San Francisco 49ers: Full 2016 Report-Card Grades for Every Position
The 2016 San Francisco 49ers season is over, and it’s time to look back and assign grades to each Niners unit for their efforts on the year.
We can know close the book on the 2016 season for the San Francisco 49ers — a year which saw the team finish with a 2-14 record and culminated in the firing of both head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke.
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The record speaks for itself and marks the second time in which the Niners finished dead last in the NFC West.
While there are plenty of questions now on the table, let’s take a look back at each positional unit within the 53-man roster and assign appropriate grades.
In addition the these grades, we’ll take a look at the biggest standouts and busts from each position with detailed analysis for each.
Yes, this year was a rough one. But there are a handful of bright spots around which the team can build in coming season.
We’ll focus on those too.
Most of these grades won’t be great. Yet finding the positives will identify the cornerstones of the franchise for 2017 and beyond.
Let’s kick things off with special teams.
Special Teams, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco was forced to rely upon its special teams unit a lot in 2016. Whether it be hoping veteran kicker Phil Dawson could give the 49ers much-needed points or an overuse of second-year punter Bradley Pinion, the Niners had no shortage of special teams usage.
Overall, San Francisco special teams finished with a minus-1.2 percent DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, on the year. It’s not a great mark. But it’s not horrible either.
Biggest Standout: K Phil Dawson
What can one say about a 41-year-old kicker still contributing at a high level?
Dawson had his share of misses late in the year but still managed to make 18 of his 21 field-goal attempts. And he missed just one extra-point attempt on the year.
One could say Dawson was the team’s offensive MVP as well. And that’s saying something, both good and bad.
Biggest Bust: P Bradley Pinion
Let’s face it, Pinion will never live up to being drafted in Round 5 of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Pinion’s punts averaged 44.0 yards on the year — 25th overall in the league. The guy he replaced, Andy Lee, averaged 49.1 yards per punt for the Carolina Panthers, which ranked second in the NFL, before being hurt late in the season.
Yeah, the Niners made the wrong move there.
Safety, San Francisco 49ers
Safety was supposed to be a position of depth for the Niners heading into 2016. And that depth was tested, especially with the season-ending injury to Eric Reid.
Veteran safety Antoine Bethea was even asked to fill in at inside linebacker late in the year, proving more issues with San Francisco’s defensive depth. Yet this was supposed to be a role assumed by second-year safety Jaquiski Tartt.
Biggest Standout: Antoine Bethea
Bethea, at 32 years old, still managed to be a solid piece within the 49ers secondary this season. Him moving to the ILB position showed much-needed versatility, even if Bethea’s coverage skills are starting to falter.
Still, Pro Football Focus gave him a respectable 72.5 overall grade on the year — highest out of anyone at this position.
And Bethea can feel pretty good about leading the Niners defense with 95 tackles.
Biggest Bust: Jaquiski Tartt
It’s not a huge knock against Tartt to be listed here, and his 70.2 overall PFF grade isn’t necessarily bad.
But Tartt has yet to take that big leap between his rookie season a year ago and 2016, which calls into question spending a second-round pick on him in 2015.
Tartt was supposed to be versatile. Yet his run defense wasn’t particularly good, which makes him more of a likely fit to stick to coverage duties in coming seasons. Right now, it’s looking as if he’ll be a backup safety instead of a premier starter.
Cornerback, San Francisco 49ers
So much for all those cornerbacks former 49ers general manager Trent Baalke drafted in advance of 2016.
Out of this crop, the Niners have no more than two or three guys they can feel OK about moving forward — Tramaine Brock, Rashard Robinson and Jimmie Ward. And Brock might be pushed out of the picture anyway.
This group was relatively strong early in the season. Teams simply had to run the ball right at San Francisco’s defense, which kept the numbers against the secondary relatively low. But when tested, this unit didn’t match up particularly well.
Biggest Standout: Rashard Robinson
Ward is going to be a vital piece moving forward. But the Niners found a hidden gem with Robinson in Round 4 of the draft last year.
