The Good, the bad and the very ugly: The San Francisco 49ers
By MATT NIKSA
College Contributor Network
"We wish Jim and his family all of the best."
With those words, San Francisco 49ers CEO/owner Jed York concluded a statement released to the press shortly after San Francisco's meaningless 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the last week of the 2014 NFL season.
The statement indicated that San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who brought the team to the NFC Championship Game the year before, would mutually part ways with the 49ers. The surprising end to Harbaugh's tenure as head coach would signify the start of an extremely tumultuous offseason for the 49ers, culminating with the arrest and release of star linebacker Aldon Smith on August 7. Now with a new head coach (Jim Tomsula), offensive coordinator (Geep Chryst), and defensive coordinator (Eric Mangini), and new faces on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense, the 2014 regular season that ended in such disappointment has brought about a spring and summer of disarray.
With the other teams in the NFC West staying mostly the same or improving entering this season, the 49ers must be wondering how they could see so much roster turnover during an offseason that has been only at times good, mostly bad, and even downright ugly.
Let's start with the good that has come about. Unfortunately, the only positives that have come from this disastrous offseason are (a) a new crop of rookies brimming with potential on the defensive side of the ball, and (b) a lot of cap space. In Day 1 of the 2015 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected defensive tackle Arik Armstead as their 1st round pick. With the retirement of longtime defensive lineman Justin "Cowboy" Smith, the "Niners" needed a strong pass rusher to fill the void, and while Armstead is raw and needs to refine his skills, many experts around the league believe he can reach his potential as an explosive pass-rusher.
In the second round of the draft, the Niners selected S Jaquiski Tartt; the choice to select Tartt was a head scratcher to Niners fans because the team is already deep at the safety position. However, Bryan Fischer of NFL.com praised the selection of Tartt, saying that Tartt has plenty of upside as safety and will help stifle the run. We may see the 49ers use Bethea and Reid for passing downs, but the 49ers may go with the strong and imposing Tartt as the nickel safety.
Yet the most well-received pick of the 49ers's draft was their selection of Eli Harold. As CBS Sports' third-ranked outside linebacker, there was speculation that Harold would go in the first round, and the fact that the Niners got him in the third round was impressive to many analysts. Not to mention, the outside linebacker (OLB) position position is now of great concern to the Niners considering Smith is no longer with the team and incumbent Ahmad Brooks displayed frustration with management and was benched last season. While Armstead, Tartt, and Harold may not contribute immediately, the 49ers hope their maturation and raw skills will help the team down the line as they look to replace many defensive linchpins.
The other positive is a massive increase of cap space, albeit not generated in the most ideal of circumstances. With numerous players on defense retiring, as well as the departure of veterans Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Andy Lee and Stevie Johnson, the Niners were able to dump a lot of salary. The 49ers still have $6.229 million in dead money, or money a team must allocate to player(s) who have been cut, but even factoring that in, the 49ers are $12,980,672 under the gap, the 12th-most cap space in the NFL.
While 12th most cap space is quite good, according to Jason Hurley of SB Nation, the Niners will be $38 million under the cap in the 2016 offseason, and that's not even factoring in a potential rollover of 2015 cap space. Now granted, this $38 million salary cap prediction factors in the top 51 salaries, and doesn't factor in the 53 man roster, practice squad, and injury lists. The cap also changes year by year, and Hurley is predicting a $153 million cap in 2016, which would be $10 million greater than this year's cap. However, only a dozen players will be unrestricted free agents in 2016, and of those players, only three names really stand out: Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, and Reggie Bush. If the Niners let all three of these guys walk, then the Niners can use their projected-humongous cap space to sign their marquee players to long-term contracts, and improve their roster via free agency in 2016.
Whether it be a change in coaching staff, the arrest/release of key players, and the inability to sign any star players, the 49ers have dealt with more losses than any other team. Yet the worst part about this 2015 offseason has been the sudden retirement of key linchpins on this team. The retirement of star inside linebacker Patrick Willis was shocking not only because Willis is only 30, but also because the seven-time Pro Bowler had been arguably the best linebacker this franchise had ever seen.
Yet nagging foot and toe injuries, which caused Willis to miss the final 10 games of the 2014 season, were ultimately the reason why he felt it was time to retire. While Willis was on the shelf in 2014, the 49ers unearthed a stud in rookie LB Chris Borland, who the 49ers quickly viewed as Willis' successor and a rare talent. But on March 17, Borland stunned the NFL world by announcing his retirement from football, citing the long term effects of repetitive head trauma.
Borland said he has had two diagnosed concussions, one in eighth grade and one in his sophomore year in high school, and his discussions with prominent concussion researchers over the potential consequences of head injuries ultimately led to his decision to leave the game of football permanently. The final 49er who surprised many with his decision to retire from the game is right tackle and 2010 first round draftee Anthony Davis, who earlier this week said he would come out of retirement and return to football in 2016.
Although Davis says he intends to return, the 49ers have only two starters (Alex Boone, Joe Staley) from that powerful offensive line in 2013 that led the 49ers all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Now, the 49ers will have to make do with a patchwork O-line in a division with some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, and will have to restructure a defense without its longtime leader, Willis, and Willis's promising successor at the linebacker position, Borland.
Finally, let's get to the very ugly side of the 49ers offseason. They may have been victimized by bad luck with multiple players retiring, and they have also had to deal with the inevitable departure of players to free agency. Yet they have also played their part in their own tumult, with numerous players being arrested throughout the year. Six players have been arrested in 2014 and 2015, and as a result, three of those players (Chris Culliver, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald) have been released or have left the team via free agency. Culliver, Smith and McDonald were all starters in 2014, and their lack of discipline has left the Niners organization with no choice but to show them the door.
During an interview with a 49ers team reporter, newly minted coach Jim Tomsula said that he was "excited to get to football." Yet while coach Tomsula has voiced his excitement to get back on the field as soon as possible, fans are not as excited to see their team play.
Forbes contributor Jesse Lawrence has reported that 49ers tickets are down over 10.4% on the resale market, even though the Niners have marquee matchups with the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks at their home venue, Levi's Stadium.
Expectations have changed in the Bay Area. After three years of great promise and aspirations under Harbaugh, fans are now feeling only cautious optimism or pessimism in anticipation of a rebuilding year, as the new Jim Tomsula regime begins.
Matt Niksa is studying journalism as a freshman at Boston University.