Stat Predictions for the San Francisco 49ers' Top Offensive, Defensive Starters
Predicting individual statistics is always a difficult task, and the San Francisco 49ers certainly haven’t made it any easier this offseason.
They’ve switched coordinators on both sides of the ball, bringing with them different styles of offense. They have new starters at running back, wide receiver, right tackle, left guard, two defensive line spots, both inside linebacker slots and both cornerbacks. They have studs coming back from season-long injuries, players trying to bounce back from career-low seasons and unproven rookies and second-year players trying to make their mark in the NFL.
It should be noted, however, that all that uncertainty doesn’t mean the 49ers' statistics will be bad in 2015. While a high level of continuity implies that, say, Aaron Rodgers will be good again in 2015, it also tells us that Blake Bortles might not be. The high level of turnover and uncertainty might end up being a good thing for the 49ers, who underachieved in 2014. At the very least, we can’t say with any certainty that the new team in place won’t be able to coax more out of the returning players this season.
It does make it extraordinarily difficult to predict stats, however. We simply don’t know at this point how the running backs will share carries or what the passing philosophy is. We don’t know how frequently the defensive ends will rotate or who will sit in the nickel. In short, everything we have about the 49ers right now are educated guesses.
This is all a way of saying that these predictions are also educated guesses. While I’ve tried to use past performance and similar players to help guide these predictions, they are, by their very nature, going to be less accurate than those for a team with lesser turnover. The range of possible outcomes are larger for these players than they would be for, say, the Green Bay Packers.
That’s never stopped us before, however. Here’s some early, pre-training camp predictions for the final statlines of eight key 49ers in 2015.
QB Colin Kaepernick
2014: 289-of-478 passing; 60.5% completion percentage
3,369 yards passing; 7.0 yards per attempt
19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 86.4 quarterback rating
104 carries, 639 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, one touchdown
The biggest question hanging over the 49ers in 2015 is how Colin Kaepernick will perform. Will he have another poor season like he did last year, where he was running for his life and throwing interceptions at a much higher rate than his career average? Or will he return to his 2012 and 2013 form, when he was one of the most dynamic duel-threat quarterbacks in the NFL?
As so often is the case with these false dichotomies, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. Kaepernick’s 2012 and 2013 numbers were boosted by a fantastic 49ers defense putting him in low-pressure situations to succeed, and opposing defenses that didn’t yet have a grasp how to handle the read option and other running techniques.
At the same time, Kaepernick’s 2014 numbers were depressed by Vernon Davis’ regression, the offenses’ refusal to use read-option plays to maximize Kaepernick’s running ability and the sieve-like performance of the offensive line, who surrendered 52 sacks. Yes, some of those sacks could have been avoided if Kaepernick had gotten the ball out quicker, but at a certain point, the offensive line does have to stop a pass rusher or two for a quarterback to be successful.
Kaepernick’s spent this offseason working on his mechanics with Kurt Warner down in Arizona, and that could pay major dividends. Kaepernick needs to learn to throw with a bit more touch—his 80 overthrown passes led the league last season, according to Football Outsiders—and working with a dedicated quarterback coach this offseason should help.
Giving him more pre-defined reads will also help. Kaepernick’s status as a one-read player is overstated, but it’s clear that he does not yet have, say, Peyton Manning’s ability to diagnose defenses. If the 49ers can simplify his progressions some, rather than forcing him to discover his reads post-snap, Kaepernick can use his athleticism to its maximum potential.
As it stands, I’m predicting similar accuracy numbers but a significant increase in yardage, thanks to the addition of Torrey Smith. I have him setting a career-high for yardage, but not quite reaching the per-play highs he had in 2012 and 2013. He took two steps back last season, and he’ll recover some, but not all, of that ground this year.
290-of-470 passing; 61.7% completion percentage
3,500 yards; 7.4 yards per attempt
20 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 89.0 quarterback rating
100 rushes, 600 yards, 6.0 yards per attempt, three touchdowns
RB Carlos Hyde
2014: 83 carries, 333 yards, 4.0 yards per attempt, four touchdowns
12 receptions, 68 yards, 5.7 yards per reception
Barring injury, Hyde’s going to get quite a bit more than 83 carries in 2014. He’s almost assuredly going to be the primary running back and should see his raw numbers increase dramatically.
He’s not going to get the 250+ carries that Frank Gore has had the last four seasons, however. With Reggie Bush, Kendall Hunter and even Mike Davis also in the running back stable, I expect the 49ers to use more of a platoon system than they have in almost a decade. Hyde should get many of the first- and second-down snaps, but I’d expect him to come out on nearly all passing downs, in favor of the more experienced and explosive Bush.
