This article is part of our Team Previews series.
A first-time GM and head coach look to turn one of the NFL's worst franchises around. A strong draft boosted the defense, and veteran free-agent signings give the offense some depth. If coach Kyle Shanahan can make these pieces fit into his proven program, a return to relevance may come sooner than later.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
IMPLEMENTATION OF KYLE SHANAHAN'S OFFENSE
The 49ers made a plethora of additions through free agency and the draft to bolster their depleted roster, but the biggest splash this offseason was the hiring of the hottest head coaching candidate, Kyle Shanahan. The highly regarded offensive mind helped lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl and has experienced success as a coordinator at recent stops in his career. While he's inheriting the 31st-ranked offense, he wasted no time working with GM John Lynch to bring in "his guys." Shanahan's variation of the West Coast offense requires quick reads and an ability to diagnose defenses pre-snap, a game plan in which Brian Hoyer excelled with the Browns in 2014. Pierre Garcon, who also had his best season under Shanahan in 2013, was brought in to mimic Julio Jones' role from Atlanta's attack. The most under-the-radar pickup to Shanahan's offense may have been fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who led all players at his position with 78 catches over the last two years. The 49ers didn't utilize a fullback under previous coach Chip Kelly, but Shanahan views the position as a weapon in the passing game, in addition to opening running lanes for Carlos Hyde. Rather than fitting square pegs into round holes, Shanahan made additions that fit his scheme, which should generate enhanced returns from an offense that has nowhere to go but up.
The 2016 rendition of the 49ers was plagued with deficiencies on both sides of the ball, but none were more glaring than the struggles at quarterback. Non-football issues aside, Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert combined for a league-worst 2,911 passing yards. Instead of burning a top pick on a signal-caller in what was perceived as a weak class, management went with a conservative approach to filling the position, signing two mid-level free agents (Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley) and drafting a pro-style QB (C.J. Beathard) in the third round. Hoyer's previous connection with Kyle Shanahan will allow him to hit the ground running as the team's starter. Behind Hoyer, Barkley will serve as the primary backup. Receiving the most extended action of his career for the Bears last year, Barkley had an ugly 8:14 TD:INT ratio but posted 7.5 yards per attempt, which would have ranked 11th in the NFL had he played enough games to qualify. The third and final body in the quarterback room is Beathard. He doesn't bring a huge arm to the table, but the difference between his completion percentage (55.9) and adjusted completion percentage (73.5) during the 2016 season was the largest for any prospect in the 2017 draft class, per Pro Football Focus. None of the moves will provide excitement for fans this year, but they could pay off down the road.
REBUILDING THE DEFENSE FROM THE GROUND UP
As lifeless as the 49ers offense was in 2016, their defense was inversely porous, allowing opposing teams to drive for a league-high 406.4 yards per game. The new regime will refresh the system, modeling itself after Seattle's successful 4-3 offset formation. In order for it to work, the front office needed to improve on a lacking front seven, a goal that was met this offseason. The 49ers already used two first-round picks in 2015 and 2016 to bolster the defensive line. The first selection, Arik Armstead, hasn't stayed healthy enough to receive a fair assessment, but DeForest Buckner already has shown what he can do with 73 tackles, including six sacks, as a rookie. Joining them will be 2017 third overall pick Solomon Thomas, rounding out what should be a disruptive defensive front for years to come. Getting a healthy NaVorro Bowman back will take care of Mike linebacker, and the signing of LB Malcolm Smith (103 tackles last season) will provide some much-needed run support. The final piece of the puzzle may come in the form of Reuben Foster. After a precipitous drop in the draft due to concerns about his shoulder, he was given a reprieve when the 49ers traded back into the first round. The heir apparent to Bowman at MLB, Foster could start as soon as this year if he proves to be a better fit than Ahmad Brooks on the outside.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Carlos Hyde
Hyde carved out 1,151 total yards and nine touchdowns overall in 13 games last season, an impressive feat when considering the stagnant state of the 49ers offense. New coach Kyle Shanahan will implement a number of scheme changes in 2017, but Hyde and the run game should remain the focal point of a rebuilding offense.
RISING: Jeremy Kerley
The veteran posted a career-high 64 receptions on an offensively challenged 49ers team last year. Kerley's performance earned him a deserved extension, making him a top target in what should be an improved aerial attack.
FALLING: Vance McDonald
McDonald was the focus of trade rumors heading into the draft, despite posting career bests in yards (391) and TDs (four) last season. Kyle Shanahan prefers blocking tight ends, which could result in fewer targets in 2017.
SLEEPER: Marquise Goodwin
Comparisons to Taylor Gabriel, who had his most productive years working with Shanahan, were made when the 49ers signed Goodwin. In the upcoming campaign, Goodwin could serve a similar deep-threat role.
KEY JOB BATTLE – RUNNING BACK BY COMMITTEE
Carlos Hyde has been a mainstay atop the 49ers depth chart since taking over for Frank Gore in 2015. Injuries have caused Hyde to land on injured reserve in both of his seasons as a full-time starter, leaving the team with a huge drop-off in ground production in the 12 games in which he's missed. New GM John Lynch addressed this issue through free agency and in the draft, signing veteran Tim Hightower and adding rookie Joe Williams. The latter possesses the athleticism to make an immediate impact in his first campaign, and the former experienced a renaissance season with the Saints in 2016 (4.1 YPC), despite his advanced age of 31. With three capable options to choose from, new coach Kyle Shanahan will likely deploy some sort of timeshare similar to the dangerous combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that led the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl berth last season. If Williams can prove himself during training camp, he could become the two-punch to Hyde's one. Hightower projects more as a goal-line back, but as he proved last season, the veteran can still be an effective fantasy asset should either Hyde or Williams go down with an injury. How Shanahan splits up the touches will be worth monitoring this season, as multiple fantasy-relevant options can emerge from this group.
Brian Hoyer – QB (from Bears)
Journeyman QB will reunite with Kyle Shanahan to lead the offense.
Solomon Thomas – DE (Rd. 1, No. 3 – Stanford)
Joins two other first-round linemen to create cornerstone of defense.
Reuben Foster – LB (Rd. 1, No. 31 – Alabama)
Talented linebacker could make an immediate impact this season.
Colin Kaepernick – QB (FA)
Renovated regime didn't view the inconsistent QB as a good scheme fit.
Antoine Bethea – S (to Cardinals)
Put up strong numbers in 2016, but team opted for youth in secondary.
Torrey Smith – WR (to Eagles)
Speedy wideout looks to revive his career in Philadelphia.
Phil Dawson – K (to Cardinals)
Accurate vet joins division rival Cards as the 49ers go younger.
THE INJURY FRONT
Carlos Hyde, RB – Hyde, who finished his third consecutive season on IR, has progressed well with no reported setbacks since tearing his MCL at the tail end of the 2016 season.
Brian Hoyer, QB – The 49ers' new starting quarterback was cleared for football activities this offseason after suffering a broken left forearm last October.
Vance McDonald, TE – The recently re-signed tight end had his 2016 season cut short due to a fractured scapula, but health concerns are the least of his worries with a new regime and stiffer competition at the position heading into training camp.