This article is part of our Team Previews series.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Even with a new head coach, expectations remain low for the 49ers. Despite the draft and most offseason activity all but complete, San Francisco still doesn't know who will be starting at quarterback. Another last-place finish could be in store for a team that didn't get any scheduling favors in 2016.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
CAN CHIP WORK HIS MAGIC WITH DEPLETED ROSTER?
The 49ers pulled a 180 this offseason by firing well-traveled coach, Jim Tomsula, and hiring the polarizing Chip Kelly after his unsuccessful three-year run with the Eagles. Despite getting run out of Philly, this move has to be considered an upgrade given how stagnant San Francisco's offense was last season (31st in yards per game). Despite questions surrounding their quarterback and wide receiver corps, Kelly's scheme should result in an immediate improvement. This roster is definitely a project, but the benefit of a barren roster is that Kelly can mold the team to fit his style. With 11 picks in April's draft, he worked with GM Trent Baalke to rebuild this team from the ground up. The additions on the offensive and defensive lines have to be considered smart moves, but the 49ers failed to draft any skill-position players before the sixth round. Having RB Carlos Hyde and WR DeAndre Smelter return from injury will undoubtedly help the offense, but the key question will be whether the 49ers can keep QB Colin Kaepernick (who could thrive in Kelly's read option offense) in town and happy.
WILL A CHANGE OF SCENERY HELP THE OFFENSIVE GURU?
Chip Kelly is inheriting one of the league's worst offenses, and its lack of skill players wasn't notably addressed this offseason. Part of the blame has to be placed on a coaching staff that ran an unimaginative style in 2015, but Kelly should immediately change that culture, bringing his no-huddle scheme to a relatively young and athletic team. If he sticks with the read option, it should allow 49ers wideouts to find open space in which to operate after being locked down in last year's more-traditional offense. While Carlos Hyde's power running style seems better suited for lining up behind the quarterback, he actually had success with the read option while playing at Ohio State. In addition to his experience, reserve RBs DuJuan Harris and Shaun Draughn are east-west runners, more suited for the read option than DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews were with the Eagles. Perhaps the biggest question facing the offense is the status of QB Colin Kaepernick. If he can wrestle back the starting job from Blaine Gabbert, Kaepernick could be an ideal fit in the offense considering his status as a dual threat.
KAEPERNICK: RUNNING ON EMPTY?
After posting a career-low 6.62 yards per pass attempt and terrible 6:5 TD:INT ratio in nine contests (eight starts) to start last season, Colin Kaepernick was displaced by Blaine Gabbert under center and ultimately landed on injured reserve to repair a torn left labrum. Kaepernick later had surgery on his right thumb and left knee, and as the offseason progressed, a parting of ways appeared to be the logical outcome of a fractured relationship between player and organization. With free agency approaching, his representation requested a trade, and potential deals with the Broncos and Browns, among other quarterback-starved squads, were discussed. However, his albatross of a contract ($19 million per year through 2021) likely aided in the decision of those clubs to explore other alternatives. Fortunately for Kaepernick, Kelly has expressed interest in working with the QB, whose skill set seems well-suited for Kelly's system. Cleared by the doctor who performed his shoulder surgery in advance of training camp, the 49ers' medical staff must follow suit before Kaepernick can begin the competition with Gabbert.
KEY JOB BATTLE
With Anquan Boldin in Detroit, there's an opening on the 49ers' depth chart heading into 2016. Torrey Smith should get one of the starting wideout spots, but there is a pack of both veteran and rookie receivers vying for the other starting job. The early favorite heading into camp is Quinton Patton, but he has been less-than-spectacular when given an opportunity in the past. Bruce Ellington and veteran Jerome Simpson will compete for the slot receiver position, so they are out of the equation. The young trio of DeAndrew White, DiAndre Campbell, and Dres Anderson are in the mix, but they will likely end up on special teams if they make the cut heading into the season. DeAndre Smelter is the most intriguing of the lot, as he has the size (6-2, 227 pounds) and athleticism to be a fantasy factor if he wins the battle. Whoever comes out of training camp as the starter will immediately gain an increase in value within coach Chip Kelly's offensive attack.
