NFL

Five Critical Questions Facing the San Francisco 49ers

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The San Francisco 49ers were huge disappointments in 2014. They were projected to be one of the best teams in the NFC; however, they laid an egg and went 8-8. The season was mired in controversy as there were numerous reports of friction between Jim Harbaugh and the front office.

This led to Harbaugh’s departure from the 49ers this offseason, despite reaching the NFC championship game three years in a row. Instead of looking for another big name coach, the 49ers opted to hire from within as they promoted Jim Tomosula to from defensive line coach to head coach.

Harbaugh’s departure wasn’t the only big news as the 49ers were hit hard by some early retirements. Chris Borland, Anthony Davis and Patrick Willis all made surprising decision to move the NFL chapter of their life as they decided to hang up their cleats, despite all having the ability to play at a high level. Furthermore, Justin Smith retired as well, which summed up an awful offseason for the 49ers as a whole.

With that being said, let’s take a look at five critical questions facing the 49ers as we head into training camp.

Can Colin Kaepernick Carry the Offense?

Colin Kaepernick is an interesting quarterback in today’s NFL. He has the undeniable ability to win with his legs and outside the pocket, but he struggles from the pocket. This leads to him being very inconsistent from week to week.

If opposing teams can bottle him up inside the tackle box, Kaepernick tends to struggle with his accuracy. However, when teams play him much more conventionally, Kaepernick can get outside of the pocket and make plays with his big arm or legs. If the 49ers hope to succeed this season on the back of Kaepernick, he needs to become more comfortable making plays from the pocket.

Also, the 49ers must figure out more creative ways to get Kaepernick in space where he can use his dual-threat ability to his advantage. It doesn’t help that Kaepernick is devoid of a lot of weapons on offense. The only proven commodities he has are Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. It will be critical that a young weapon like Bruce Ellington steps up and makes life easier on Kaepernick this season.

How do the 49ers replace Patrick Willis?

The simple answer is that it is impossible to replace a leader and player like Patrick Willis. Fortunately for the 49ers, their fantastic linebacker NaVorro Bowman should be back for this season, which will make things easier on the 49ers. Bowman is an extremely talented linebacker who is among the best in the league when he is healthy. He can play physical in the running game and play with finesse against the pass. he is truly a special linebacker.

Furthermore, Michael Willhoite will have an opportunity to show what he can do for an elongated stretch of games. He has always been stuck behind Bowman, Willis and Borland, but this year he should start. The 49ers have proved that they know how to develop linebackers and Willhoite could just be the next good player in line.

Can Arik Armstead Replace Justin Smith?

Arik Armstead was the premier 3-4 defensive end prospect in this draft outside of Leonard Williams. With Smith’s retirement, it made it even more important that Armstead lives up to that billing. Armstead is a tall and stout defensive end who thrives in a two-gapping system, like the one the 49ers run.

What made Justin Smith so special was his grit, strength, and phenomenal hand usage. He broke out of the typical 3-4 defensive end stereotype and excelled in make plays behind the line of scrimmage despite having to two-gap. It is impossible to expect Armstead to do from year one; however, Armstead has the frame, length, and athleticism to become that type of player for the 49ers in the future.

The 49ers rely a ton on their defensive end to allow their linebackers to make plays and it will be paramount that Armstead hold his ground in his rookie year.

Is Tomsula the Man for the Job?

The scary aspect of the Tomsula hiring is that he is making a huge jump in responsibilities. Usually, you see a coordinator make the jump to head coach instead of a position coach making the leap. At least the coordinator has experience managing multiple players from various positions and not just one select group.

Tomsula will have a huge learning curve as he learns to manage and deal with the different positions. Furthermore, he will have to help making the game plan, not only on defense but on offense as well. For a guy that doesn’t have experience with anything on offense, it will be interesting to see how much responsibility he takes on.

The 49ers were a team that imploded last year because of outside factors. It will be Tomsula’s job to get the team back together working toward one goal. Can he do it? Nothing is impossible, but it certainly doesn’t look good.

How Will Carlos Hyde Do as the No. 1 Running Back?

Carlos Hyde will have the unenviable task of replacing Frank Gore in the run-heavy 49ers offense. Hyde is a very talented running back who was selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. He is a powerful and explosive running back who is extremely hard to tackle one he gets going. He doesn’t possess breakaway speed, but he can wear down a defense over four quarters.

The 49ers offense relies on the running game to set up the passing game so there will be a lot of pressure on Hyde to be productive. Luckily, Hyde thrives when he gets a big volume of carries, which allows him to wear and break down a defense.

Overall, Gore was a big loss from a leadership standpoint, but when you look at production, the 49ers won’t be missing much, if any at all.


About John Owning

John Owning

John Owning is a NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has years of experience covering the NFL, NFL draft and NCAA football. John's work has been featured on the Bleacher Report and DraftBreakdown.com