49ers' training camp highlighted by change

No team in the NFL is dealing with more turnover than the San Francisco 49ers, as training camp quickly approaches. What kind of season are they going to have under their new regime?

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - With change comes uncertainty. And the San Francisco 49ers are facing plenty of both with training camp slated to begin Aug. 1. Rookies and quarterbacks report back to the team's facility Monday, while the rest of the team will report Friday.

A new coaching staff, a slew of prominent players retiring, and key cogs lost in free agency. This offseason in Santa Clara had it all, leaving the 49ers a mountain of baggage to overcome if they plan on returning to prominence in 2015.

No team in the NFL is undergoing more change than San Francisco. It started when the team in December "mutually parted ways" with Jim Harbaugh, a head coach that saw unprecedented success reaching the conference title games in each of his first three seasons at the helm before last year's bumbling 8-8 performance sent him back to Michigan.

And if San Francisco found a way to score a touchdown in the final moments of Super Bowl XLVII and hoist the Lombardi Trophy, perhaps the misgivings between Harbaugh and the front office would have been more tolerable, allowing his return to the sideline for a fifth season. Maybe he would have been given a contract extension. Or, things were so bad between Harbaugh and 49ers CEO Jed York, that not even a Super Bowl win would have garnered a new deal, as was speculated during the tumultuous 2014.

But this is Jim Tomsula's team now, the team's defensive line coach since 2007, whose promotion makes some wonder if he undermined Harbaugh at some point along the way.

While Tomsula has the luxury of a clean slate, he's taking one of the most difficult jobs in pro sports without respected veterans in the locker room like Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis at his side. Add the unexpected retirements of rookie tackling machine Chris Borland and bookend right tackle Anthony Davis this offseason, suddenly the cupboard feels bare.

But a closer look says the sky hasn't fallen on the 49ers, yet.

They still have a promising quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl berth and championship game appearance in consecutive seasons, while winning three road playoffs games along the way. And if not for his fourth-quarter meltdown in Seattle in January of 2014, he might have played in two straight Super Bowls, shifting the conversation away from Seattle's signal caller Russell Wilson, who emerged as one of the league's brightest young stars.

But Kaepernick didn't win that game - and then, attempting to back up his early run of success, he wasn't particularly good in 2014. But neither was the 49ers offense as a whole, hampered by an offensive line that started eight different combinations because of injuries during the regular season, after injury luck had been on the unit's side during the run of contention.

Kaepernick's favorite deep threat, Vernon Davis, was non-existent, allowing ankle and back injuries to hamper the worst season of his career. And wideout Michael Crabtree, who had over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns during the Super Bowl season, didn't rebound from an offseason Achilles tear in 2013.

Just about everything went in Kaepernick's favor in his first two seasons as the team's starting quarterback. Then, everything went against him in 2014. If he can't respond this year, the team-friendliness of his $115 million contract extension might mean he's playing elsewhere in 2016.

Adjust and improve, or find work elsewhere. A harsh reality.

Then there are two of the team's best defenders, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman, who were non-factors in 2014 for completely different reasons. A league imposed nine-game suspension for Smith meant he missed 14 games over a two-year span for off-the-field transgressions. When he returned, he wasn't the same player that averaged over a sack per game in his first two years. Instead, Smith finished with two sacks over the final six weeks. He has plenty of mental ammunition to come out strong in 2015, including the weight of an expiring contract that allows him to hit free agency next spring.

Bowman was lost due to a gruesome and tragic left injury in the conference title game in Seattle, tearing his ACL and MCL, keeping him sidelined for all of last season. This spring, he vowed to return to the form that garnered defensive player of the year consideration in 2013. But given the nature of his injury, a return to first-team All-Pro status is far from a sure thing.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith, general manager Trent Baalke's most expensive free-agent acquisition to date, should bring much needed speed and play-making ability to San Francisco's offense. He'll be paired with his old running mate, Anquan Boldin, recreating the duo that beat the 49ers three Super Bowls ago with the Ravens.

So while the 49ers are fielding replacements just about everywhere, from the backfield to the coaching booth, a longer look at what remains shows San Francisco has enough talent to stay away from the bottom of the NFL barrel.

Unfortunately, the line between mediocrity and 'really bad' isn't all that thick in the NFL these days.

But that may not even matter. "We expect to win the Super Bowl every year. That's our goal," York said in the aftermath of Harbaugh's departure.

If York truly believes in such words, mediocrity in 2015 could lead to even more change next offseason.

Next story:

Camp preview: Get to know 49ers cornerbacks

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