49ers: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Before Camp Begins

Grant Cohn@@grantcohnFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2015

49ers: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Before Camp Begins

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    George Nikitin/Associated Press

    It’s time to take stock of the San Francisco 49ers. Training camp begins August 1.

    What can we expect from the Niners next season? Are they getting better, or are they getting worse? Do they have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs? Is the current coaching staff here to stay?

    Which position group is the Niners’ best entering training camp? Which position group is their worst? Which has undergone the most change the past few seasons? And which needs an overhaul?

    Here’s a complete breakdown, including pre-training camp grades for each of the 49ers’ position groups.


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    George Nikitin/Associated Press

    Last season, Pro Football Focus gave 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick a minus-10.1 grade. In terms of their grading system, Kaepernick ranked 28th in the NFL among quarterbacks who played at least 25 percent of their teams’ snaps.

    Mark Sanchez ranked 27th with a grade of minus-9.8, according to PFF.

    On July 16, Marc Sessler of NFL.com ranked Blaine Gabbert the NFL's worst backup quarterback, meaning worse than 31 other backups. Former 49ers backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, who’s now with the Green Bay Packers, ranks 21st on Sessler’s list.

    Quarterback clearly is not the strength of the 49ers offense, although Kaepernick is better than his 2014 Pro Football Focus grade indicates. He’s a “B” quarterback with talent to become an “A” quarterback.

    Will he ever make the most of his talent?

    Grade: B-

Running Back

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    The 49ers have one of the NFL's best young running backs—Carlos Hyde.

    Although you couldn’t tell in 2014. Hyde struggled his rookie season, averaging only 4.0 yards per carry as a change-of-pace back. He never seemed to get in a rhythm or play with the confidence he had in college.

    Maybe that’s because he isn't a change-of-pace back. He is a featured back, someone who needs to carry the ball more than 15 times a game. He's a big, bruising back who wears down the opposing defense and gets better as the game goes on.

    Behind Hyde, the Niners have two legitimate change-of-pace backs—Kendall Hunter and Reggie Bush. Both have the speed to complement the Niners' featured running back.

    Hyde’s inexperience is the only thing preventing this group from getting an “A.”

    Grade: B+

Wide Receiver

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    This is the best group of receivers the 49ers have had since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens were on the team in 2000.

    Starters Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are a proven, winning combination. They proved that in 2013 when they won the Super Bowl as the starting wide-receiver tandem for the Baltimore Ravens.

    Boldin and Smith complement each other perfectly. Boldin is the possession receiver who moves the chains on third down, and Smith is the deep threat who keeps the defense honest.

    And Smith isn’t the team's only deep threat. This offseason the Niners signed Jerome Simpson, who didn’t play last season but averaged 15.1 yards per catch in 2013. He’s only 29.

    The Niners might have the best NFC West receiving corps. Only the Arizona Cardinals’ receiving corps can compete.

    Grade: A-

Tight End

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    George Nikitin/Associated Press

    Last season, this group deserved an “F.” The Niners tight ends were the worst in the NFL.

    Starter Vernon Davis had the worst season of his career, averaging a measly 9.4 yards per catch and scoring just two touchdowns. The season before he averaged 16.4 yards per catch and scored 13 touchdowns. What happened?

    Davis’ backup, Vance McDonald, caught two passes in eight games last season before the Niners sent him to the injured reserve list with a back injury.

    McDonald might be a lost cause. In case he is, this offseason the Niners drafted former Oklahoma tight end Blake Bell in the fourth round. Bell and McDonald will compete to be the No. 2 tight end.

    Davis seems poised to have a bounce-back season. He seems healthy and motivated, and he played extremely well during OTAs and minicamp. If he carries over that performance to the regular season and Bell beats out McDonald during training camp, the Niners will have a decent group of tight ends in 2015.

    Grade: B-

Offensive Line

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Niners have two good offensive linemen they can count on—tackle Joe Staley and guard Alex Boone. They will play next to each other on the left side of the offensive line.

    The other side of the offensive line will feature center Daniel Kilgore, who broke his ankle last season and may not be ready to play when training camp starts, right guard Marcus Martin, who’s 21, and right tackle Erik Pears, who was supposed to be a backup next season. He’s starting because Anthony Davis retired.

    It’s never good when three-fifths of the offensive line is up in the air.

    Grade: C-

Defensive Line

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    From 2011 to 2013, the 49ers may have had the NFL's best front seven.

    Justin Smith and Ray McDonald probably were the NFL's best 3-4 defensive end tandem; they played practically every snap for the 49ers defense. But both are gone. Smith retired, and the Niners cut McDonald after he was accused of sexual assault.

    The Niners don’t have replacements who can play every snap like Smith and McDonald could. The Niners have a rotation of five or six solid defensive lineman that can platoon and share time. Some can play in the base defense, others can play in the sub-packages.

    The rotation should be effective, but the Niners probably wish they still had Smith and McDonald.

    Grade: B


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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    When the Niners went to the Super Bowl a few seasons ago, their starting linebackers probably were the greatest ever.

    They had Patrick Willis, a future Hall of Famer, and NaVorro Bowman, who was even better than Willis for a few years. The Niners also had Aldon Smith, who recorded 19.5 sacks in 2012, and Ahmad Brooks, who went to the Pro Bowl in 2013.

    Brooks and Smith are still on the team, but they were no good last season. And Bowman didn’t play at all in 2014—he was rehabbing a torn ACL and MCL. Willis retired in March.

    Now, linebacker is a giant question mark for the Niners. They don’t have a replacement for Willis, and they don’t know what they’re going to get from Bowman, Smith or Brooks.

    At least the Niners have talented young outside linebackers on the bench—Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold. Those two bump up this group’s grade.

    Grade: B-

Defensive Backs

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The best thing you can say about the 49ers defensive backs is they’re good tacklers.

    Starting safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are terrific in run support, and so is starting slot cornerback Jimmie Ward. But none of those three are particularly good in man coverage. Opposing offenses go after them in the red zone, especially Ward and Reid.

    The only Niners defensive back who can hold his own in man coverage is cornerback Tramaine Brock. But he can’t cover every receiver by himself. And he’s short, a quarter-inch shorter than 5’10”. Big receivers can reach up and catch passes over Brock’s head.

    Grade: C+

Special Teams

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    This offseason the Niners traded one of the NFL's best punters, Andy Lee, and replaced him with a rookie, Bradley Pinion.

    Pinion was the Niners’ fifth-round pick and the first specialist taken in the draft. He might be excellent, but he probably won’t be as good as Lee next season. Lee, 32, is still in his prime.

    Phil Dawson, the Niners’ place-kicker, is not in his prime. He’s 40 and no longer has the leg strength to kick field goals longer than 45 yards. As the punter, Pinion will probably kick those field goals next season.

    Who will return punts and kicks? Maybe Reggie Bush, who hasn't returned a punt or a kick since 2011. But he practiced returning them this offseason during OTAs and minicamp. He might be the Niners' best option.

    Grade: B

    All quotations and practice observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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