San Francisco 49ers: Identifying 5 Cornerstone Players on 2017 Roster

The San Francisco 49ers are short on talent. But they do have a number of players around which to build in coming years. Let’s take a look at five cornerstone pieces to help get the franchise back on track.

Dec 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

If 2016 wasn’t an indication to you just how bad the San Francisco 49ers roster is, who knows what will be.

The Niners ranked close, or at, the wide majority of offensive and defensive categories last season. And, if you believe Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, San Francisco’s 2-14 record tells you exactly what anyone needs to know. It’s the indictment of indictments.

That said, the 49ers aren’t totally helpless. There are pieces in place. A few of them at least.

Good teams identify these cornerstone pieces and build rosters around them. While we have no clue how San Francisco’s front office and coaching staff are going to come together in 2017, it is possible to identify a number of the key contributors around which the roster should be built.

Let’s focus on those guys for a moment.

If the Niners are smart this offseason, they’ll try to formulate a roster that puts these guys’ talents into the best position for success.

Playmakers make plays, and these five will have to be a major part of the equation, as far as getting the 49ers back on track.

We find our first two within the secondary.

Oct 23, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson (33) before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 23, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson (33) before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

No. 5: Cornerback Rashard Robinson

Remember when Pro Football Focus ranked cornerback Rashard Robinson the No. 5 rookie in the NFL heading into Week 7 last season?

Robinson was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2016 year for San Francisco.

And while the fourth-round pickup suffered a bit of a drop late in the year, his eight pass breakups and 67.8 PFF coverage grade do suggest he’ll be a solid contributor within the Niners secondary in coming seasons.

Here’s another thing to consider — young defensive backs tend to struggle adjusting from college to the pros.

Fellow defensive back Jimmie Ward, also on this list, is a perfect example. His rookie campaign was ugly. Since the midway point of 2015 however, Ward has been a bright spot.

The 49ers should hope for similar development out of Robinson this year.

December 11, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward (25) sacks New York Jets quarterback Bryce Petty (9) during the second quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

December 11, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward (25) sacks New York Jets quarterback Bryce Petty (9) during the second quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4: Defensive Back Jimmie Ward

Remember what we said about defensive back Jimmie Ward’s 2014 rookie campaign?

Well, it was ugly. 2015 and 2016, however, were not.

Ward finished second on the Niners defense with 12 pass breakups. And his 75.8 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, was second highest within the defensive backfield only to cornerback Tramaine Brock (81.8).

Brock, given his burn frequency, isn’t a realistic part of the 49ers’ long-term plans. Ward is.

What also makes Ward special is his ability to play on the outside, at nickel and even at his natural safety position.

San Francisco has decent depth at safety entering 2017. Although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move Ward back to this spot, freeing up space for the next crop of Niners defensive backs.

Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) warms up prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) warms up prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3: Running Back Carlos Hyde

Featured tailback Carlos Hyde was just 12 yards short from eclipsing the 1,000 yards-rushing plateau before an MCL injury cut his 2016 campaign short in Week 16.

Prior to that, fans caught a glimpse of what Hyde could be within a solid zone-blocking scheme.

And only if the Niners boasted a top-tier offensive line. Football Outsiders ranked San Francisco’s O-line dead last in run support last year.

Regardless, Hyde is a major X-factor for the 49ers offense. He’ll continue to be the bell cow and remains one of the few impact players the Niners have entering 2017.

While San Francisco would be wise to add some more weapons, especially in the passing game, this offseason, coming up with ways to feature Hyde on a regular basis isn’t exactly a bad idea either.

If it works, Hyde’s amazing efforts at Ohio State should finally be on full display on a growing 49ers offense this season.

Dec 29, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 29, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2: Linebacker NaVorro Bowman

Right now, linebacker NaVorro Bowman is the 49ers.

He’s one of the few holdovers from San Francisco’s last Super Bowl team. And he remains the unquestioned leader of the Niners defense.

And that defense sorely missed Bowman’s presence after he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury early in 2016.

At 28 years old, Bowman may not be a linch pin within the defense for much longer. That said, he easily has three or four more years of better-than-good play within his body. If his injury doesn’t create any more setbacks, of course.

This time should allow San Francisco’s next general manager ample time to create a linebacker corps revolving around the perennial All-Pro.

And if the Niners can find another promising inside linebacker to pair with Bowman — a la the days of he and Patrick Willis — the 49ers defense would be oh so much better than it was in 2016.

Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (99) warms up prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (99) warms up prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1: Defensive End DeForest Buckner

This one should be a no-brainer selection.

It might have taken a bit for 2016 first-round draftee DeForest Buckner to adjust to life at the pro level. But the 49ers rookie defensive end came on strong down the stretch and managed to be tied for the team lead in sacks when it was all said and done (six).

Overall, Pro Football Focus awarded Buckner with a 77.2 overall grade — highest among San Francisco’s defensive front and only second to linebacker Gerald Hodges’ 82.4 mark.

Buckner is a linchpin of the defense moving forward. There’s no question about that.

So it would be wise for the 49ers to start building around him. Adding a healthy DE Arik Armstead (shoulder) in 2017 should help. And if the Niners land a solid nose tackle to join the defensive line, this unit can start a road back to dominance in the very near future.

Buckner is a key piece. San Francisco just needs to make sure he’s featured as such.

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