For the first time in what now feels like a century ago, the San Francisco 49ers are becoming relevant again. Yes, those 49ers! After the 2013 season, everything fell apart for the organization. Rifts between different levels of management, coaching, and the players, created an unstable work environment for all involved. Further, a mass exodus of talent left the cupboards bare, forcing the 49ers to rebuild from scratch. Even though the 49ers claimed the cellar position in the NFC West for a third consecutive year, things are finally beginning to look up for the Niner Faithful. Here are the 5 reasons to keep an eye on the 49ers as a dark horse playoff contender in 2018:
(1) Complete Culture Change
As recently as 2016, the words “49ers” and “positive culture” could not be used in a sentence, unless pointing out the team’s lack thereof. The storied organization was plagued by animosity and hostility, fueled by in-fighting between then-coach Jim Harbaugh, former GM Trent Baalke, and owner, Jed York. This trickled down and affected the entire organization, creating a hostile work environment, in which no one could succeed. Fast forward to present day and these memories are beginning to fade. Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch have done an incredible job in their first seasons in their respective positions. The two have cultivated an environment in which all players seem aligned in the common goal and how to achieve it. They share their opinions and are building a team with character. Lynch got off to a great start in this rebuild, drafting Solomon Thomas after orchestrating a magnificent Draft day trade with the Bears. Thomas is known for his strong leadership qualities, something Lynch got to see first hand as the two were actually classmates at Stanford for a short time.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
The 49ers are well on their way to reestablishing themselves as the class of the league, just like it was when Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was running things.
(2) Jimmy G: The (Potential) QB of the Future
With all of the rule changes geared towards generating more offense, a simple philosophy has become even truer: you cannot win without a solid QB. Heading into this season, the 49ers found themselves with more questions than answers at QB. Signing Hoyer wasn’t a bad move, but definitely not a long-term one. Further, his backup was unproven rookie, C.J. Beathard, a third round pick out of Iowa. Lynch knew this position would need to be addressed. Unfortunately, it did not appear that the answer would come via the draft, which features several intriguing, but high-risk players at the QB position.
And then, the move that has since stunned the league (particularly following the recent ESPN Patriots feature): Lynch was able to land Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2nd-round draft pick. After sitting for the first couple of weeks while much of the first string offensive line was injured, Garoppolo was forced to come in for the last minute of a game versus the Seahawks after Beathard got injured. Garoppolo quickly made a name for himself, completing a couple of passes, and throwing a touchdown as time expired. Even though the Niners lost the game, the fans were cheering. Jimmy G has gone on to win all five of his starts for the 49ers. Now, the 49er Faithful cannot wait for 2018 to kick off, a thought that has not been shared in years.
Further, the 49ers can now cross off quarterback off of their list of needs, allowing them to focus on one of the many other positions that could use some help, including the offensive line, or possibly an addition to a young secondary.
(3) The 49ers Have the Assets to Improve Quickly
This off-season should see the 49ers as major players as they look to improve their roster.
The 49ers hold nine draft picks for this upcoming draft:
- First round- Their own
- Second round- Trade with Saints.
- Third round- Their own
- Third Round- Trade with Bears
- Fourth Round- Trade with Steelers
- Fifth Round- Trade with Jets
- Sixth Round- Their Own
- Seventh Round- Their Own
- Seventh Round- Trade with Chiefs
Further, the 49ers have almost $60 Million in cap space and could make a splash in free agency.
Simply put, the Niners have the assets to jumpstart their rebuild and get good, really fast.
(4) Young Players Are Growing up Fast
The 49ers had a tough year during which they were often forced to field teams rife with rookies or generally young players. While this did not translate into wins early on, all the playing time afforded to these players is already starting to show dividends.
Some prime examples include Rookies Solomon Thomas, not to mention, linebacker Reuben Foster, whose personality has been a bright addition to the locker room. As long as Foster can stay on the field, he will become a top defensive player in short time. A season-ending injury to Jimmy Ward created an opportunity for 7th-round pick Adrian Colbert, who excelled at Free Safety and appears to have surpassed Ward on the depth chart. First year wide receiver, Trent Taylor, has developed instant chemistry with Garoppolo, leading to the early, but unavoidable, comparisons to Brady and Welker. Even Trent Brown, who ended the season on the IR, showed the kind of potential that fans can look forward to protecting their young quarterback in 2018.
It was hard to watch early in the season, but those extra snaps could be the difference maker allowing the Niners to sneak in to the post-season.
(5) The Predicted Downfall of NFC West Rivals
The Seahawks are getting older and the injuries are beginning to pile up. We’ve seen how vulnerable Seattle can be without a couple of their pieces. Kam Chancellor’s holdout is a particularly telling example. Their failure to make the post-season this year has many wondering whether their championship window is now closed. With reports that this season’s injuries to Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril may have been career ending, we may have seen the last of the great Legion of Boom.
While the Seahawks’ future is still somewhat of a question mark, the Cardinals finishing near the bottom of the league next season seems like a foregone conclusion. Carson Palmer, when healthy (which unfortunately, was not often), looked like a shell of the player he once was this past season, leading him to retire just recently. While the Cards would have needed some help at QB regardless, the loss of the steady-presence of head coach, Bruce Arians, who also retired, is sure to be felt. The Cardinals still have some studs scattered throughout the lineup, including Patrick Peterson and David Johnson, but they are looking real vulnerable heading into 2018. Sure they have Fitz coming back…but he can only do so much.
A few years ago, no one could have predicted that the 49ers main competition for division supremacy would be the Rams. But that reality is very possible in the not-so-distant future. While the Rams look poised to remain a fixture near the top of the NFC West for years to come, their recent playoff loss proves they aren’t quite ready for “the moment” just yet. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to feel like Garoppolo, who has ridden the bench for three Patriots playoff runs, including a two Super Bowls, would be a lot better suited for those pressures than Goff proved to be.
For the 49ers to be competitive next season, they will need to address some issues. Most notably, they need to resign running back Carlos Hyde, who has proven effective when healthy, and shore up a secondary and offensive line that have each looked leaky.
While the 49ers appear ready to take the next step in 2018, it will not be easy. NFC West games are extremely demanding, but the 49ers look to be assembling a squad that will be ready to go to battle in 2018.
Photo courtesy of: Inside the 49ers- The Press Democrat