QB uncertainty will keep the O grounded
Nagged by soreness in his right shoulder, Colin Kaepernick didn't throw a pass during the 49ers' mid-August joint practice with the Texans, but he did stand behind the offense taking mental reps: reading the defense, making checks, going through his progression. On one snap—a fumble following a botched exchange—he served as an impromptu free safety, running down Houston corner Kareem Jackson to prevent the scoop-and-score.
Kaepernick's "camp arm" widened the gap in his battle with Blaine Gabbert. While first-year coach Chip Kelly has insisted on listing the pair as co--No. 1 quarterbacks, Gabbert's lead has been clear. Kelly's up-tempo West Coast spread system places a premium on "repetitive accuracy"—one of his pet phrases—and the ability to work swiftly through a progressions. Neither is a strong suit of Kaepernick's, though his dangerous wheels and stronger arm make him the more dynamic player.
Asked if he might use his eventual backup in a situational role, Kelly was deliberately opaque: "We haven't ruled anything in or anything out."
Cynics contend that the real winner of this competition will be the QB who loses it. San Francisco's brutal schedule has many fans girding for a 1--4 start, or worse. By that time, the Bay Area will be baying for Kelly to bench the starter.
The signal-callers may get the headlines, but Kelly's system is based on a run-first philosophy. Upgrades along the O-line and 6-foot, 235-pound lead back Carlos Hyde's return will help the Niners be a far more effective rushing team after they scored a measly seven touchdowns on the ground in 2015 and averaged 96.5 rushing yards per game (21st in the league). Hyde's one-cut, north-south style should mesh nicely with Kelly's inside-zone scheme, but he has missed 11 games with right-ankle and left-foot injuries over the last two seasons. If he can stay on the field, he could rank among the NFL's top five rushers.
Left tackle Joe Staley, a 10-year vet and perennial Pro Bowler, will get more support playing next to guard Zane Beadles, signed from Denver in free agency. Dan Kilgore, who missed most of 2015 recovering from a fractured left leg, is a vast upgrade over Marcus Martin at center.
Prodigal right tackle Anthony Davis has returned after a one-season "retirement" to discover that the job may no longer be his. Trent Brown has slimmed down to a sylphlike 355 pounds, and the 6'8" second-year man appears to have improved his conditioning as well. Both Beadles and right guard Andrew Tiller will be pushed by Joshua Garnett, the road-grading rookie out of Stanford whose father, Scott, also played for San Francisco.
It has been five years since the Jaguars made Gabbert the No. 10 pick out of Missouri, then rushed him into the lineup, with disastrous results. After a recent practice he recalled his first preseason game in 2011, eight days after the end of the lockout and four days after he signed his contract. There was a slight problem: The top two QBs were hurt.
"Hey, you're starting!" coach Jack Del Rio informed the rookie.
"But I don't know the offense," replied Gabbert.
Five years and six head coaches later, he not only knows the offense but also can use his skill at making short, quick passes to drive it. Behind him toils Kaepernick, who's seeking to recapture his past glory but may have to settle for the 49ers' backup duties.
Until they open 1--4. Then all bets are off.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
With rampant questions about the offense, the 49ers will lean heavily on their defense in 2016 (particularly considering how often Chip Kelly's up-tempo O compels his D to be on the field). The best player on that unit is inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Last season, returning from a horrific left-ACL and -MCL injury suffered in the '13 NFC championship game, Bowman was a first-team All-Pro—just as he was for three straight years before his injury. Perhaps because he was on the voters' minds last year, they slightly overrated him; Bowman was up and down, especially early on. He was creaky when changing directions, and his typically razorlike play recognition sometimes failed him. (He excelled down the stretch.) At his best he is a difference-maker, not just against the run, but also as a blitzer and in coverage (usually defending backs). It's imperative that Bowman play at his old high level for the Niners to succeed.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 3--13
2015 Record: 5--11
SEPT. 12 vs.LA
SEPT. 18 atCAR
SEPT. 25 atSEA
OCT. 2 vs.DAL
OCT. 6 vs.ARI
OCT. 16 atBUF
OCT. 23 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 vs.NO [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 atARI
NOV. 20 vs.NE
NOV. 27 atMIA
DEC. 4 atCHI
DEC. 11 vs.NYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 atATL
DEC. 24 atLA
JAN. 1 vs.SEA
= PREDICTED WINNER