With the San Francisco 49ers record standing at 1-11, it is safe to say with the disappointment of the season lingering over the team like a black cloud, let’s focus on some potentially positive things to look forward to in 2017.
Dec 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson (33) forces an incomplete pass while Chicago Bears defensive back Brandon Boykin (25) attempts to make the catch during the first quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
The last few games of the season may seem trivial to some San Francisco 49ers fans, as the team plays out the string and gets ready for the draft in April.
But, some players are auditioning for a place on next year’s roster. When you have one win in 12 games, everyone’s job is in jeopardy.
And while there are certainly a lot of questions to be answered during this offseason, there are a few bright spots to take notice of as well.
General manager Trent Baalke has been under fire most of the season, as well he should. But there are a few pieces to the puzzle that may already be on the team, as they look to rebuild a once-proud franchise again.
So with that in mind, let’s look at five players the team may be looking to build around in 2017.
Nov 13, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (17) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
You may think I’m overrating wide receiver Jeremy Kerley simply because he is the best of the worst, so to speak, in the Niners receiving corps.
Nov 27, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Neville Hewitt (46) tackles San Francisco 49ers tight end Vance McDonald (89) during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Hands of stone.
That was what most Niners fans thought of tight end Vance McDonald as he struggled through his first few seasons. However, now in his fourth year with the team, he is beginning to show that he is more than just a blocking tight end.
And while his 22 catches may not seem like a whole lot in a pass-happy league, it comes with 382 yards, a 17.4 yards-per-catch average and four touchdowns. On a one-win team, he has emerged as a solid receiving threat.
Although no one will confuse them with “the greatest show on turf” anytime soon, the offense has shown improvement along with McDonald.
Considering the team has not filled the shoes of either Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker, McDonald just may be able to provide some much-needed insurance for a team looking for production in the passing game.
Besides the improved pass catching, he continues to be a solid run-blocker as well.
All that said, the team may decide to keep McDonald around rather than lose another potential receiving target for whomever is under center throwing passes in 2017.
Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers tackle Joe Staley (74) warms up with guard Joshua Garnett (65) prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys.
After some early season trepidation about the play of their lower first-round draft pick, rookie guard Joshua Garnett has begun to ease some of those concerns.
While his 40.5 pass-protection grade, per Pro Football Focus, is low, he has continued to improve in that area and is already solid in run blocking. With a little more seasoning and experience in coach Chip Kelly’s system, Garnett should be a nice piece in the offensive line for the foreseeable future.
In his first start, his 43.3 run-blocking grade was alarming, but he now leads the offensive line with an 81.3 grade.
While the offensive line may still see quite a bit of change in the offseason, Garnett should be looked upon as a cornerstone for the franchise going forward.
Sep 1, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson (33) defends San Diego Chargers wide receiver Dom Williams (7) during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
In a terribly disappointing season for the team, rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson has been a shining star in the defensive secondary.
While he has certainly went through some growing pains throughout the season, Robinson has earned a significant role as a potential No. 1 cornerback going into next season.
At 6-foot-1, and with a 40-yard dash time in the 4.4s, his size-and-speed combination may not seem top tier. But his game certainly speaks of such.
The Niners picked him in the fourth round, based on some red flags that he had at LSU. He was suspended during his sophomore year and missed the 2015 season because of it.
This could have been a blessing in disguise for the 49ers if Robinson continues to play well and stay out of trouble.
He may very well be the shutdown corner the team has lacked since the days of Deion Sanders or, to a lesser extent, Eric Davis.
Dec 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard (24) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers defensive end DeForest Buckner (99) during the fourth quarter of the game at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers were able to see exactly why they drafted defensive end DeForest Buckner with the seventh pick in the 2016 NFL Draft in their game against the Buffalo Bills a few weeks ago.
Buckner accounted for nine tackles, along with two quarterback hurries and even forced a fumble during the game.
On the season, he has totaled 54 tackles and three sacks despite nursing a foot injury for parts of the 2016 season.
With the combination of Arik Armstead and Buckner holding down the defensive line, the 49ers may have two guys who can be the centerpieces of the defense going forward.
The team has struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the run game, but it is my contention that is more of a product of a poor defensive coordinator in Jim O’Neil than it is about the talent these two players have.
Buckner will only continue to get better, and his ceiling is pretty high.