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2016 season preview: San Francisco 49ers

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 08: Colin Kaepernick #7 watches Blaine Gabbert #2 of the San Francisco 49ers warm up before their game against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi's Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Just a few seasons ago, the San Francisco 49ers boasted one of the league’s best defenses under former head coach Jim Harbaugh, and had made it to the NFC Championship games three years in a row, including one Super Bowl trip. Fast-forward to 2016, and the 49ers are looking to start the season with their third different head coach in three seasons, and the quarterback that led them to the Super Bowl appears to be on a career downslope after an injury-plagued 2015. With one of the league's worst offense’s last season and a defense that struggled to replace several key retirees, the 49ers hope Chip Kelly’s offensive acumen and a solid draft will start to turn things around in the Bay Area.

[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]

Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert the answer at QB in 2016?

Quarterbacks: 31st in PFF’s season preview rankings

Chip Kelly is famous for taking below-average quarterbacks and turning them into what appears to be Pro-Bowl-caliber talent. Drafted just 25 spots from each other, Gabbert and Kaepernick will have a quarterback competition in training camp. Kaepernick clearly has produced a more successful career to date, but Gabbert has shown small signs of life since a disastrous rookie season in Jacksonville, where he turned in the worst grade we’ve ever seen in the PFF era (since 2007). While both graded poorly last year, Gabbert has shown an ability to play well given the right set of circumstances. Kaepernick’s career arc looks similar to Robert Griffin III’s thus far—both playing spectacularly as rookies (Kaep’s 2012 was basically his rookie year, as he logged just 20 snaps in 2011), but never seeing that same success again and badly struggling in years three and four. If Chip Kelly can work his magic with either QB, 2016 won’t be as bleak as it looks on paper now.

Carlos Hyde has tools to succeed in Chip Kelly's offense

Running backs: 18th

When Carlos Hyde has been given the opportunity, he has impressed, forcing 57 missed tackles on just 198 carries. He has averaged 2.8 yards per attempt after contact in his career, a rate that matches Marshawn Lynch’s career average. Chip Kelly’s system didn’t match DeMarco Murray’s running style in Philadelphia, but that shouldn’t be a problem for Hyde; the latter shows patience in zone runs and has the vision, speed, and agility to find and hit the hole quickly. Look no further than Hyde’s 2015 Week 1 show against the Minnesota Vikings and you’ll see the makings of a top-tier HB—he just needs to prove it over the course of a season.

Will Torrey Smith become WR No. 1 or can another step up?

Receiving corps: 31st

The receiving group looks bleak for the 49ers. Torrey Smith hauled in the fewest targets of his career last season, Eric Rogers comes from the CFL, Quinton Patton has a drop problem, and Aaron Burbridge (Michigan State) is a rookie. On the bright side, Smith was likely limited by the QB situation last season—combined with a run-first offense—Patton forced seven missed tackles on just 30 receptions, and Burbridge was a playmaker for Michigan State and graded very well in 2015. TEs Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek will likely be utilized much more in the passing game this season; the No. 2 tight end in Chip Kelly's system last year, Brent Celek, gained more receiving yards in Philadelphia than either McDonald or Garrett Celek in 2015.

First-rounder Joshua Garnett has potential to become top-tier run-blocker

Offensive line: 26th

The 49ers traded up into the first round to draft Garnett, the top-graded college guard from 2015. While PFF actually had a second-round grade on Garnett, he is a physical guard that excelled in Stanford’s power-run scheme. He was excellent on the move, played with good leverage, and was dominant on the playside of running plays. Garnett did struggle against now-teammate DeForest Buckner (Oregon), backside cuts in zone, and isn’t particularly strong in pass-protection. If he can clean up the issues he had in college, though, he has the ability to immediately make an impact in the league and become one of the NFL's best run-blocking guards early in his career.

Defensive end DeForest Buckner a must-watch rookie

Front-seven: 23rd

Fielding two former Oregon defensive lineman, the 49ers are building a front-seven that can be really good if everything comes together. 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner terrorized everyone he faced the past two years in college, Arik Armstead impressed as a pass-rusher in limited snaps in 2015, and NT Ian Williams stuffs the run well. NaVorro Bowman struggled in his first season back after a devastating knee injury in the 2014 NFC Championship game, but if he can get back to his pre-injury levels, the 49ers front-seven will improve greatly because of it. If Buckner performs like the DE we expect him to be, Armstead continues to develop, and Bowman returns to form, San Francisco should see defensive performances closer to the Jim Harbaugh-coached days. A lot of “if”s need to fall into place for that to happen, and we haven’t even mentioned Gerald Hodges’ struggles and Ahmad Brooks’ declining play.

Heavily-addressed cornerback group will be stressed

Secondary: 17th

The return of Antoine Bethea will greatly help this group. While the 49ers' defense struggled last season overall, the secondary was decent, and should be even better this year. They addressed cornerback depth by drafting three CBs, highlighted by the selection of Mississippi State’s Will Redmond. S Eric Reid has played well in his short career, but hasn’t lived up to his first-round status yet; the same can be said for CB Tramaine Brock. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil will run man-press heavily, which puts his cornerbacks in difficult positions. With the Browns, O’Neil’s cornerbacks excelled in 2014, but struggled in 2015. Redmond may not see much playing time this year, but he provides necessary depth behind Jimmie Ward and Brock if either of them struggle to adjust to the scheme.

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