Saturday’s Week 16 matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams will provide us with an interesting exhibit in motivation. Neither team has much to play for but sitting at 1-13 and 4-10 respectively, the 49ers and Rams players are collectively playing for job security as their teams begin to look forward to 2017.
I touched base with David Fucillo from Niners Nation this week to get a feel for how things were looking in the bay area as the 2016 season begins winding down.
The Rams have been pretty lucky this season when it comes to major injuries, but looking at the 49ers injury report makes me wince. How much of the 49ers struggles this season can be attributed to not being healthy?
Some of the struggles are impacted by that, no doubt. Losing nose tackle Ian Williams before the season started, and then losing both inside linebackers (NaVorro Bowman, Ray-Ray Armstrong) were big losses on defense. I think the Williams injury in particular has been big because he was a key cog in the middle of the run defense.
But while the injuries are inherently going to impact things, this is still a team that has been sorely lacking in talent. You look at the offense, and even before they lost guys like TE Vance McDonald, and WRs Quinton Patton and Torrey Smith, the team was not doing a whole lot of much with any consistency. The 49ers need a serious roster overhaul. This team might not have finished 1-15 or 2-14 if they stayed fully healthy, but they were not going to win many games. And furthermore, while they have lost a lot of players, they have had no quality depth to replace a lot of these players. A team is almost always going to take a step back when an injury hits, but the 49ers haven't had near the depth they had in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Since the Rams transitioned from Jeff Fisher to John Fassel, there has been a noticeable change in direction. Particularly this week when Fassel announced that Sean Mannion would be the backup and former starting QB Case Keenum would likely not dress for Saturday's game. Has the 49ers organization started looking towards 2017 and beyond as the 2016 NFL season winds down?
Honestly, I don't know. I mean the scouting and whatnot are happening, but with a GM very likely to get fired, and a coach that may or may not be around depending on how the front office shakes out, it is feeling very much like a lame-duck season. The 49ers have started playing more young players, but that has been primarily because of injuries. They're getting a chance to see some of them, so that's a plus, but the 49ers have a long way to go. It is hard to say where things are headed or what the plan is when the organization could undergo a massive overhaul this offseason.
Colin Kaepernick has shown flashes of his former self at times this season. How does he work into the 49ers long term plans at QB?
Kaepernick has shown flashes, but he's also shown some of the things that have frustrated fans and caused problems. He is better than the quarterback we saw last season, but it is hard to see him ever emerging as a true franchise quarterback. That certainly leaves a lot in between. For the 49ers, he could serve as a veteran bridge to a younger developed quarterback they would add in the draft.
Kaepernick's contract does raise questions about his future. He renegotiated his deal so that he is signed through the 2017 season, but has an opt-out clause after this current season. He might opt out given the weak market, but if he does not opt out, the 49ers could also decide to release him with limited cap issues. My guess is Kap opts out, but there are variables in play.
In the last two drafts, the 49ers have drafted DEs Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner to pair with Glen Dorsey at DT. Will those three terrorize Rams QB Jared Goff for the foreseeable future?
I think Armstead and Buckner are two guys that will be around to terrorize Goff for the foreseeable future. Well, I at least hope so! Dorsey has been a strong presence against the run and I hope the 49ers are able to extend him, even if for just a couple years. He is a stable middle of the line option that you can build around. Ian Williams is a talented nose tackle, but after multiple surgeries on a previous ankle injury, he was released with an injury settlement. I could see him back on the roster after this season, but we'll see on that.
For now, Armstead and Buckner have shown some things that could be good to build around. Armstead is on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason. He tried to play through it, but was clearly slowed, and eventually had surgery on it. Buckner is leading all NFL defensive tackles in snaps. It is a by-product of Chip Kelly's offense getting the defense more work, but it is nice to see him being productive amidst a heavy workload.
Are Chip Kelly and/or Trent Baalke in any danger? Is there any inclination that the 49ers will move in a different direction after a disappointing 2016 campaign?
As most of the rest of this would suggest, yes, they are both in danger. Trent Baalke is arguably in more danger given his longer tenure amidst the struggles. But Kelly's future would likely be tied to the GM search. If Baalke is fired, there is some thought that assistant GM Tom Gamble would take over. He worked with Kelly in Philadelphia, and is viewed as one of the guys who made Kelly to the 49ers happen. If that is the case, it would likely bode well for Kelly getting another year. On the other hand, if the 49ers decide to look outside the organization to revamp the football operations department, Kelly would seem to potentially be in trouble. After all, a new GM would seemingly want their own coach, unless they were already a Chip Kelly fan.
There have been a variety of rumors flying about what might happen. Baalke probably gets fired, but that's not a sure thing. If he does get fired, maybe the 49ers hire internally, maybe they hire externally. I honestly don't have any idea how this plays out. January should be fun!
Thanks to Fooch for providing some insight into the state of the 49ers.