San Francisco 49ers: Still far more questions than answers

Though the San Francisco 49ers have made substantial improvements, they remain a team with more questions than answers on both sides of the ball.

As the San Francisco 49ers kick off OTAs this week, there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the franchise, and much of it is well-founded. General manager John Lynch has fostered a positive atmosphere in the organization, with the lack of transparency that was an apparent feature of the Trent Baalke era seemingly a thing of the past.

A strong offseason with a litany of free-agent acquisitions and a draft in which the 49ers added two top-10 talents in Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster has helped extend the honeymoon period enjoyed by Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose mere presence will boost hope of an offensive revival for San Francisco.

But, for all the plethora of offseason additions, the Niners still began OTAs with more questions than answers on both sides of the ball.

On offense there are legitimate concerns at all three skill positions. Carlos Hyde has never completed a full season in the NFL and there has already been talk of rookie Joe Williams replacing him as the starting running back.

Though the 49ers look significantly better at the receiver position, it remains unclear who is best-placed to start along with Pierre Garcon, while tight end is a position where two rookies — fifth-round pick George Kittle and undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini — have a chance to see significant action because of doubts over the more experienced players.

There has been trade talk surrounding Vance McDonald, whose tendency to drop the ball has drawn widespread criticism. Moreover, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell both failed to impress last year.

Up front, though the 49ers added veteran depth to the trenches, the only settled spot on the offensive line is at left tackle with Joe Staley. And the question has to be asked as to how long he can continue to play at a high level given he will be 33 when the season starts.

On the defensive line, the Niners appear potentially stacked after spending successive first-rounders on Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas. However, Armstead is coming off a season blighted by shoulder problems. It also remains to be seen how the 49ers plan on getting three players, who are all best suited to being interior rushers, on the field at the same time.

At edge rusher, the 49ers are putting their hopes on Aaron Lynch shedding the weight to allow him to make an impact, though Shanahan — per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee — has indicated he is making progress.

“There’s no doubt Aaron is going in the right direction for us,” coach Kyle Shanahan said after Tuesday’s OTA practice. “He came in in the offseason and we challenged him hard in the way that we worked him. He hasn’t shied away from any of it.”

The questions are also plentiful at the linebacker position: can NaVorro Bowman be the same player after an Achilles tear? Will Foster’s much-discussed shoulder hold up? Can Malcolm Smith improve in coverage? Will Ahmad Brooks continue to perform at the age of 33?

On the back end, the Niners are talented, but they look young with second-year player Rashard Robinson, rookie Ahkello Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson — who has just six career starts — competing for the starting berths at cornerback.

Jimmie Ward has developed excellently, but it is not yet known if he has the athleticism to excel as the single-high safety in a Cover 3 defense. Likely strong safety Eric Reid should enjoy playing down in the box, but has a worrying history of concussions.

In fact, the position where the 49ers seem most secure is at quarterback. Yet their starter, Brian Hoyer, while having the knowledge to teach others the Shanahan offense, has a clear ceiling having only ever been little more than a below-average starter.

The increase in talent is not in doubt. Hyde and Williams could quickly grow into an exciting running back tandem and Garcon had a 1,000-yard year last season. He also enjoyed his best campaign — 1,346 yards and five touchdowns — in Shanahan’s system in 2013.

If deployed correctly, Armstead, Buckner and Thomas have the ability to cause havoc as pass rushers. And, provided Bowman and Foster stay healthy, the linebacking group could be one of the better ones in the league.

Potential in the secondary is extremely high and Robinson, Witherspoon and Johnson all fit the mould of the long corner that has succeeded in the Seattle-like system San Francisco is set to employ. But a lot needs to go right for the defense to be successful and, though there is more talent on offense than in 2016, it is Shanahan and his scheme that is more likely to be key to their hopes.

The arrow is pointing up for San Francisco, but given the amount of things the 49ers need to figure out, expectations for this team should remain tempered as they ramp up preparations for the new season.

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