Robinson finished with a 61.8 overall grade on the year, per Pro Football Focus. Brock finished the highest with 81.8. But it’s clear Robinson is more a part of San Francisco’s future. Not necessarily Brock.
One can feel pretty good about Robinson’s maturation process into 2017.
Biggest Bust: Will Redmond
Remember when Baalke promised his last “Team-ACL” member, Will Redmond, would be ready for training camp?
Well, he wasn’t. And he wasn’t ready for the regular season either.
Redmond, a third-round pick from 2016, is easily this year’s biggest bust at the position. And if he doesn’t make a substantial impact this upcoming year, it’s safe to say he’ll be yet another wasted Baalke pick.
Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers put their faith in both linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Lynch entering 2016. And they hoped fill-in guys like Ray-Ray Armstrong and Gerald Hodges could plug the line. San Francisco hoped veteran outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks would offer something while second-year pro Eli Harold would ascend nicely.
None of it happened.
Bowman suffered a season-ending Achilles injury early in the season. That hurt. And Armstrong’s pectoral injury in Week 2 also hindered San Francisco’s run-stopping abilities.
Brooks is a shell of his former self, and the team’s reliance upon no-more-than-backup guys, Michael Wilhoite and Nick Bellore, proved to be disastrous for the NFL’s last-ranked run defense.
So much for fired general manager Trent Baalke not feeling this was a need.
Biggest Standout: ILB Gerald Hodges
Surprisingly, Hodges was one of the better Niners defenders on the year. His 52 tackles and three sacks earned him an 82.4 overall grade on the year, per Pro Football Focus, second only to Bowman’s 86.0 mark.
Hodges, a free agent this offseason, is a strong candidate to be re-signed this offseason. Even if he doesn’t start, the Niners wouldn’t have to worry about depth behind guys like Bowman and Armstrong.
Biggest Bust: OLB Aaron Lynch
In fairness, Wilhoite was pretty awful. So was Bellore. Brooks too.
But the level of expectation on Lynch was high entering this season. And yet Lynch missed the first four games of 2016 due to suspension. This, combined with a high-ankle sprain, forced Lynch to miss all but seven games this season.
Over that stretch, Lynch recorded a mere 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks — lowly numbers for the guy perceived to be the team’s best pass-rusher.
Defensive Line, San Francisco 49ers
Aside from rookie defensive ends DeForest Buckner and Ronald Blair, this unit would have gotten a solid F grade.
It’s not hard to understand why.
The 49ers pass rush was anemic this year. And the historically bad run defense was another reason this unit ranks so low on the year.
Defending against the run was the No. 1 problem for San Francisco’s defense. And Football Outsiders‘ adjusted-line yards against the run reflects this. The Niners posted a 4.35 mark against the run, which ranked 29th in the NFL.
Biggest Standout: DE DeForest Buckner
Well, duh. Buckner is, without argument, the team’s best standout all year. He finished with six sacks — tied for the team lead with linebacker Ahmad Brooks. And his play really took flight late in the season, when he moved to right defensive end.
Buckner’s 77.2 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, also ranked highest out of all 49ers interior defenders too.
He’ll be a player to build around in 2017.
Biggest Bust: DE Arik Armstead
Let’s be fair, second-year pro Arik Armstead’s shoulder injury — which eventually resulted in him landing on injured reserve — likely hindered his development in 2016.
Armstead’s preseason efforts were phenomenal. He was one of the 49ers’ bigger training camp standouts of the year.
But when the regular season started, it was clear Armstead was struggling mightily against the run. And that shoulder injury likely hampered his ability to perform at 100 percent.
Still, the Niners didn’t get much out of their first-round investment from a year ago.
Offensive Line, San Francisco 49ers
OK, so the 49ers offensive line is nowhere near as bad as it was a year ago. And fans no longer have to think about no-more Niners like Erik Pears or Jordan Devey.
2016 showed marked improvement from San Francisco’s O-line. But it isn’t as if this group was wholly much better than a year ago.
