San Francisco 49ers

Matt Barrows: Can talent offset 49ers’ offseason tumult?

The 49ers’ season will pivot on the play of the quarterback more than any other player, and Colin Kaepernick seems to be taking the rights steps this offseason.
The 49ers’ season will pivot on the play of the quarterback more than any other player, and Colin Kaepernick seems to be taking the rights steps this offseason. The Bee

Eight-and-eight.

That sounds like a weaselly forecast when it comes to the 49ers’ season, the equivalent of your parents insisting they like you and your siblings “the same” (even Scotty) or every Little League team getting a trophy at season’s end no matter how terrible some were.

Eight-and-eight is safe, it doesn’t ruffle feathers, and it goes unnoticed. It’s the tan slacks and navy blue blazer of predictions. It blends. It’s boring.

But how can you take a fierce stance either way when it comes to the 2015 49ers? On one hand, they’ve had to absorb more change this offseason than any other team and competes in a pressure cooker of a division.

On the other, it remains a talented group despite the offseason tumult.

How talented? Here’s a position-by-position analysis of this year’s squad vs. 2014’s, which a year ago was certain it was worthy of Super Bowl but finished 8-8.

Quarterback – The group promises to be the same as it was a season ago – Colin Kaepernick starts, and Blaine Gabbert backs him up. The difference is that Kaepernick spent the offseason working on his weaknesses instead of his abs. (Or judging from recent footage, maybe in addition to his abs).

That alone must be viewed as a gain over last year. As is the case with every NFL team, the season will pivot on the play of the quarterback more than any other player, and Kaepernick seems to be taking the rights steps. Gained.

Offensive line – It’s possible only one starter – Joe Staley – will start the 2015 season in the same spot he ended the 2014 season. The unit has been shaken up like no other, and the new guys either are less experienced or less talented as the players they are replacing. Lost.

Running back – The hope here is that many talented players – from Carlos Hyde to Reggie Bush to Kendall Hunter – can compensate for the loss of a borderline Hall of Famer in Frank Gore.

Something to consider: Can the group duplicate Gore’s consistency and toughness? In 10 seasons, he missed 11 of 168 games because of injury. Hyde already has missed two, and he dealt with a minor calf injury this spring. Lost.

Wide receiver – The 49ers had talent last year, but Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree essentially were clones of each other. With Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson added and Crabtree subtracted, there’s more diversity, which should make the offense more difficult to defend. Gained.

Tight end – A year ago, Vernon Davis was distracted, injured and underutilized. That Davis is entering his contract year – and thus is motivated – alone puts this position in the “plus” category. The 49ers have seven other players at the position, and the competition ought to forge three good ones, in addition to Davis, for the regular season. Gained.

Defensive line – The situation is similar to the running backs in that the plan is to replace two stalwarts with several, mostly young, players. The difference is that while Gore showed little sign of slowing down last season – his best games came in Weeks 16 and 17 – Justin Smith was starting to break down (although not so much that the 49ers wouldn’t have welcomed him back for another season).

The 49ers will miss his leadership and his and Ray McDonald’s experience, but with Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine and other youngsters finally getting a chance, the loss may not end up being as dramatic as it appears at first blush. Lost.

Inside linebacker – NaVorro Bowman is supremely motivated to return to his pre-injury form, and Michael Wilhoite is more seasoned than he was at this point a year ago. Still, Chris Borland’s sudden retirement means this group is not as deep as it was in 2014. And until Bowman shows he is past his injury, he remains a question mark. Lost.

Outside linebacker – A year ago, Aldon Smith had a nine-game suspension looming while Ahmad Brooks reported to training camp vastly overweight. Brooks appears to be as fit as he’s been in several years, while Smith must become the pass-rushing force he was early in his career to get a new, lucrative contract.

The 49ers used a third-round pick on Eli Harold, while Aaron Lynch is building off a rookie season in which he played 49.1 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. The prospects this year appear far better than they were in 2014. Gained.

Secondary – The 49ers must replace two starting cornerbacks. But one of the presumed starters this year, Tramaine Brock, would have started a year ago had he been healthy.

The unit is buoyed by two smart, sturdy safeties, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, who will help the group absorb changes. The secondary is deep with the addition of second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt and with cornerbacks Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker healthy.

The biggest offseason loss may have been secondary coach Ed Donatell, whose coverages worked brilliantly in San Francisco’s overall scheme and produced 78 interceptions over the past four regular seasons. Still, from a talent standpoint, this is probably a push. Even.

Special teams – The 49ers went with a youth movement last season on their coverage units, which were shaky early and seemed to find their footing only when veteran Bubba Ventrone was re-signed after Week 5.

The team again appears poised to rely on youngsters at key spots. Ventrone retired, Kassim Osgood is unsigned, and Craig Dahl must battle to retain his roster spot. Meanwhile, Bradley Pinion, 21, takes over for Andy Lee, 32, as the team’s punter and holder. Lost.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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