A Niner Noise 5-Year Plan for the San Francisco 49ers Starting in 2017
The San Francisco 49ers are at the very bottom of what promises to be a long rebuild. So with the long game in mind, Niner Noise presents a five-year plan to bring the red and gold back to the “quest for six.”
If there’s a good thing about the current situation of the San Francisco 49ers, it’s that they certainly can’t get any lower than they are right now.
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Yes, the Niners are at rock bottom. They’re an NFL laughingstock and a general embarrassment to the league.
On the positive side, there’s only one direction to go from here: up.
But that prompts other questions — how long will such a process take, and are the Niners destined to become the next meandering team like the Cleveland Browns?
As of now, San Francisco is still on the hunt for its next general manager and head coach. CEO Jed York definitely has his work cut out for him. Watched by a wrathful fan base, York surely has to realize this process isn’t going to happen overnight.
It’s going to take time. But let’s actually put a time frame on it. In short, the Niners are two years away from being two years away.
Niner Noise dishes out our own five-year plan for the 49ers starting right now. Each year, ending with 2021, will have specific goals and objectives for which York and Co. can aim.
Some of these are generic and cliche. But look through those references and try to see the long-term goal at the very end.
Let’s kick things off with what needs to happen in 2017.
The 2017 Campaign
2016 was basically a lost year. So was 2015.
Aside from adding a few noteworthy players — defensive end DeForest Buckner and cornerback Rashard Robinson, to name a few — the Niners are even further removed from a championship now than before the 2015 season.
With that said, let’s look at a few of the 2017 season goals for the franchise.
Commit to Longevity with a General Manager/Head Coach Tandem
Four head coaches in as many years. That’s what the 49ers are on. And it can be disastrous for player development — four different schemes and approaches.
Now there are plenty of possibilities here. And while we won’t decide on who’s the best fit (that’s already been done), let’s at least grant the Niners need some continuity here.
A new head coach and general manager tandem may not generate immediate success. But that’s fine. The goal is notable improvement on a year-to-year basis.
So go with someone who has a clear path to elongated success in mind. No retreads, no promotions from within or anything of the kind.
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Find Stopgap Players in Free Agency
San Francisco is going to have a ton of cap space this offseason — nearly $82 million, according to Over the Cap (including rollover). But the Niners’ situation means the team will have to overpay considerably to lure in top-tier talent.
That doesn’t mean the 49ers can’t improve though.
While a big-name free agent or two will help, and the team should target a couple of guys, making some small-but-notable upgrades on two- or three-year deals would put the franchise in a position to compete on a higher level over the next few seasons.
Remember, think the long game here.
A Home-Run NFL Draft
No. 2 overall picks in the NFL Draft don’t come around often. And the second overall pick in subsequent rounds means the 49ers can land talent frequently projected to go earlier.
It goes without saying, but the Niners need to have an amazing NFL Draft this offseason. Find those cornerstones.
Speaking of which…
Identify Two Cornerstones on Both Sides of the Ball
San Francisco lacks talent on its 53-man roster. But the situation isn’t quite as bad as one might think.
Good teams build around star players. And the Niners may have a couple on both the offense and defense. Defensively, we can easily identify Buckner and linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Throw Robinson and defensive back Jimmie Ward into that discussion too.
Offensively, things get a bit more challenging. But use this season to see if running back Carlos Hyde can finally break out. And see if a handful of pending San Francisco offensive draftees, possibly at quarterback, are worthy of being part of the foundation.
The 2018 Campaign
In all likelihood, the 2017 Niners still aren’t going to be very good. An 8-8 record is a stretch, but who knows with NFL parity.
A 5-11 record, or thereabouts, might suffice. Remember, we’re looking at long-term improvement here. And, hopefully, a first year under the new regime’s belt will go a long way in establishing the culture CEO Jed York has so desperately craved and mentioned.
So what’s on the table for 2018?
Move the Roster Up a Tier
Let’s hope, and grant, San Francisco’s 2017 roster is slightly better than it was in 2016. So that means the lengthy list of positional needs should be a bit shorter.
If the Niners spend relatively wildly in free agency in 2017, this might have to be done via the draft. And chances are the 49ers will still have a top-10 pick. Good. The needs are still apparent, but there are fewer of them. San Francisco’s next general manager can start to target players filling more-specific needs this go-around.
Set Sights on Statistical Goals
The 2016 49ers were bad. But they managed to finish fourth in rushing yards last season and had a red-zone touchdown conversion rate of 68.18 percent, according to TeamRankings.com, which was second in the NFL.
San Francisco should set modest goals like this in 2017. Figure out what the roster’s biggest strengths are and aim for said benchmarks — like landing in the top 10 in a handful of stat-specific categories.
Identify the Leaders
Anyone who has listed to Hall of Famer Steve Young can attest to how the legendary 49ers quarterback talks on locker-room leadership.
It’s inherent to any successful NFL franchise. And the Niners lack enough of those guys.
