When he was the Falcons' offensive coordinator KYLE SHANAHAN, the 49ers' new coach, brilliantly used his formations to create mismatches, often unbalancing the field by having receivers to one side and backs and tight ends to the other. He also excelled at concocting routes for each side of the field that gave Matt Ryan different answers for different coverages. As long as Shanahan has a QB who knows where the ball should go—and BRIAN HOYER, his placeholder starter, usually does—the Niners can field a competitive offense. It won't be as pretty as Atlanta's because they don't have the talent at the skill positions, but it will be more consistent than Chip Kelly's Colin Kaepernick--led attack of a year ago.
• What made Shanahan's play designs so potent was the receiving abilities of Falcons tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, which allowed them to line up in one formation and shift to another. The shifts forced the defense to tip its hand; also, most D's don't have linebackers who could cover those backs. CARLOS HYDE is a solid inside runner who can occasionally turn the corner, but he had only 163 yards receiving last year. If fourth-round rookie Joe Williams can become a threat out of the backfield, he'll earn playing time quickly.
• Even though he would be among the lightest defensive tackles in the NFL at 273 pounds, that's where No. 3 pick SOLOMON THOMAS should play in passing situations. The 6'3" Thomas can kick over to end on first and second down, but he lined up at tackle an estimated 85% of his snaps at Stanford. The 49ers' other tackle is 2016 first-rounder—DEFOREST BUCKNER, who showed better leverage in the second half of his rookie season.
• New defensive coordinator ROBERT SALEH is a former Seattle assistant, and his Seahawks-style Cover 3 is a single-high safety zone coverage that has interior defenders drop to landmarks on the field. But it's worth noting that last year the teams that used this scheme—Atlanta, Jacksonville and, of course, Seattle—all increased their man-to-man coverage late in the season, perhaps because offenses found ways to exploit the zone. That could signal a problem for the Niners, whose corners may not be good enough to play man regularly.
"AS LONG AS SHANAHAN'S QB KNOWS WHERE THE BALL SHOULD GO, THEY WILL HAVE A COMPETITIVE OFFENSE."
SI'S 2017 PREDICTION
2016 RECORD 2--14
ANDY BENOIT'S 400 MMQB ON.SI.COM/400
201 JOE STALEY T
220 DEFOREST BUCKNER DT
254 CARLOS HYDE RB
256 JIMMIE WARD DB
265 EARL MITCHELL DT
278 PIERRE GARÇON WR
319 ARIK ARMSTEAD DE
354 NAVORRO BOWMAN LB
378 ELVIS DUMERVIL OLB
389 QUINTON DIAL DE