Is that the sound of a door opening?
With drastic changes on every front for the San Francisco 49ers, the path to the NFC West crown is looking just a bit easier to travel.
Of course, the Rams have had their changes, replacing three starters along the offensive line, trading their one-time starting quarterback, and selecting a running back coming off an ACL injury as the face of their draft.
But, considering what the 49ers have dealt with this offseason, the on-field uncertainty for St. Louis pales in comparison.
Off-field uncertainty (read: relocation) is a topic for another day.
In one offseason the Niners have changed their head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator. They’ve also seen Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland announce their retirements.
Davis says he’ll return in a year or two, but he’ll nonetheless be absent along San Francisco’s offensive line in 2015.
Also, Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Chris Culliver will be playing somewhere besides Levi’s Stadium next year.
That’s a lot of turnover for one season.
With that level of change, it’s too much to envision the Niners improving on their 8-8 record from a year ago. Granted, they still have quarterback Colin Kaepernick. SanFran also drafted Gore’s replacement in Carlos Hyde last year, and added Reggie Bush, Torrey Smith, Darnell Dockett and first-round selection Arik Armstead to soften the blow of their offseason losses. With the signing of Torrey Smith, they even upgraded over what they previously had.
The fact remains that San Francisco faces the challenge of having to replace several core pieces in one offseason.
Recent Super Bowl winners Seattle, New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh emphasized how important it is to hit on draft picks. Successful NFL teams build their foundations through the draft, not free agency. General managers can’t be perfect when it comes to adding talent via the draft, but they’d better be consistent when it comes to scouting talent.
It’s no coincidence that the 49ers had a string of success after drafting Gore, Willis, Iupati, Kaepernick, Crabtree, Anthony Davis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Vernon Davis and Joe Staley between 2005 and 2011. A team can build around a core like that.
Throw in sound free agent or trade acquisitions Justin Smith, Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers, and that’s how a team plays three consecutive NFC title games.
But the Niners received next to nothing from their 2012 draft and are now without Gore, Willis, Smith, Davis, Iupati and Crabtree (not that he’s been the same since undergoing surgery in 2013 to repair a torn Achilles tendon).
Bowman also recently acknowledged that the knee injury he suffered in the NFC championship two years ago is still giving him problems, offering another bleak forecast for San Fran’s linebacker corps.
All of this puts more pressure on the 49ers’ 2013, 2014 and 2015 draft classes to make a significant impact this season, as well as Kaepernick not regressing as a passer. Great quarterback play can mask weaknesses, but Kaepernick hasn’t shown signs of improvement over the past two years. In fact, his interception rate and sack totals are up over the past two seasons, while his yards per pass attempt and QB rating are down.
Granted, it’s not on any one player to win games in the NFL.
But that’s also the point: Kaepernick has less talent around him this year than at any point in his career. If he can’t elevate his play, then it’s not feasible that the 49ers will overcome significant change in one offseason and make a serious run at a playoff berth.
Enter, the St. Louis Rams.
It would be convenient to be optimistic about the Rams’ offseason changes and wonder if the 49ers can withstand theirs. Plus, just because the Niners are due for a decline (they were also 6-2 in one-score games last year, which is another indication they’re susceptible to a regression), doesn’t mean the Rams will gain the wins they need to reach the postseason under Jeff Fisher.
So, how about Arizona?
With Carson Palmer coming off his second ACL injury and Todd Bowles (the mastermind behind the Cardinals’ 2014 defense) now the head coach of the Jets, the Cardinals could be due for a decline as well.
How many times can Arizona defy logic and win with average or below average quarterback production? Just ask the Rams. For as great as Bruce Arians is, at some point the Cardinals will fall off that tightrope.
So, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The shift in dynamics in the NFC West this offseason puts even more pressure on Fisher and Co. to finally produce a playoff berth in St. Louis.
Nobody is ignoring St. Louis’ question marks heading into the 2015 season, but suddenly the division, outside of powerhouse Seattle, looks less daunting than it did over the past three years.
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