With the 2015 season coming to a close, we're happy to revisit NFL.com's Exit Interview series, checking out some of the worst teams of 2015 that could make the biggest noise this offseason.
2015 in a nutshell:
Part of the problem with evaluating the San Francisco 49ers is that it does not feel fair. In the end, they thrust a first-time NFL head coach into a position where he lost a handful of his best players in their prime to retirement, and watched as the team's franchise quarterback buckled without the support and guidance of Jim Harbaugh. Jim Tomsula is a great person and a great position coach. He toiled a long time in the league and probably should have been a defensive coordinator half a decade ago. But the 49ers, after deciding to back away from a very public battle with an excellent head coach, came to the conclusion that this was an acceptable alternative. The fact that the team will not end up with the No. 1 pick in May's NFL Draft is a miracle, and speaks to how much Tomsula, Eric Mangini, Tony Sparano and Geep Chryst put into their game plan week in and week out.
What went right
Rookie Arik Armstead had a nice season. The lengthy pass rusher from Oregon only had a pair of sacks to his name but a laundry list of pressures and quarterback hits. Ian Williams also had a good year and shined in the trenches. Sadly, despite his desires to stay in San Francisco, he may be plucked elsewhere thanks to a cash-rich free agency class and a need for stellar play against the run. Blaine Gabbert showed the franchise that he could hold the fort down if Trent Baalke and the 49ers decide to draft a rookie quarterback this season and deal Colin Kaepernick, which may have been the biggest surprise of all. Again, credit goes to Chryst in part for making this work on the fly.
What went wrong
Vernon Davis was traded. Anthony Davis, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Chris Borland retired. Frank Gore left in free agency. Antoine Bethea, Colin Kaepernick, Reggie Bush, Alex Boone, Carlos Hyde and Garrett Celek all ended up on injured reserve. Tomsula is lucky a guy like linebacker NaVorro Bowman came back and played as well as he did. Bowman suffered a horrific injury not too long ago but was a field general during a bleak time in 49ers history. He will always resemble the remaining talent on a roster once embarrassingly rich with prospects. To say that San Francisco was snakebitten would be taking it easy. This was a franchise that seemingly endured some sort of cosmic punishment that goes far beyond a few untimely injuries. This does not look like a quick rebuild at some positions, while others -- the safety spot -- look promising.
Offseason Crystal Ball:
The 49ers may opt to make a change at head coach. If the losing continues, it will not be healthy for someone like Tomsula to run a staff full of former NFL head coaches. That could get ugly fast. However, does a new coach want to walk into an atmosphere where the general manager feels comfortable hopping in during practice to coach up his young talent? This offseason will test Baalke, who not only needs to make a call on Kaepernick and maximize potential trade value, but needs to hit a home run with what looks like a top-5 pick in a deep draft.
Team needs and draft:
Owner Jed York could kick start the fan base with the selection of a new franchise quarterback. That could be the reset button everyone needs for a year or two. But if Gabbert or Kaepernick are in play, San Francisco should focus on building up their offensive line and front seven on defense. This draft could be kind to those looking for help at linebacker early.