To answer some Qs about the state of San Francisco’s football team is David Fucillo of Niners Nation. Here are his very thorough As.
Q: Not that the Seahawks can brag, but the 49ers offense struggled in Week 1, managing just 13 first downs (more than Seattle's 12) and three points against the Panthers. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have been tasked with fixing the offense and no one expected it to be great this year, but with Brian Hoyer instead of Colin Kaepernick and a new receiver at every receiver position, new tight ends, and an expensive new fullback, do you expect it to at least be better than it was in 2016? Are there any new wrinkles we should watch for on Sunday?
A: The 49ers offense struggled to get anything going with consistency in Week 1. Carlos Hyde averaged five yards a carry, but did not get enough work to turn that into much big. Marquise Goodwin had a touchdown pass go right through his arms. The biggest problem on Sunday was the play of the interior line. Left guard Zane Beadles in particular struggled in a big way, looking like a veritable turnstile in all phases of the game.
Kyle Shanahan had tremendous success in Atlanta, but he also had WR Julio Jones, QB Matt Ryan, and C Alex Mack, among many others. The talent on the 49ers offense is less than that, but more than what Shanahan had in Cleveland where he had some limited success. I think we'll see improvement from this unit, but I have little doubt there will be frustrating inconsistency. Brian Hoyer is not a "bad" quarterback per se, but he is very limited. He can do things when he has a clean pocket, and he did not have that on Sunday.
That's where we could see a notable change. The 49ers acquired guard Laken Tomlinson from the Detroit Lions on August 31. They had lost Joshua Garnett to a knee injury, and Zane Beadles and Brandon Fusco simply were not getting the job done. Tomlinson was inactive in Week 1, but has started getting some first team reps this week. I don't know for certain if he will play on Sunday, but given how badly Beadles played, there is a very real chance he is in the starting lineup at left guard.
I have a feeling we'll see more of Carlos Hyde on Sunday than the Panthers saw last week. Hyde finished Week 1 with nine carries and six receptions. If he finishes Sunday with 15 total touches, things will have gone south in a hurry. I suspect the Seahawks will get a heavy dose of him, complemented by rookie running back Matt Breida.
Q: Rookies often take a year to catch up to NFL speed, even third overall picks, but how big of a factor do you expect Solomon Thomas to play in the early goings of 2017? He played 43 snaps against Carolina, which is about 2/3rds of the defensive snaps, which is pretty good for a debut. Was he making a noticeable impact in those snaps?
A: Thomas is getting work as the primary defensive lineman off the bench. He backs up Tank Carradine at strong side defensive end, and then rotates in at defensive tackle when the 49ers move to their sub-packages. He got plenty of snaps, but it was a quiet day on the stat sheet. He missed all of minicamp and OTAs because of Stanford's late graduate, so he was behind heading into training camp. I feel like he's a guy who we will see more consistently in the latter half of the season. He'll show up in some highlight plays in the first half of the season, but he is a work in progress in many ways.
I would say that the bigger defensive rookie to discuss is Reuben Foster. He will not play due to a high ankle sprain, and that is a bigger deal than I think most would expect from a rookie in Week 2. There is some argument to be made that Foster is already the best player on this defense. Obviously he has a lot to learn, but with NaVorro Bowman working back from his torn Achilles, I don't know if anybody brings to the table what Foster does as a linebacker. Prior to his injury he had emerged as the primary nickel and dime linebacker, and was looking pretty great in coverage.
When he went down, that means Bowman re-took some of those coverage duties, and Ray-Ray Armstrong joined at weak side linebacker. Armstrong is athletic and talented, but Foster is a sizable step ahead of him. I suspect we'll see the Seahawks going after Armstrong with regularity on Sunday.
Q: Only Brian Hoyer and the starting offensive line played all 57 snaps of offense, but rookie tight end George Kittle was right behind them at 54. How much of a presence is Kittle expected to provide in the blocking game and the passing game? What is his biggest weakness right now?
A: Kittle was a solid blocker in college. He has work to do to get consistent at the NFL level, but he's a guy who seems to enjoy the blocking aspect of the tight end role. The 49ers went with one tight end fairly regularly in Week 1. They have Garrett Celek and Logan Paulsen on the roster as well. Both are solid blockers in their own right, but the fact that Shanahan is willing to go primarily with Kittle shows his confidence in the rookie's blocking.
