The San Francisco 49ers raised eyebrows when they promoted Geep Chryst from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator, handing the keys to an offense that struggled markedly in 2014 to a coach who could not guide the San Diego Chargers above No. 26 in team offense in his two years in the same role with the AFC West franchise.
However, with an aggressive approach that maximizes the most exciting talents on the Niners offense, Chryst could prove to be an unexpected success.
Chryst takes over for Greg Roman, who was a hit at first when he came in with Jim Harbaugh in 2011, transforming the run game and helping the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance. But it all turned sour in 2014, with Roman's conservative style of offense making him a scapegoat for San Francisco's failure to make the playoffs in a turbulent season.
And the numbers do not make great reading for Roman. The 49ers ranked No. 16 in offensive DVOA, a system employed by Football Outsiders to measure a team's efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent, down eight spots from the 2013 season. Officially, the Niners were No. 20 in total offense and No. 30 in passing offense, although they did rank at No. 4 in the league in rushing offense.
So how does Chryst go about turning the fortunes of this offense around? One of the key steps toward doing that will be assembling an offensive depth chart that puts this group in the best position to be successful.
Most of the starters should name themselves. Colin Kaepernick—shackled as a pocket passer last season—will be the quarterback, with Carlos Hyde the favorite to take over from the departed Frank Gore as the No. 1 running back. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin figure to be the starting wideouts, with Vernon Davis retaining his place as the first-choice tight end.
The dilemma for Chryst begins when selecting the offensive linemen and backups at the skill positions, specifically at the tight end spot, where the 49ers currently have seven players below Davis on the depth chart.
Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier and Garrett Celek have been the guys competing for playing time behind Davis in recent times, but none has really demonstrated the kind of explosive ability that rookies Blake Bell and Rory Anderson showcased in college.
Bell, while still developing as a pass-catcher, can hurt defenses with big plays through the air, as a short-yardage and goal-line threat and on the ground. He excelled with his legs as a quarterback with Oklahoma before making the transition to tight end. Anderson is an extremely athletic player for his 6'5" and 244-pound size, which enables him to go up and get the football and challenge defenses down the seams.
Both Bell and Anderson are obviously raw and would have issues blocking at the NFL level. The likes of Celek and McDonald have the advantage in that area, but at this point, it is clear neither of that duo is dynamic enough to have a significant impact in the passing game.
Carrier's two-year contract extension should mean he will stay on the roster, but with Tony Sparano installed as tight ends coach, the Niners can afford to take a gamble on Bell and Anderson over McDonald and Celek and hope they quickly develop under an experienced coach at that position.
At wide receiver, San Francisco does not have the same variety of options. However, the battle for playing time appears to already be heating up, with DeAndrew White entering the fray with some excellent performances in minicamp.
The unpredictability of Bruce Ellington, who, in limited playing time, proved himself to be a threat on the ground on reverses and trick plays as well as through the air, is something the 49ers should look to utilize. Yet, while Jerome Simpson has significant experience and is a decent deep threat, at this stage all Chryst and San Francisco can do is wait and see who of that duo, White and Quinton Patton makes the biggest impression in training camp and preseason.
Anthony Davis' decision to take some time away from the game and Mike Iupati's departure in free agency have put the 49ers in a tough spot up front with spaces to fill at right tackle and left guard. The Niners were prepared for Iupati leaving, having drafted a number of interior offensive linemen in recent years, but they were not as ready for Davis to vacate his spot. However, tackle Trenton Brown was selected in the seventh round of this year's draft and did catch the eye in OTAs and minicamp.
Erik Pears can also operate as a right tackle, having done so with the Buffalo Bills. However, given what the 49ers have invested in draft picks on the interior of the line, it would make more sense for San Francisco to hand the two guard spots to two young players in Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas, who were drafted with a view to becoming key cogs on the O-line. That would then allow Alex Boone to kick outside to a right tackle spot that he should be more than comfortable with.
Boone began his NFL career as a tackle and remains relatively strong in pass protection, earning a grade of 2.6 from Pro Football Focus for his play in that area in 2014. Martin struggled when plugged in to play in place of the injured Daniel Kilgore at center last year, and Thomas missed his rookie season due to an ACL injury. But both are athletic enough to pull and make blocks on the second level and create holes for a runner like Hyde, who seems set to develop into an integral part of the offense.
