Teams change and evolve in the NFL every season. Players come in as draftees or free agents, players leave via free agency, others opt to retire and still more are simply released and ride off into the sunset.
When it happens too often, they refer to it as a rebuilding program. It happened to the Vikings following the 2010 season. The Vikings were a veteran-laden team that had come close to the Super Bowl in 2009 and were returning all 22 starters the following season. They knew their window for success was closing with that particular group and, when 2010 became a dismal failure of a season – complete with injuries, scandal and the Metrodome roof collapse – the Vikings began a long process of recovery and turnover.
The 2015 San Francisco 49ers are a team that has lost as many key component pieces as any team in recent NFL history. In his Monday Morning Quarterback column this summer, Peter King made the point that, of the top 25 players and coaches for the future of the 49ers organization, 15 of them went away in the offseason.
Starting with volatile head coach Jim Harbaugh, who brought the 49ers to one Super Bowl and back-to-back NFC Championship Games before falling to .500 last season, and his falling out with the front office, the mass exodus from San Francisco with key talent has been almost unprecedented in the modern era of the game.
While the Niners hired from within for Jim Tomsula to be the head coach, all three of Harbaugh’s coordinators – offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and special teams coordinator Brad Seely – are all with different teams.
Perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis retired, as did offensive tackle Anthony Davis and linebacker Chris Borland – both of whom were still in the formative stages of their careers. It raised some eyebrows that so many players in such a short period of time would bail on the organization, because once free agency began the players fled like horses with the barn door left open.
After several run-ins with the law, pass rusher Aldon Smith was let go (and signed with Oakland), as was Ray McDonald. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree left for Oakland as well. Frank Gore moved on to Indianapolis, Guard Mike Iupati move on to Arizona. Cornerback Perrish Cox left for Tennessee, CB Chris Culliver left for Washington and punter Andy Lee fled for Cleveland.
It would be one thing if the 49ers players were bailing out to join teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, but none of the players who took off, with the exception of Gore, went to teams that are viewed as prime Super Bowl contenders. In fact, most of them went to teams that most analysts predict will finish last in their divisions.
The losses have significantly thinned out the depth of the 49ers roster in several key positions and will push either the young talent being developed or the free agents who opted to cash in to replace the exiting stars to step up their games.
The key holdover is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a dual-threat quarterback who can make plays with both his arm and his legs. He will be critical to any offensive success that the 49ers will achieve. His top two receivers are players brought in from Baltimore – veteran Anquan Boldin, who was acquired in a trade in 2014, and 2015 free agent signee Torrey Smith. Boldin has been a big producer for the Niners, catching 169 passes for 2,241 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons in San Francisco. Smith is a big-play receiver who has averaged 17 yards per reception during his career. While he has caught more than 50 passes just once in his career, he has averaged almost 900 yards per season and eight touchdowns.
Also in the mix is 10-year veteran tight end Vernon Davis. The talented enigma who has a pair of 13-touchdown seasons to his credit is coming off the worst season of his career. Starting all 14 games he played in 2014, Davis caught just 26 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. The 26 receptions are his lowest total since his rookie season, when he played in just 10 games. His yardage numbers were the worst of his career and his two TDs tied for the worst. With all the defections, his role in the offense will be critical and he will need a big bounce-back year because, if he replicates his 2014 numbers, 2015 will likely be his last season in San Francisco.
The running game has been turned over to the combination of Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush after the team moved on from borderline Hall of Famer Frank Gore. Hyde, a second-round pick in 2014, had just 83 carries for 333 yards and four touchdowns last season but is expected to take over as the featured back this season. Bush has become a journeyman, now with his fourth team, but has the big-play ability to be a dangerous runner/receiver who has a history of burning the Vikings. But both of them combined will be hard-pressed to make fans forget Gore’s contributions over the last decade.
Combine that with an offensive line that has battled as many injuries as the Vikings and it is easy to comprehend how difficult the road may be for the 49ers in the short term moving forward.
The Niners need to replace Justin Smith and McDonald along the defensive front and hope the only starting holdover on the defensive line – Glenn Dorsey – can carry the load up front. Fifth-year backup Ian Williams takes over at nose tackle and 2013 fifth-round draft pick Quinton Dial will take over for McDonald. What was a strength of the team last year is now a liability.
Perhaps nowhere is the attrition more pronounced that at linebacker. Willis is a future Hall of Famer, Aldon Smith was a troubled young man, but a freakish talent. Borland wasn’t a huge impact player last year, but would have been pushing for a starting job. Instead, the team is depending on NaVorro Bowman, who is returning from a serious leg injury, and has been reunited with 31-year old Ahmad Brooks, who was waived by Cincinnati during the preseason. This is a group in flux and there is no telling how the injured vets will hold up over a 16-game schedule.
With the losses of two of their top cornerbacks, the 49ers have scrambled to keep the unit strong. Tremaine Brock remains the top cornerback, but he is expected to be flanked by Kenneth Acker, a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft. The strongest position on the entire team may be at safety, where former first-rounders Eric Reid (2013) and Jimmy Ward (2014) and 10-year veteran Antoine Bethea provide a combination of young talent and veteran leadership.
Teams undergo facelifts every season. Players enter. Players exit. But few teams in recent memory have lost as many players in one season as the 49ers have over the offseason. Can new group of talent bridge the gap? It will likely take time, which it doesn’t have when they meet up with the Vikings in the season opener – a game in which the Vikings have the talent, depth and ability to win on the road.