I expect Kittle to get a sizable workload throughout the season. The 49ers traded Vance McDonald late in training camp to clear the way for him. While McDonald was never the stand-out fans hoped for, he was a very capable tight end who just had problems hanging onto the ball. The fact that the 49ers were willing to move him, even with so many holes on the roster is further sign of their confidence in Kittle.
Kittle's size will remain the biggest hurdle to him being a pure No. 1 combo tight end. He is viewed as a move option. That's certainly not an insult to his skills, but it can limit the kind of role in which the 49ers will use him. The Falcons used their tight ends in a variety of cunning ways under Kyle Shanahan. I'm still trying to figure out the plan exactly in Santa Clara.
Q: The Jets are actively trying to get the first overall pick next year, while the Colts are just going to mismanage their franchise into possibly getting the first overall pick. So far it seems like a three-way race between those two teams and the 49ers for who will not even have the option of trading up in 2018 because there's nowhere to go up from first. How good of a chance do you think San Francisco has at the worst record and would you rather see them go 1-15 or 6-10? (For the record to any Niners fans who read this, I'm not actively trying to talk crap, just being realistic, and I think adding a franchise QB to the mix -- which the 2018 draft very well should have -- makes San Francisco an instant wild card contender if the defensive players develop like they could develop.)
A: The 49ers entered this season with low expectations, but some semblance of optimism for John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. The win total was set in Las Vegas at 4.5, but the wagering has primarily been on the OVER. I found that fascinating given how bad the 49ers have been the past two seasons.
I don't think anybody will out-suck the Jets this year. The 49ers are a tough team to figure out in some ways. The offense has a ton of question marks, with the guards being a mess, and Brian Hoyer having a limited ceiling. At the same time, I think this defense has a chance to come together quicker, and potentially keep the 49ers a bit more competitive. Losing Reuben Foster is quite problematic, but if he only misses three or four games with his high ankle sprain, that defense could be in a position to move towards the middle of the pack from a defensive rating perspective. I still think the offense holds them back from getting above six wins, but I do think five or six wins is not entirely out of the realm of the possible, in part because of their schedule. Week 5 against the Colts is not looking quite as bad. Both Cardinals games will be without David Johnson. After Week 12 against you guys, they play at Chicago and Houston, host Tennessee and Jacksonville, and close at the Rams. It's way too early to know who will be where, but there are some winnable games there.
I would certainly enjoy having the No. 1 overall pick, but with the potential for as many as five quarterbacks to go in the first round, I'm comfortable with this team making some progress in the win column this year. I don't think they'll make the playoffs, but again, I think an improved showing from the defense could put the 49ers in position to steal a few wins. I'll take improved play and a pick in the top 15 over a frustrating lack of growth and a top five pick.
Q: From a 49ers fan perspective, how would you evaluate the situations with the Rams, Cardinals, and Seahawks? How do you see the final standings shaking out? Do you think Arizona can survive the loss of David Johnson to get to the playoffs and is Carson Palmer finished? Can the Rams ride their Week 1 momentum into a playoff berth? Do you think the Seahawks offensive line situation is pathetic enough to sink them entirely? Just curious what your thoughts are on those three teams.
A: The Seahawks are of course the clear front-runner, but plenty think Arizona will bounce back this year. I was skeptical even before the loss of David Johnson. Carson Palmer isn't entirely done at this point, but I feel like he's pretty close, and things could get ugly this year. That defense could potentially keep them in enough games to challenge for a playoff spot, but I think Carson Palmer's play makes or breaks this season -- and I am leaning on breaks.
The Rams blowing out the Colts was certainly something. I do think Jared Goff and that offense will look competent this year, but there will still be inconsistency. I am intrigued though to see how Sean McVay works with that group. Getting Aaron Donald back and avoiding a protracted in-season holdout is huge for that organization. I'm not ready to jump on the bandwagon, and this weekend against Kirk Cousins will be a serious test, but they are an intriguing group. I think they end up finishing ahead of Arizona in the standings.
As for the Seahawks, man that offensive line seems to stink. I don't think it's going to cost them a playoff spot given the question marks around the NFC West, but it raises serious issues. If that doesn't improve, I don't think there is enough to make up for it and get to the Super Bowl. The defense gives them a puncher's chance in the playoffs, but man is that line atrocious.