In a season filled with disappointment, Hyde was a relative bright spot for the 49ers, but his final numbers were poor due to the team's overall offensive ineptitude and a season-ending foot injury. Hyde enters 2016 healthy and will be a focal point of coach Chip Kelly's offense behind a revamped O-line, which could make him a good fantasy draft value.
RISING: Vance McDonald
After Vernon Davis was shipped out, McDonald had 23 catches for 281 yards and three TDs in seven games to end last season. Chip Kelly uses the TE less than past regimes, but McDonald could still prosper with the change.
FALLING: Quinton Patton
Patton did little with his chance in 2015, posting 30 catches for 394 yards. Now in competition with a healthy DeAndre Smelter and 2016 sixth-rounder Aaron Burbridge, Patton could struggle to find targets.
SLEEPER: DeAndre Smelter
Pegged as a potential first-round pick before sustaining a torn ACL in November of 2014, Smelter fell to the fourth round of the successive draft. Now healthy, he'll attempt to prove that the 49ers struck gold.
THE INJURY FRONT
Carlos Hyde, RB – The 49ers' lead back in 2015 went down with a stress fracture in his left foot and missed the final nine games of season. After undergoing successful surgery and rehab, he took part in drills during OTAs and reportedly felt great. Hyde should enter training camp at full strength, while reprising his previous role as the top dog on the ground this season.
Colin Kaepernick, QB – The former fantasy stud came into the offseason dealing with several injuries, the most-notable being his surgically-repaired shoulder. He was able to participate in 7-on-7 drills during minicamp, which indicates that he could be ready for training camp on July 30. The only thing standing in his way is medical clearance from the 49ers' team doctor.
DeAndre Smelter, WR – After spending his entire rookie season on IR, Smelter had no restrictions during the 49ers' offseason activities. He heads into training camp healthy and ready to vie for a starting job.
NaVorro Bowman, LB – The Pro Bowl inside linebacker made his return to the field in 2015 after missing the entire 2014 season due to a serious knee injury. He didn't skip a beat, amassing a career-high 154 tackles and finishing as one of the top IDP options. It isn't crazy to think that he can top last year's numbers with a fast-paced Chip Kelly offense in town that will have the defense on the field for more snaps.
Antoine Bethea, S - The 32-year-old safety only played in seven games last season before tearing his pectoral muscle. He tallied 44 tackles with no interceptions and has seen his numbers take a dip in San Francisco after averaging more than 100 tackles during his six-year career with Indianapolis. With a return to health, he could hit the century mark again, as the trickle down effect of Chip Kelly's game plans could breed an escalation in playing time for the defense.
Ahmad Brooks, LB – The veteran linebacker bounced back from a poor 2014 season and contributed 42 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 14 games last season. He won't be high on anyone's IDP lists, but he could see an increased pass-rushing role during the first four games of the season with Aaron Lynch being suspended.
DEFOREST BUCKNER – DE (Rd. 1, No. 7 – Oregon)
Oregon product reunites with coach Chip Kelly and DT Arik Armstead.
JOSHUA GARNETT – G (Rd. 1, No. 28 – Stanford)
Top guard in draft whose run blocking should open holes for Hyde.
KELVIN TAYLOR – RB (Rd. 6, No. 211 – Florida)
Looking to secure depth role in backfield behind Carlos Hyde.
Aaron Burbridge – WR (Rd. 6, No. 213 – Michigan State)
Could make immediate impact with 49ers lacking talent at receiver.
JEFF DRISKEL - QB (Rd. 6, No. 207 - Louisiana Tech)
A former No. 1 recruit, will serve as developmental project for Kelly.
REGGIE BUSH – RB (to Bills)
Scant body of work before suffering season-ending knee injury in 2015.
Anquan Boldin – WR (to Lions)
After three seasons as team's top WR, 35-year-old settles in Detroit.
ALEX BOONE – G (to Vikings)
Despite being their best guard, age and cost forced 49ers' hand.