According to Football Outsiders, the Niners O-line ranked dead last in run support and only a lowly 30th in pass protection. The 47 sacks allowed ranked No. 3 in the NFL. While many of these can be attributed to quarterback play, it’s pretty clear the 49ers O-line isn’t up to par.
At least this group can brag somewhat about supporting the league’s No. 4-ranked rushing offense.
Biggest Standout: RT Trent Brown
Second-year tackle Trent Brown is still awfully raw and not the greatest in run support. But watching the film, it’s pretty clear the 49ers have a nice piece around which to restructure the O-line in coming seasons.
And with veteran left tackle Joe Staley getting up there in years, Brown could be a candidate to switch over to the left side at some point down the line.
Biggest Bust: RG Joshua Garnett
Rookie guard, and first-round pick, Joshua Garnett’s rookie season should easily be classified as a disappointment.
He wasn’t even active to start the season but did manage to assume a starting job at right guard early on. But his 42.4 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, is enough to suggest the Niners can’t feel entirely good about such a high investment.
At least not yet.
Keep an eye on how much Garnett develops in year two.
Tight End, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers extended No. 1 tight end Vance McDonald, who was having a career year before suffering a season-ending injury late in the season.
Still, McDonald’s career year was a far cry from what most would expect from a mid-tier tight end. And it isn’t as if the Niners have a crop of up-and-coming TEs from which to choose.
San Francisco’s offensive production suffered all year, especially through the air. The lack of threat from the tight end position was a prime reason why.
Biggest Standout: Vance McDonald
Yes, McDonald was having a “breakout” year in 2016 before getting hurt. But those numbers aren’t exactly top notch:
At least the Niners won’t have to worry about having a solid No. 2 tight end on their roster moving forward. And one could make the argument, if McDonald is placed in a good system, the 49ers could get adequate production from the 2013 draftee moving forward.
Biggest Bust: Blake Bell
Second-year pro Blake Bell hasn’t done much of anything to show he can be viable tool in San Francisco’s offense.
Yes, he has a tremendous skill set emanating from his collegiate days at Oklahoma. But those numbers haven’t translated over to the NFL level at all.
He managed just four catches for 85 yards on the season.
Running Back, San Francisco 49ers
If there was area in which the Niners had a moderate strength this season, it was at running back.
While No. 1 tailback Carlos Hyde finished just 12 rushing yards short of 1,000 on the season, he still remains the team’s top threat on the offensive side of the ball.
Overall, San Francisco’s rushing attack ranked No. 4 in the NFL with 2,019 yards. This is partly due to former head coach Chip Kelly’s system, as well as quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s rushing abilities.
But in reality, the Niners couldn’t offer up much more than just a run-heavy offensive attack, skewing the results as a whole.
Biggest Standout: Carlos Hyde
As noted, Hyde remains the team’s No. 1 offensive threat moving forward. And it’s considerable he nearly made 1,000 rushing yards behind a lowly run-blocking offensive line.
Still, Hyde’s elusiveness is a good thing to note. And he did average 4.6 yards per carry this year — good for No. 11 in the league.
Of course, the main concern with Hyde is his health. Hyde missed two games earlier this season, due to a shoulder injury, and was lost for the year in Week 16 with an MCL sprain.
All this does is mandate the need for the 49ers to have an adequate backup.
Biggest Bust: Mike Davis
Second-year tailback Mike Davis looked as if he turned the page last preseason. But any hopes of the former South Carolina standout went out the door pretty quickly in the regular season.
Davis wound up being inactive for all but eight of the Niners’ regular-season games this year. And he posted just 19 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown — averaging a mere 2.6 yards per carry.
It’s safe to say Davis won’t be a long-term piece of San Francisco’s future plans.
Quarterback , San Francisco 49ers
Yup, the 49ers need a franchise quarterback in 2017 and beyond.
We all know this. Neither Colin Kaepernick nor Blaine Gabbert will be the long-term answer moving forward. And both could be gone by the time Week 1 of next season rolls around.
Kaepernick took over for Gabbert in Week 6, and it was a necessary change. Gabbert’s numbers were pretty putrid over the early weeks of the year.
