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NFC West Preview: Five storylines to watch for the San Francisco 49ers

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Training Camp Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL Preseason is underway, with 30 of the 32 teams having their first games this week. Having covered the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams already, here’s a quick rundown of top storylines for the last of Seattle’s three NFC West rivals: The San Francisco 49ers. They went 0-14 against teams not named the Rams, but is there reason for optimism this year with a new coaching staff and a new general manager?

Young, promising defensive talent

Seahawks fans are well aware of how strong those 49ers defenses from 2011-2014 were. From 2015-2016, however? Try 27th and 28th in DVOA, respectively. John Lynch invested heavily on defense in this year’s draft, notably selecting DE Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster, and CB Akhello Witherspoon with his first three picks. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh used to be the Seahawks’ Defensive Quality Control coach from 2011-2013, and I imagine the Niners want to replicate some of what the Seahawks manage on defense. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner showed promise in his rookie season, picking up six sacks and making the PFWA All-Rookie Team. Rashard Robinson looks to be a long-term starter at cornerback after he was one of the few bright spots on last year’s squad. I believe we could see the Niners field a defense closer to league-average than another year of cellar-dwelling.

Rebuilding the offense

No one seriously believes Brian Hoyer is going to be the long-term answer at quarterback. He’s capable without being anywhere above-average, so it’s a safe choice. Iowa’s CJ Beathard is battling the very terrible Matt Barkley for the backup role, and I’d be lying if I said I knew much about Beathard, as Big Ten offenses are mostly awful to watch. The running back depth features Carlos Hyde (more on him in a minute), fourth-rounder Joe Williams, veteran Tim Hightower, and former Denver Bronco Kapri Bibbs. For some reason, the 49ers are paying fullback Kyle Juszczyk $21 million over four years, with $9.75 million guaranteed. At wide receiver, Torrey Smith was let go and Pierre Garcon, Aldrick Robinson, and Marquise Goodwin were all brought in. Garcon is surely the team’s #1 WR and has been quite productive in both Indianapolis and Washington. I really see nothing in Goodwin apart from “he’s fast,” and Robinson has never amounted to much since entering the pros in 2011. Like Garcon, he is familiar with Kyle Shanahan’s offense, so it’s not that surprising that this acquisition was made. The offensive line remains a big question mark, especially since it doesn’t look like Jeremy Zuttah is a lock to win the starting spot at center, where he made it to last season’s Pro Bowl with the Ravens.

Can Carlos Hyde become a viable receiving threat?

I happen to like Carlos Hyde. He would’ve finished in the top-10 in rushing yards last season had he not missed time due to injury, and he averaged a career-high 4.6 yards per carry. Hyde spent much of 2014 backing up Frank Gore, and his two seasons as a starter have been on horrifyingly bad offenses. There were some rumblings about Hyde’s future earlier in the offseason, especially with Utah’s Williams getting drafted, but that has seemed to subside. I’m more intrigued by the possibility of Kyle Shanahan making Hyde a receiving option. Hyde only has 50 catches (on 64 targets) for a meager 284 yards and three touchdowns over the course of his pro career. The 2016 Falcons threw 22% of its passes to running backs, good for 6th in the NFL. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are (for my money) the best RB duo in the league, so it’ll take some doing for Shanahan to replicate that level of success with lesser talent. Ultimately, I expect Hyde to be much more involved in the passing game, in addition to Kyle Juszczyk.

Garry Gilliam’s place on the roster.

The decision not to match San Francisco’s one-year, $2.2 million offer sheet for right tackle Garry Gilliam has made for some interesting debate among Seahawks fans. Gilliam was briefly benched last year and it was probably a sign that the coaching staff wasn’t keen on him, but was he really all that bad? Regardless of your position on Gilliam’s abilities, he’s a 49er now. If you’re upset over him not being part of Seattle’s first-team OL plans, you’ll be interested to know that Gilliam is the second-team RT in the 49ers’ first depth chart, behind Trent Brown. Things can change over the course of preseason, but thus far the man whom some believed should’ve remained Seattle’s starting RT isn’t in position to be the starter for SF.

Will Levi’s Stadium ever not be a dump of a field to play on?


San Francisco 49ers Schedule (all times PT)

vs. Panthers (1:25 PM)
at Seahawks (1:25 PM)
vs. Rams (5:30 PM, Thursday Night Football)
at Cardinals (1:05 PM)
at Colts (10 AM)
at Redskins (10 AM)
vs. Cowboys (1:05 PM)
at Eagles (10 AM)
vs. Cardinals (1:05 PM)
vs. Giants (1:25 PM)
Bye (November 19th)
vs. Seahawks (1:05 PM)
at Bears (10 AM)
at Texans (10 AM)
vs. Titans (1:25 PM)
vs. Jaguars (1:05 PM)
at Rams (1:25 PM)