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2015 Team Preview: San Francisco 49ers

Josh Fathollahi

Josh is an avid sports fan and fantasy player. A Bay Area native, he follows the Giants, 49ers, Warriors, and Sharks religiously. He plays fantasy baseball, football, and basketball. In his mind, baseball is his favorite of the fantasy sports, as he considers it a "marriage" while fantasy football is an "affair."

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

The 49ers had one of the league's more tumultuous offseasons, as the team's front office "mutually parted ways” with head coach Jim Harbaugh, who left as the second-winningest coach in the franchise's storied history. The team finished 8-8 in 2014, despite contending with injuries to several key players, but the mark was still considered a failure after three consecutive playoff berths, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2012. While never publicly confirmed by the team's brass, there was an obvious divide between 49ers' management and the head coach. A possible point of conflict could be Harbaugh's failed attempt to turn Colin Kaepernick into a traditional pocket passer. In any case, Harbaugh was relieved of his duties, and the team promoted Jim Tomsula from defensive line coach to head coach. While Tomsula isn't considered a strategic mastermind, he appears more likely to mesh with GM Trent Baalke.

In addition to parting ways with their head coach, the 49ers lost a couple of their top defensive players due to unexpected retirements. Perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement due to a lingering foot injury. Then, Chris Borland, who was in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year, decided to retire due to concerns over his future health. This was a surprising announcement for a young player loaded with talent, but a decision that the organization had to respect, given the lengthy/concerning history of concussions and CTE in the NFL. Moreover, defensive end Justin Smith also called it a career, but his departure won't hurt as much, as he was no longer an every-down lineman. On the plus side, Pro Bowler NaVorro Bowman is expected to return from a gruesome knee injury this season, but overall the linebacker position has quickly gone from a strength to an area of concern for San Francisco.

Even with the significant injuries on defense, the 49ers finished with the fifth-ranked defensive unit in 2014, while leading the league in interceptions. The team's true downfall was a lack of consistency on offense. The squad failed to establish an identity with its offensive game-planning, leaning on Colin Kaepernick's arm too often after having success with a run-first identity in the past. Inconsistency on the offensive line coupled with a wideout group that failed to create separation led to a franchise-record 52 sacks allowed, and the team only scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns all year. The 49ers brought in Torrey Smith to help alleviate the lack of speed on the outside, and a healthy offensive line should improve the team's pass protection in 2015. Expectations are nowhere near as high as they were for the 49ers during Harbaugh's tenure, and 2015 is looking more like a transition year for the organization.

TEAM NOTES

CALLING ON COLIN
Colin Kaepernick set career-highs in both passing yards (3,369) and rushing yards (639) last year, but his 2014 campaign left a lot to be desired. He saw his YPA decline for the second straight year (7.0) and accounted for five fewer touchdowns and three more turnovers than the season before. And while he did rush a career-high 104 times, it seemed that he was often running away from pressure (52 sacks) as opposed to gashing the defense on designed runs. This offseason, GM Trent Baalke dismissed trade rumors surrounding Kaepernick, stating that the 27-year-old is still the future of the franchise and that he continues to believe in Kaepernick's ability, both as a runner and a passer. Perhaps a return to using the read-option (a game plan that was often left behind in 2014) and the addition of a true deep threat (Torrey Smith) will result in the resurgence of the dual-threat quarterback.

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
The 49ers said goodbye to their all-time leading rusher Frank Gore this offseason. Though fans will surely miss the 10-year veteran, management felt it was time to hand the reins over to 2014 second-rounder, Carlos Hyde. In his rookie campaign, Hyde averaged 4.0 YPC and scored four touchdowns behind Gore, displaying an ability to use his big frame to churn out solid gains on the ground while being a reliable option in goal-line situations. Hyde reportedly shed 15 pounds this offseason, which could result in more big-play ability than he displayed last season. Reggie Bush was brought in to complement Hyde's power running style, but it appears as though the 49ers intend to hand the keys to their running game to Hyde.

VANISHING VERNON?
Once the focal point of the 49ers' offense, Vernon Davis effectively disappeared after a 44-yard, two-touchdown performance in a Week 1 win over Dallas. The 44 yards represented a season-high for Davis and he wouldn't reach the end zone again in 2014. A gradual decline was expected for the once-elite tight end, who is now 31, but no one saw such a drastic dip in production coming. Davis did battle through several nagging injuries, plus a subpar offensive line called for Davis to stay back and block more than he had in the past. The 49ers added two tight ends in the 2015 draft, hinting at concern with Davis' drop-off as well. That said, if he enters the season healthy, it wouldn't be surprising to see Davis turn in enough of a bounce-back effort to re-establish a degree of fantasy utility in 2015.

OFFSEASON MOVES

Key Acquisitions

Torrey Smith – WR, Ravens
Smith's 16.9 career YPC will give Colin Kaepernick the deep threat he's never had in San Francisco.

Reggie Bush – RB, Lions
Will provide the perfect complement to Carlos Hyde's power running style.

Arik Armstead – DT, Oregon (ROUND 1, 17th Overall)
At 6-foot-7, 292 pounds, he has the frame to fill the 49ers' 3-4 defense in the wake of Justin Smith's retirement.

Mike Davis – RB, South Carolina (ROUND 4, 126th Overall)
A bowling ball between the tackles who possesses the burst and hands necessary to make plays as a pass-catcher.

Darnell Dockett – DT, Cardinals
Bouncing back from an ACL injury, but boosts the team's defensive line depth.

Key Losses

Patrick Willis – LB, Retired
The team's linebacking corps also saw Chris Borland hang up his cleats this offseason.

Michael Crabtree – WR, Raiders
Never quite lived up to expectations in San Francisco and will look for a new start in Oakland.

Frank Gore – RB, Colts
The 49ers decided to go younger at running back and parted ways with their all-time rushing leader.

VALUE METER

Rising: After proving to be effective in a backup role, Carlos Hyde should be a high-upside pick in fantasy drafts now that he's in line to head the 49ers' backfield.

Declining: A couple of injuries derailed Reggie Bush's 2014 season. At the age of 30, he may be no more than a change-of-pace back for San Francisco.

Sleeper: Used primarily as a kick returner in his rookie season, Bruce Ellington could see some time in the slot with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd gone.

Supersleeper: Fourth-round running back Mike Davis could move into an expanded role in the event of an injury to Hyde.

IDP WATCH

NaVorro Bowman - LB
An elite talent when healthy, he should easily eclipse 100 tackles over a full season.

Aldon Smith - LB
Following a suspension-shortened season in 2014, he should return to elite pass-rushing numbers this year.

Eric Reid - S
Endured a sophomore slump last season, but can play both the run and the pass well.