Still, I’m expecting big things from Hyde in 2015. The 49ers' apparent shift to a primarily zone-blocking scheme under Chris Foerster fits what Hyde did in college; as a one-cut, downhill runner, Hyde will be able to find the creases and plow through them.
We saw what Hyde could do in spurts last season. Week 1 against Dallas saw him carry the ball seven times for 50 yards and a touchdown. Week 14 in Seattle saw him gain 55 yards on six carries in only three quarters before leaving with an injury. These were two of the better teams in football last season, and Hyde looked phenomenal there.
Will he be able to keep that level of success up on a larger workload? Well, no; averaging more than eight yards a carry on 200-plus carries is an incredibly unrealistic prediction. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and place him, on a yards-per-carry basis, up with the Jeremy Hills, Jamaal Charleses and Arian Fosters of the year next season. As Trent Baalke said, the 49ers are going to “run the football,” and Hyde’s going to be a major factor in that this season.
This is my most optimistic projection for the 49ers this year, but I don’t think it’s overly unreasonable.
200 carries; 1,000 yards; 5.0 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns
23 receptions, 170 yards, 7.4 yards per reception, one touchdown
WR Anquan Boldin
2014: 83 receptions; 1,062 yards; 12.8 yards per reception; five touchdowns
Even at age 34, Anquan Boldin kept plugging along last season. At an age when other wide receivers begin to significantly decline, Boldin was still the most solid option the 49ers had, especially on third downs. Boldin had 27 receptions on third downs that resulted in a first down or touchdown. Not only was that more than twice anyone else on San Francisco, it was second-most in the league behind only Antonio Brown.
The reason Boldin’s been able to keep producing despite age is that his game has never been overly dependent on speed. He fights and wins contested catches, running precise routes and exhibiting excellent body control. So, while he is declining as a player, it’s a much more gradual decline than other receivers might show.
Boldin’s overall numbers should drop again in 2015. This is because of his age, but also because of the addition of Torrey Smith on the other side, who provides the 49ers with a legitimate deep threat for the first time in years. On a per-play basis, however, expect Boldin to be just about as effective as he was last season.
Prediction: 75 receptions, 950 yards, 12.7 yards per reception, five touchdowns
WR Torrey Smith
2014: 49 receptions, 767 yards, 15.7 yards per reception, 11 touchdowns
It’s worth noting that Smith’s 2014 stats were a bit lower than average. While he played in all 16 games last year, he was hampered by a couple injuries. He did have a terrible time catching the football, with 11 drops per Pro Football Focus, but it’s reasonable to expect those numbers to head back up somewhat in a healthier environment.
He’s not the No. 1 receiver on the team; that will remain Anquan Boldin. Smith’s a deep threat on a team that’s never had a deep threat, so it’s really very difficult to predict what sort of numbers he’ll put up. I don’t think I see him getting back to his 2013 numbers, when he topped 1,000 yards and wowed everyone. He caught 4.1 passes per game that season and only 3.1 in every other year he’s played. I think he’ll head back towards that 4.1 number, but not reach it, in San Francisco’s offense. No matter how you slice it, three to four big receptions a game seems to be about right for him.
So, with that in mind, we need to figure out how deep the 49ers will throw. If you limit it to players with at least 20 catches, Anquan Boldin actually led the team in yards per reception last year at 12.8. That’s really low. Brandon Lloyd had 21.0 yards per reception, but only caught 14 passes. He was only a deep specialist, while Smith will play on snaps that don’t require running 30 yards down the field, so he won’t hit that height.
In 2012, with Smith and Boldin on the same team, Smith averaged 3.2 yards more per reception than Boldin did. That seems like a fair number to work with; the 49ers haven’t thrown as deep as Baltimore has, historically, but the relative distance between Smith and Boldin’s average receptions should hold up. That’s how I got to my final prediction—I just added 3.2 yards per reception to Boldin’s total, gave Smith three or four receptions a game and got the final statline. Overly simplistic, perhaps, but probably fairly accurate.
Prediction: 59 receptions, 940 yards, 15.9 yards per reception, seven touchdowns
TE Vernon Davis
2014: 26 receptions, 245 yards, 9.4 yards per reception, two touchdowns
Like Smith, Davis also struggled through injuries in 2014. Even when he was on the field, however, Davis looked like a shell of his former self. He set a career low in yards, tied a career low in touchdowns and had his second-lowest total of receptions. His blocking seemed to fade too, though that’s not a statistical thing we’re looking at at the moment.