While Kap did have some positive moments down the stretch, including winning Week 16 against the Los Angeles Rams almost by himself, the maligned quarterback is still making the same kind of mistakes he was known for years ago.
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Biggest Standout: Colin Kaepernick
In a controversial year, Kaepernick still manages to be the biggest standout at this position.
But it’s merely by default. Kap is just a slightly better option than Gabbert under center.
His 59.2 completion percentage wasn’t three points ahead of Gabbert’s (56.9). But Kaepernick’s passer rating (90.7) was substantially higher than Gabbert’s (68.4). Additionally, Kap’s touchdown-to-interception ratio (16-to-4) was pretty impressive, as were his scrambling abilities.
Still, Kap will be remembered mostly for second-half meltdowns. In 2016, Kaepernick’s third- and fourth-quarter combined passer rating was just 70.3.
Biggest Bust: Blaine Gabbert
Well, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise either.
Five weeks into the 2016 season, it was clear the Niners needed to make a change under center and move away from Gabbert.
Gabbert’s numbers this season were pretty awful. Pro Football Focus ranked him the No. 36 out of 36 qualifying quarterback this year.
It didn’t work at all for Gabbert under center, and fans are perfectly fine with him departing via free agency this offseason.
Coaching, San Francisco 49ers
So much for the Chip Kelly era in San Francisco.
The one-and-done head coach won’t have a chance to see if his system would have worked over the long run. And, in many ways, Kelly was doomed from the start. He inherited a mess of a roster and wasn’t able to formulate much of an effective staff either.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s scheme led to franchise lows in nearly every area, as Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee pointed out in Week 17:
#49ers have now established franchise highs in:
* Yards allowed in a season
* Points allowed in a season
* Rushing yards allowed in a season
— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) January 1, 2017
While Kelly should get some credit for improving the team in some areas — he did — the 2-14 record speaks for itself.
Biggest Standout: Chip Kelly
Kelly kind of gets this by default. But it’s far from a solid grade for the former head coach.
If it weren’t for Kelly’s noted improvements with an anemic roster, the Niners would have been even more of a laughingstock than they are now.
Kelly’s offense was responsible for generating the league’s fourth-best rushing offense. And one could make the argument he made something useful out of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
But those second-half meltdowns on offense won’t give the 49ers coaching staff anything better than an F.
Biggest Bust: Jim O’Neil
The 49ers should have realized this was coming. O’Neil’s run defenses with the Cleveland Browns ranked Nos. 32 and 30 in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
We’re pretty sure you know where the Niners ranked in this same category in 2016.
O’Neil’s read-and-react schemes were not what San Francisco’s defense needed. Techniques were wrong, and his soft-zone approaches frequently left defensive backs out of position. Additionally, the players on roster simply couldn’t adjust to what he was asking them to do when O’Neil wanted to get things more aggressive.
It was a disaster in the making.
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So now the 49ers can start focusing on putting this dreadful year behind them and truly begin the rebuild process in earnest.
Maybe this is going to be a valuable learning process for this franchise — one having to start from the top.
At last there area few pieces on both sides of the ball that give a bit of a foundation to move forward.
And yet there are still so many holes to fill.
- Aaron Lynch
- Ahmad Brooks
- Andy Lee
- Antoine Bethea
- Arik Armstead
- Blaine Gabbert
- Blake Bell
- Bradley Pinion
- Bryce Petty
- Carlos Hyde
- Carolina Panthers
- Coby Fleener
- Colin Kaepernick
- DeForest Buckner
- Eli Harold
- Eric Reid
- Erik Pears
- Jaquiski Tartt
- Jimmie Ward
- Joe Staley
- Jordan Devey
- Joshua Garnett
- Michael Wilhoite
- Mike Davis
- Nathan Stupar
- NaVorro Bowman
- New Orleans Saints
- New York Jets
- Nick Bellore
- Phil Dawson
- Rashard Robinson
- Ray-Ray Armstrong
- Ronald Blair
- San Francisco 49ers
- Tramaine Brock
- Vance McDonald
- Vonn Bell
- Will Redmond