Everyone loves a turnaround, and the 49ers had one of their own this past season, coming on strong at the end of 2017 by winning six of their last seven with their shiny new toy at quarterback. Over that stretch the 49ers won almost as many games as the prior two years combined.
Under the new directive of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, two first timers, things look extremely promising heading into the future. And that is because of all the individual accomplishments made from Day 1 that contributed to their total one-eighty by season's end.
Here is what they hit on their check list in the first rebuilding year of one of the most daunting projects in the NFL...
Reset the roster: Lynch and Shanahan aggressively explored every avenue to turn over one of the worst rosters in football, making signings at all tiers, several releases, waiver claims and deadline deals. They even made the tough call to move into the future by granting franchise legend NaVorro Bowman his release. The cumulative turnover was not only a breath of fresh air in a painfully stale situation, but provided a lot of other undiscovered players with a stage to showcase their ability. And to the 49ers’ benefit, many stepped up to the challenge, hence the new look and upward trajectory. The ~75% roster turnover reflected flowing communication and methodical execution by the new regime. In essence, a vision.
Added future draft picks: The 49ers kicked off the new era by making a noteworthy trade with the Chicago Bears, swapping draft spots at Nos. 2 and 3 in 2017. Lynch during the season also traded away starters Vance McDonald (Steelers) and Rashard Robinson (Jets), picking up an extra pick and improving their draft slot. As of the 2017 season finale, the 49ers possess nine draft picks, including a top-10 pick and five selections in the first four rounds. They set themselves up for success in a crucial follow-up offseason.
Acquired a franchise quarterback: The New England Patriots had a conundrum with an aging but still vital Tom Brady, and former second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo, who was in his fourth year and couldn’t wait any longer to start. Fortunately for the 49ers, Bill Belichick was reportedly given the order to trade Garoppolo and his preferred destination was San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan. In any case, the 49ers were patient and deliberate with the QB process, and when the opportunity arose to get Garoppolo, they executed.
Turned Joe Staley back into a top-3 LT: The 49ers had some poorly-run offenses recently, and it hindered the success of certain individuals, even good ones. One such player that is benefiting from the scheme change and new coaching staff is five-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley, who is playing some of his best football at age 33. Not only is his spirit reinvigorated, but he’s in an offense that truly takes advantage of his unique athleticism. Staley is getting out in space and making much more of an overall impact.
[DESIMONE: 49ers' Shanahan, Staley always wanted to work with each other]
Stopped the leaks: Not long ago, you could set your watch to 49ers leaks. Every Sunday before the first set of games, there was FOX's Jay Glazer on set ready to tell the next chapter of the organization’s collapse. Then suddenly things went quiet in the midst of their third housecleaning. When John Lynch was named GM, it was a shocker, as he hadn’t been reported as a candidate. But that’s just what he intended. In the process of signing on as GM, Lynch wanted to test the 49ers to see if they could keep things close to the chest. “I made a big deal that this stayed quiet,” Lynch told KNBR. “First of all, you know what I was doing? Part of the rumors are, things fly out of the building. And so, I wanted to see, can I trust this building? And, so, that was part of my thinking.” The team passed the test and Lynch took the job. Since then, not a peep – not about Bowman’s release, not about the interest and eventual trade for Garoppolo, no locker room gossip during their 0-9 start or intentions with their own free agents – nothing.
Pulled bottom-ranked defense out of the gutter: Only a year ago, the 49ers were historically bad on the defensive side of the ball. They finished 32nd in total defense, coming in last in both yards and points allowed. They gave up seven straight 100-yard rushers as part of a 13-game losing streak. And they ranked among the bottom in defensive DVOA, finishing 28th, per Football Outsiders. After their first full season, they made a huge leap against the run, ranking seventh in yards per rushing attempt (3.8); they tied for first in rushing fumbles (10); and they tied for 18th in rushing touchdowns allowed, a middle of the packing ranking which still reflects improvement. They came on strong at the end, putting together a seven-game stretch between Week 10 and Week 17 without allowing a 100-yard rusher. And the only three they allowed all year were Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Adrian Peterson. In Weeks 13-16, or post-Garoppolo, the 49ers ranked 11th in total defense and third against the run. With their new system, as well as scouting and profiles for what they want on the defensive side of the ball, they're getting better and better.
