 75-yard touchdown vs. the Panthers, followed shortly after by a drop on deep ball. The raw skills are there to be a major threat in the passing game, but he just can't put it all together on a regular basis. As for the receivers, Quinton Patton has some skills, but is just sort of a meh receiver. He's getting his biggest opportunity to date, so maybe he breaks out at some point. But thus far, he hasn't shown enough for me to get excited. That leaves the team with Kerley and Torrey Smith, and not much more in the passing game. Smith can get downfield in a hurry, but at times it feels like he's a 9 route and not much else. He's great for drawing pass interference flags, but he has yet to establish himself as a consistent option.
The 49ers desperately need to draft a legit No. 1 receiver, but Trent Baalke has not done much in that regard. He drafted A.J. Jenkins in 2012, and he was a massive bust. Otherwise, the team just does not invest heavily in the position, other than the Torrey Smith deal. It's the biggest disappointment with Baalke, at least for me.
Q: The Niners have had a lot of players on defense who had a ton of potential when drafted but whether it was for injury or some other reason, didn't seem to materialize much of that potential once their careers got going. Tank Carradine, Jimmie Ward, Quinton Dial, Eli Harold, to name a few... Which defensive player has shown the most improvement this season and does look like a future star?
A: Quinton Dial is a guy to watch. He stepped into a significant role last season, and this year he leads 3-4 defensive ends in run stops, according to Pro Football Focus. 3-4 defensive end is not a flashy role, where even Justin Smith was more known for his toughness and hustle than actually putting up gaudy stats. Dial will never be a guy who gets a ton of recognition, but he has been solid.
Jimmie Ward spent his first two seasons at nickel back, but has moved outside and is one of the team's two starting cornerbacks. He's still inconsistent, but he's shown some things, and the coaching staff is pretty confident in him. The team has had him get a little practice at safety in the past, but for now, they seem content to push him at cornerback.
Tank Carradine is in the position that could draw the most attention down the road, if he can effectively convert back to essentially his college role. The 49ers drafted him in 2013 and tried to turn him into a 295+ pound defensive tackle. That didn't take, and this year they moved him back to OLB and had him drop down to 270+ pounds. He has the skills to be an effective option off the edge, but given all the back and forth since 2013, it's taken time to develop. I think of the 49ers recent notable draft picks that have struggled to get anywhere, he has the best chance of being anything like a start, primarily because of the potential for big sack totals.
Q: The 49ers went back to picking in the top 10 this year, selecting defensive end DeForest Buckner out of Oregon, meaning that he was a recruit of Kelly once upon a time. Buckner would then seem to be San Francisco's prized possession... how are things looking after one summer, one preseason, and two games?
A: Buckner has been getting extensive playing time right out of the gate. He has led the 49ers defensive linemen in snaps each of the first two games. He and Arik Armstead (2015 first round pick out of Oregon, as well) are viewed as long term parts of that defensive front, particularly in the pass rush. Buckner had a solid first game, getting pressure on Case Keenum. He struggled in game two, as did most of the 49ers defensive front in terms of getting pressure on Cam Newton. As with most rookies, it is going to be an up-and-down ride. I think we see fewer downs with Buckner than a lot of players, but he is still learning.
The 49ers got Buckner started with the third string defense when he first arrived in the offseason workout program. He was working with the second team by the end of minicamp, and quickly moved into first team work in training camp. Glenn Dorsey is returning from a torn ACL, and Quinton Dial is back from a torn MCL, so there is more depth at the position, which hopefully means no need for overwork.
This will be an interesting matchup given the Seahawks questionable offensive line, and Russell Wilson's ankle injury. If Buckner is continuing to develop, I feel like he should be able feast a bit more regularly in the backfield.
Q: Chip Kelly made a ton of changes in Philly from year two to year three and it didn't work out so well for him or the Eagles. He's now in his first year with the 49ers and while he's probably going to downplay ever personnel decision as "not mine" let's be honest and say that he's got plenty of say in who the 49ers add or release from the roster. That being said, San Francisco didn't change very much from 2015 to 2016. Do you expect a lot of changes in 2017 and where do you expect those changes to come?
A: I actually don't think he's got "plenty of say" with the 49ers 53-man roster. He definitely gets to talk about it, but Trent Baalke is much more clearly in charge than Howie Roseman was in Philadelphia. Tom Gamble, Baalke's assistant GM, is friends with both Baalke and Kelly, so I think he serves as a bit of a buffer, but this is Baalke's roster.
I honestly don't know what to expect next offseason, because I can't say with certainty that Baalke will be around. If the team struggles, he is more likely to get the blame than Kelly. If Baalke remains in charge, I just don't see a ton of free agency investment. Maybe one notable name, but they've always tried to build more through the draft. The 49ers desperately need help at wide receiver and tight end, and let's be honest, they'll probably need to figure out the next step at quarterback. I don't think we see anybody on the present roster as the long-term option. I would be surprised if the team was not drafting a quarterback next spring.