But one full year under a new regime, plus some new blood on the roster, should help reveal who the go-to guys are who can police the locker room in coming seasons.
The 2019 Campaign
By 2019, the 49ers should hopefully be an OK team. Perhaps a .500 record at the end of this year isn’t out of reach.
San Francisco has a clear idea who its cornerstone pieces are. The next franchise quarterback (hopefully working out well) should be on his way to climbing the NFL’s overall rankings at the position.
A clear scheme, with identified playmakers should be in place too. So what are the goals here?
Fine Tune the Roster
San Francisco should have a handful of clearly identified needs on both sides of the ball by the 2019 offseason. This is no longer a case of wholesale upgrades needed. No, this job is about landing specific talent to shore up known needs.
We have no clue what they’ll be as of now. But, hopefully, those needs will be notably fewer than what’s on the table in 2017.
Establish a Dominant Home-Field Advantage
Levi’s Stadium hasn’t exactly proven to be friendly to the red and gold since moving in in 2014.
But, by 2019, the Niners should be a team capable of using its home-field advantage as, well, an advantage.
We can also hope the fans begin to turn out in larger numbers, actually seeing a much-improved product on the field.
Be in the Playoff Hunt by Week 15
It would be perfectly OK if the Niners missed the postseason in 2019. Unlike previous years though, let’s hope San Francisco is in relative contention by the time Week 15 rolls around.
The 49ers might still be struggling with a few problematic areas on either side of the ball. Yet if San Francisco has a shot to actually make the postseason late in the year, that’s certainly a good sign of things to come.
Have Established Playmakers
Cornerstones and blue-chip players should already be in place by this point. But the NFL is a playmakers game, and the 49ers currently lack those in a big way.
Two years removed from 2017 should give more than ample time to draft, sign and develop playmaker-type contributors. Whoever they are, and whatever side of the ball they’re on, let these impact players become the face of the franchise.
The 2020 Campaign
Hopefully by 2020, the 49ers are good again.
Maybe they’re not in the echelon of the league’s elite just yet. But they’re certainly good enough to make it into the postseason.
Young players — like DeForest Buckner and Rashard Robinson — have clearly set the tone and are entering the prime of their careers. The same could be said of 2017 NFL Draft additions as well.
Be a 10-Win Team
Double-digit wins in any given season are usually an indicator of a pretty good team. And that’s exactly what the 49ers should shoot for in 2020.
We have no clue how the NFC West will shape up by that point. But with the Los Angeles Rams in arguably a worse situation than San Francisco right now, the Seattle Seahawks not nearly as elite and the Arizona Cardinals on the decline, now is the time to start making the ascent.
Leading to a division crown.
Win the NFC West
Let’s face it, the Niners probably aren’t going to win the NFC West anytime between now and 2020. They might compete and come in at No. 2 the year before. But a 2020 divisional championship is a very realistic goal here.
Mastering a division is the best way to ensure a solid playoff run. Even in a weak division, potentially, dominating the NFC West can do wonders for the 49ers future.
Win a Playoff Game
San Francisco probably won’t go all the way. But the team can establish a playoff-winning mindset simply by pulling off a victory in, let’s say, the Wild Card round.
The 49ers should go into the 2020 season with this mindset — we’re going to win in the postseason.
With the cornerstones in place and contributing nicely, this experience will prove vital in the following — and last — season of our five-year plan.
The 2021 Campaign
It’s the end of the line for our five-year plan. And it’s one which ends in No. 6.
Super Bowl titles, that is.
A five-year goal should culminate in an NFL championship. It should put the Niners back in the lead, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, for the most Super Bowl trophies in franchise history.
Assuming no one else takes that lead higher in the meantime.
Preserve the Winning Culture
Hopefully by this point, San Francisco is back among the league’s elite. But elite teams don’t stay that way for long unless they have a specific identity. The Niners used to have one back in the 1980s, 1990s and even during the Jim Harbaugh era of the early 2010s.
Unfortunately, CEO Jed York didn’t do enough of a job to ensure any sort of winning culture stayed in place. He learned the lesson once. Let’s hope those mistakes don’t repeat themselves again.
Dominate Across the Board
Statistically speaking, elite teams are usually at the top of both offensive and defensive statistics across the board. No team is perfect, true, but those perennial winners always seem to find a way to stay within the top 10 of relevant numbers.
Overstock the Roster
By this point, a number of players from earlier campaigns are either going to be aging out of the league or hitting a lucrative free-agent market.
San Francisco can only re-sign so many, which places an utmost importance to continuously restock the roster.
Much of this can be done in advance, where backups are ready to take over and contribute on nearly — or better than — effective levels.
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Win a Super Bowl
Ah, yes. The ultimate goal.
Five years will have passed since San Francisco started this plan. The team had a clear vision and took the necessary strides along the way to reach those all-important goals, even if there were numerous obstacles and setbacks along the way.
But the “quest for six” is inherent to reestablishing the 49ers franchise.
And while this goal may be quite out of reach right now, it doesn’t mean the Niners should stop thinking about it right away.