Drafted an All-Pro caliber general for their defense: One of the most ridged declines the 49ers faced during their 2014-16 unraveling was in their once-vaunted front seven. It was the No. 1 thing that contributed to the regression of their defense. All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis walked away from the game at 30 years old, Chris Borland retired after a breakout rookie year, and NaVorro Bowman endured injury after injury, and it affected what he should’ve been. Soon, the 49ers had no commander and no enforcer to take the defense into the future. The fierce soul had been absolved. Instead of slipping into a 10-year linebacker drought, Lynch aggressively traded up for a falling Reuben Foster, the Butkus Award winner from Alabama – and he has been everything as advertised, and more. Foster, when healthy, played at an All-Pro level as a rookie, and looks like the next great centerpiece of a top-level defense. If you don’t include Garoppolo, this was arguably the move of the year by Lynch.
Made several value acquisitions: Cassius Marsh and Sheldon Day as waiver pickups look like very retainable pieces, ideal roster filler between the top-end starters and rotational players. They’re types that raise the bar for the tier-2 guys. Veteran Leger Douzable was a very low-key addition, but had some great performances for the 49ers. Nickel back K’Waun Williams and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell weren’t heralded as game-changing free-agent acquisitions when they signed, but both had impacts on this defense and exceeded expectations for the most part.
[DESIMONE: Not just Garoppolo-led attack, 49ers defense is coming around]
Made San Francisco an offensive team again: Even during the Jim Harbaugh days, the 49ers did not consistently field a top-10 offense. And over the two seasons prior to Shanahan's arrival, the offense never ranked better than 27th in yards or points. In 2017, we saw the real magic of Shanahan's scheme and the impact of his combination of scouting and tutelage. They immediately went from desolate to functional, then a little better with rookie C.J. Beathard behind center, then transformed into a top-five offense once Garoppolo was at the controls. The rapid ascension was one of the biggest stories across the NFL. And they're still very bare bones on the O-line and at the skill positions. This could potentially be one of the best offenses in the league for years to come.
Restored confidence: The 49ers were the laughing stock of the NFL for a minute there, and their confidence looked absolutely shot on game day. But now, the players are having fun again, throughout the week, on Sunday, and on social media. In large part, this is peak excitement due to the arrival of Garoppolo, but it was trending up even beforehand due to the attitude and motivational style instilled by Lynch and Shanahan. The front office's ability to scout players that perform on the field and have the right mindset also helped build the belief that they can compete with anybody.
Overachieved with rookies and undrafted free agents: The 49ers had a whopping nine rookies contributing late into the 2017 season, including the shocking win over Jacksonville. Two of those rookies, Kendrick Bourne and Matt Breida, were undrafted, as well. Offensively, the team produced significant roles for rookies Breida, George Kittle and Trent Taylor, all skill players at different positions that look like long-term pieces of the puzzle. Defensively, the 49ers boosted all levels of their infrastructure with legit building blocks in Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, D.J. Jones, Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert.
Dusted off the logo: The SF logo, the 49ers brand, is up there with the Dallas star or the Packers' G. Many in the league today grew up admiring the players that built it up to its iconic status; Jerry Rice and Steve Young, Bryant Young and Deion Sanders. It’s got history. And many want to create their own era as part of the franchise. Now that their situation is promising again, the SF logo is back on the minds of players around the NFL, especially free agents. A free-agent wide receiver even texted 49ers writer Kevin Jones during the season, asking, “What’s San Francisco like?” and adding, “Jimmy G is a baller.” It would appear they have totally rehabbed their image and are a destination again.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images, Getty Images, Eric Branch