According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers plan to implement more zone-blocking concepts in 2015, a decision that makes sense when you consider where Hyde is at this stage in his development.
Hyde is a terrific, powerful, one-cut runner who excels when he gets to the edge. Take this play against the New Orleans Saints for example:
Here Hyde picks up good blocks from Joe Staley and Bruce Miller and shows both the speed to get to the edge and the shiftiness to make the right cut back to the inside and beat a couple of Saints defenders for the touchdown. Later in overtime, Hyde makes another big impact:
Again Hyde has no difficulties in getting to the outside and hits the huge hole that opens up at speed for a 15-yard gain, with only a tackle from Rafael Bush saving a touchdown. More stretch-zone running makes sense for a player who, as NFL.com's Kevin Patra points out, has not shown the vision to excel consistently between the tackles.
Finally, we need to see improvement in Hyde's vision, patience and understanding of the offense. Too often his tape on NFL Game Rewind showed a tendency to pick the wrong hole or not see a wide-open cutting lane. He must display improved patience and let holes develop in his second year. Balancing decisiveness and patience is tough for rookies; we expect Hyde to improve in those areas in Year 2.
The Niners should not and will not abandon the power running game that made them so successful on the ground in recent years. Although there will be changes on the O-line, a mix of power and zone running seems likely to herald results for a tailback such as Hyde, whose elusiveness rating was only bettered by that of Marshawn Lynch, according to PFF.
Sprinkle in a mix of a talented backup in Kendall Hunter and a shifty second or third option in Reggie Bush, and Chryst and the Niners should have an effective ground attack. However, Chryst will be predominantly scrutinized on how the passing game develops.
San Francisco's offense was blighted by a lot of obvious problems in 2014. Kaepernick was forced into a role of pocket passer that he rarely looked comfortable in. He had his worst year in the league, throwing just 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, although he did put up career-best numbers in passing yardage, ending the season with 3,369.
|Colin Kaepernick career passing statistics|
|2012 (7 starts)||218||136||62.4||1814||10||3|
|Pro Football Reference|
He displayed a lack of poise and accuracy and struggled mightily with his decision-making. Chryst cannot directly fix those issues; however, he can help remedy the shortage of confidence that exacerbated Kaepernick's flaws by designing a playbook built around his strengths.
The read-option has gone from a focal point of the 49ers offense to a minimal part of the San Francisco game plan. As a consequence, Kaepenick's threat as a runner has been diminished, with much of his 639 yards coming in Week 16 against the Chargers, when he put up 151 yards and a touchdown.
|Colin Kaepernick career rushing statistics|
|Season||Attempts||Yards||Yards Per Carry||TD|
|2012 (7 starts)||63||415||6.6||5|
|Pro Football Reference|
While Kaepernick has excelled in making yards on the ground off broken plays and defenses have caught up with the read-option, the 49ers should still be able to execute it effectively and in a variety of ways due to the presence of playmakers like Bush, Ellington and Bell.
Bringing back and reworking the 49ers' read-option plays to include some of their more versatile weapons will hopefully restore some some unpredictability on offense and help open things up in the passing game, taking some of the pressure off of Kaepernick as a result.
If Hyde, Kaepernick and others can produce as runners, the 49ers' ground attack should garner great respect and allow them to push the ball deep through the air, something they did not do enough of in 2014.
Indeed, the Niners had just 49 plays of 20 yards or more last year and only five of more than 40 yards. In Torrey Smith, Kaepernick finally has a deep threat capable of making receptions and drawing pass interference penalties for big gains. And after scoring 11 touchdowns in 2014, he can provide a goal-line threat for a team that has traditionally struggled in the red zone.
Kaepernick has the arm to form an excellent rapport with Smith and in turn give him the space to operate underneath and connect with Boldin and Ellington, who has flashed the speed to suggest he can create big plays from short throws.
The 49ers offense failed in 2014 because opposing defenses did not respect it. If Chryst can design a run game tailored to Hyde's strengths, restore Kaepernick's confidence by incorporating him into the ground attack and get their signal-caller to push the ball deep successfully on a more regular basis, then this is a unit that should make significant strides in 2015.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.