Three games into the new era of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers sit at 0-3. It wasn't totally unexpected. And based on the actual performances, the record makes the situation look worse than it is. Yes, there’s been some not-so-good to report, but from a broad perspective, the arrow on this team is pointing up.
Here’s what we’ve learned about the 49ers through the first three games of the 2017 season.
Something’s not right on the defensive line
The 49ers have three sacks in three games, and were most recently blanked by the Rams at home. Also in that same game, they were run on with ease, as Todd Gurley rumbled for two touchdowns and averaged over 4.0 yards per carry. The 49ers sank a No. 17 pick, a No. 7 pick and a No. 3 pick into the defensive line over the last three consecutive drafts, so when a game plays out like this, one has to wonder what happened.
Where’s the impact? And not only that, but how do you get totally dominated like that?
If you picked three first-round offensive linemen in consecutive drafts and your quarterback was still getting sacked at above the league-average rate, and your running back was getting stuffed, that would be alarming. If you had three top-20 picks at wide receiver and you couldn’t score passing touchdowns, wouldn’t that be a concern? It’s true it may take time to gel, but with three players at one position group all selected in that tier of the draft, teams are expecting results faster.
Shanahan said it himself, this unit as a whole needs to shape up, and not only start stuffing the run more consistently, but they need to be making splash plays. They were expected to be the identity of a team that hasn’t invested a whole lot elsewhere, and they have instead been a looked at as an area that needs to see improvement.
Carlos Hyde climbing RB rankings
The 49ers’ second-round pick from 2014 is playing his best football, which is impressive if you consider that it's his first year in a new system and he has no top-end interior linemen paving the way for him. For the most part, it’s been Hyde creating for himself or slingshotting around key blocks from fullback Kyle Juszczyk. And in addition to the rushing, he’s been one of the team’s most reliable pass-catchers, which is something he hasn’t done much of as a pro.
Hyde, who ranks third in the NFL in rushing after three weeks, looks a lot like someone playing his way into a big contract, either with the 49ers or somewhere else next offseason. If he stays healthy for 16 games, Hyde is on pace for 1,674 all-purpose yards and 10-plus total touchdowns this season.
Rashard Robinson not living up to lockdown status
A lot of hype surrounded Robinson heading into this season.
After a very solid rookie debut, the LSU product appeared primed to take the next step and establish himself as a top 10 NFL cornerback. The ability is there, and he had the right approach in the offseason. He’s long, versatile, willing to shadow receivers on both sides of the field, and has become a more vocal leader. Elvis Dumervil even thought he was going to prove to be better than Richard Sherman.
But Robinson’s play hasn’t been great to begin the season.
Penalties clouded a Week 1 loss to the Panthers. In Week 2, the corner expressed his displeasure with teammate and slot man K’Waun Williams for deflecting a ball that appeared to be heading right to Robinson (Williams didn’t know; he didn’t see Robinson there, and was just doing his job). Then a little later in the game, Robinson was in position and he let a potential interception bounce right off his chest. He then allowed the only touchdown of the game, which was a game-winner to Seahawks receiver Paul Richardson.
In Week 3 against the Rams, Robinson didn’t fare much better. Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins each caught six balls from Jared Goff and each topped 100 yards receiving. Watkins had two touchdowns and a long reception of 47 yards.
It’s time to pump the breaks on Robinson and consider what the 49ers actually have at cornerback for the future, especially with 2017 second-rounder Ahkello Witherspoon as a regular inactive on game day.
New regime hitting on wide receiver evaluations
The 49ers added a stable of pass-catchers this offseason, but the one they invested in most in free agency, and the one they invested in most in during the draft, have looked like the two best receivers on the team. That’s Pierre Garcon and Trent Taylor. The two have been effective, even if the box score doesn’t show it. And the most encouraging sample of this was in Week 2, when the two were getting open in Seattle. Progress continued in Week 3, too, with big plays to both receivers, including Taylor getting his first career TD.
As soon as the 49ers find their quarterback, these two in particular will be in line for a lot more looks and receptions.
Brian Hoyer’s run may be shorter than expected
Nobody expected Hoyer to actually be the face of the franchise. His ceiling in San Francisco was starting 16 games in 2017 before being replaced by Kirk Cousins or another high-profile passer with more upside. But it didn’t take long for the criticism to begin to mount—two starts in fact. While Hoyer may have bought himself a little more time after shooting it out with the Rams on Thursday night, we could see C.J. Beathard by midseason if he relapses. At this point, Hoyer looks like the team’s biggest limitation.
Laken Tomlinson a last-minute upgrade
It didn’t look like the 49ers would be able to do much offensively after a Week 1 showing in which the interior offensive line was absolutely demolished.
Thankfully for the team, Kyle Shanahan acted quickly, getting Zane Beadles out of the lineup and replacing him with recent acquisition Laken Tomlinson at left guard. The former first-round pick from Detroit has already been showing up positively, in on several blocks downfield and creating extra yards for the backs. He’s also been more reliable in pass protection. Considering how late he was traded for, this was a quality move by a rookie front office.
Are the 49ers a quarterback away?
In all three games, you could look at the missed opportunities by the quarterback and wonder what could’ve been.
It was especially noticeable in the game against Seattle – and the 49ers only lost by two points to Los Angeles (N). They were tough defensively, moving the ball on the ground, had receivers running open, and just generally well-coached. If the 49ers had a top-15 quarterback in these games, it might’ve shifted the scales, and maybe 0-3 is 3-0, or even 2-1.
Overall, they’re playing an encouraging brand of football. They’re confident and competitive, they don’t looked overwhelmed, or as lost and overmatched as they once did. The 49ers appear to be playing with the belief that they’re in all these games, and it’s looked like they have been. That is a huge step from where this team was just a season ago. A quarterback might turn this team into a Wild Card contender as soon as 2018.
Reuben Foster, missed, and a real building block
No reason to go on about this – Foster is a stud at the linebacker position. He is one of those rare players that not only comes in and looks like his college self, but looks like one of the better players in the league at his position already. The 49ers have a franchise player on their hands, and the next centerpiece of their defense.
Foster, who injured his ankle not long into the opener against Carolina, was missed dearly as the 49ers fell to 0-3.
Kyle Juszczyk a great value signing
Who knew you could get a receiver, a fullback, an H-back and offensive lineman with just one free-agent signing? That’s what Juszczyk’s been. Granted, he only has a couple of catches thus far, but we’ve seen what he can do. And he’s been needed more as a run-blocker with the 49ers’ struggles on the offensive line, and he’s been fantastic in that regard.
It'll be interesting to see his role expand as the team patches up other holes on offense, freeing him up to do more things.
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