It’s quite possible Davis is just done. He’s 31 years old, and perhaps he simply hit the age wall harder than most. You don’t see many tight ends in their 30s putting up monster numbers. You also have the issue of a loaded tight end position—the 49ers have a number of other options if Davis continues to struggle, including two 2015 draft picks.
Then again, it would be really strange if all of Davis’ decline was just due to age. You don’t see Pro Bowlers, like Davis was in 2013, collapse that quickly. The injuries surely played a large part in limiting his effectiveness; a healthier Davis could rebound significantly.
I believe the days of Davis being a leading receiving threat are done. However, I do think that he’ll at least be able to provide more than he did last season. I think he’s got one more 500-plus yard season left in him, though he should absolutely not get a new contract from the 49ers at this point. With the addition of Torrey Smith, his yards-per-reception numbers should drop as well, but that might be best for the aging Davis. Reinventing himself as a more possession-type player might extend his career by a few years.
Prediction: 43 receptions, 550 yards, 12.8 yards per reception, five touchdowns
For those keeping track, that leaves 90 receptions for 890 yards and two touchdowns for the rest of San Francisco’s receiving corps, most of which should go to Reggie Bush and Bruce Ellington.
LB NaVorro Bowman
2014: Missed the season
Defensive player stats are harder to figure out than offensive player stats. Good offensive players have the ball intentionally come their way; good defensive players see the ball intentionally moved away from them. Think of these last three slides as more ways to discuss some players’ effectiveness rather than specifically touting stats.
The 2015 version of NaVorro Bowman will not be as effective as the 2013 one, at least not right away. It would be unrealistic to expect Bowman to bounce back after missing an entire season without skipping a beat. There will be some time to re-adjust to the speed of the NFL game and to trust that his knee will hold up. By the end of the season, I expect him to be back close to form, but there might be some growing pains early on.
Still, this is a former All-Pro we’re talking about. Assuming there are no setbacks in his recovery, Bowman’s the best addition the 49ers made this offseason. Few franchises can lose an All-Pro star like Patrick Willis and replace him with an All-Pro star like Bowman. In many ways, this is his defense now, and it’s his intensity and power that fuel this team. He needs to step into the leadership role vacated by Willis and Justin Smith. I believe he can do that.
Predictions: 110 tackles, 30 assists, three sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles
LB Michael Wilhoite
2014: 67 tackles, 20 assists, zero sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble
For the second year in a row, Michael Wilhoite has to replace a superstar middle linebacker. Last year, it was the injured NaVorro Bowman. This year, it’s the retired Patrick Willis.
Wilhoite wasn’t horrible last season by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s no Willis or Bowman. He's not even a Chris Borland, who also retired this offseason and would have been ahead of Wilhoite on the depth chart.
Wilhoite was very up-and-down, though he seemed to do better when dropping into coverage rather than playing against the run, thanks to his history of playing safety in college. This is a bit of an issue, because a large portion of his snaps will come in the base and nickel packages, with Bowman likely being the linebacker still on the field when the team goes to dime sets. However, Wilhoite plugged around last season as a bottom-level starter—but still as a starter—rather than a backup forced into the lineup. That’s a positive sign.
It’s still surprising the team is going with him again, rather than signing a free agent or using a high draft slot on an inside linebacker. It shows a lot of faith in the fourth-year undrafted free agent, and hopefully he can rise to the occasion. He may end up being San Francisco’s worst defensive starter this season, but then, someone has to be, and Wilhoite’s not the worst option in the world.
Prediction: 71 tackles, 27 assists, one sack, two interceptions
SS Antoine Bethea
2014: 71 tackles, 14 assists, one sack, four interceptions, one forced fumble
Antoine Bethea was the major addition the 49ers got last year, as the free agent stepped in and played well enough to be named Team MVP. While you can argue for a couple other players for that particular honor, there’s no arguing Bethea’s effectiveness. Bethea provided a level of veteran maturity and knowhow to a secondary that was forced to go with a great number of rookies and young, inexperienced players as the season went along, and he performed at a high level throughout.
With the departure of Justin Smith, Bethea becomes the second-most experienced player on the entire 49ers defense, behind only Darnell Dockett. He, too, will have to step up and take a larger share of the leadership role on this defense as it goes through a transitional state.
On the field, there’s no significant reason to expect Bethea’s numbers to drop in 2015. Even at age 31, Bethea still looks poised to perform at as high a level as he ever has. While 2014 was his career-best season and thus could be considered an outlier, he should put in another stellar performance in 2015.
Prediction: 79 tackles, 23 assists, one sack, five interceptions, one forced fumble
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.