The 2014 NFL season is only a couple weeks away. Earlier this month, Football Outsiders published their 2014 Almanac, and they were kind enough to sit down with us and discuss some of the issues they raised with regard to the 49ers. Different writers handled the interviews with each SB Nation NFL site, and we are fortunate enough to get the founder of the site, Aaron Schatz. We discussed Kap's development, how to consider new, young talent, where Frank Gore is headed, and more. Thanks to Aaron for taking a few minutes to answer our questions.
Niners Nation: There is a lot of talk about the 49ers aging defensive front. Given the pending debut of Tank Carradine, and OLB Corey Lemonier's solid rookie season, can the 49ers expect help resting guys like Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks? How much does developing talent factor into a lot of these projections?
Football Outsiders: It's not easy to figure out the best way to measure developing talent in projections like these. A lot of the projections are based on large-scale trends that sort of reflect how teams develop talent in general rather than what we specifically what we know about specific players. It's not like we can go in, scout, judge all 30 starters and important sub package players, and throw them all into a huge multivariable regression for every team over ten years. Although that would be pretty neat if it would work. However, what we do know is that Aldon Smith has been really, really good. Losing a pass rusher at that level is usually a bad thing for your defense.
Sometimes the backups can make up the difference, or at least some of it, because they are very talented. Are Carradine and Lemonier? Anyone who says that they know for sure is fooling themselves. But golly, it's better to have a couple of young talented pass rushers than to not have a couple of young talented pass rushers. Try asking your friends who are Atlanta fans about this. Or Chicago fans, although at least the Bears have talented pass rushers, just not young ones.
NN: The biggest cliche now is that Father Time will never catch Frank Gore. And yet, while he reached 1,000 yards once again, his YPC was the lowest of his career. Will Carlos Hyde (and potentially Marcus Lattimore) finally put the 49ers in a position to begin the transition away from Gore?
FO: I don't want to be rude but whose stupid cliche is that? Father Time catches everyone. It will even catch Peyton Manning, although he might be 60 when it does. I ran our similarity scores for Gore, and the most similar three-year spans were Earnest Byner 90-92, Jamal Lewis 06-08, Warrick Dunn 04-06 (probably should just be dismissed because the body types are so different), Emmitt Smith 98-00, Thomas Jones 06-08, and Michael Turner 10-12. Byner had a few years left as a part-timer. Lewis had one year left. Thomas Jones had one very nice year, then the two KC years. Smith had that long tail of his career in Arizona. Turner was done. I don't see any reason to think Gore isn't about to hit the decline, now or in 2015.
So yeah, it's sure nice to have Hyde and Lattimore around. Hyde had a surprisingly pedestrian Speed Score of 97.5, but that's not a bad score, just an average one, and I've seen the scouting reports and know how high everyone is on the guy. And Lattimore was awesome in college, I really hope he can get healthy because I hate to see a kid like that never get to live his dream.
The bigger problem for the running game is that the run blocking fell apart last year. The 49ers fell from first to 29th in our Adjusted Line Yards stat. And they were something like 20th if you look at just the second half of 2012. They had two months of absurdly amazing run blocking in September and October of 2012 and have been below average ever since. And they were 28th converting short-yardage runs last season.
NN: There is concern about the 49ers secondary, but how much of that is about removing known entities, as opposed to really knowing whether or not the replacements are good enough?
FO: It's a combination of both along with knowing that a couple of the replacements are probably very much not good enough.
The safeties aren't really a thing. We've never specifically tried to research secondary continuity the way we have offensive line continuity, but I've never seen evidence that secondary continuity is important, so I don't think swapping out Whitner for Bethea means anything. Bethea may even be a little better, because he's a little more versatile as opposed to being strictly a hard hitter. Reid should be better with a year of experience.
Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown were good players. Not as good as Rogers looked a couple years ago when he had that somewhat fluky high interception total, but good. So the replacements, you start with Tramaine Brock. Very good year, but that's one year and it was in a part-time role. Chris Culliver has also been pretty good, but again, always in a part-time role, so you don't quite know if he can be that good as a starter. (Although he generally played outside when he came in for the nickel with Rogers going inside, so it isn't a case of having to now do something he hasn't done before.)
But I'm sorry, you can feel good about those two but not the guys who come after. Perrish Cox has bounced from team to team and the one time he was playing a regular role, well, if you mention him to any friends who are Denver fans they will start to stab themselves in the face. And Chris Cook was terrible in Minnesota last year. He ranked 82nd out of 87 ranked cornerbacks in Adjusted Yards allowed per Pass, and 85th in Adjusted Success Rate. There was also a really strange stat thing going on where he was second behind Darrelle Revis in our Target Rate stat. I have no idea what was going on there. Minnesota opponents kept throwing at Xavier Rhodes instead even though Rhodes was so much better than Cook or Josh Robinson, or they would throw at Marcus Sherels when he was on the field, plus we listed Robert Blanton with more targets than almost any other strong safety. Weird.
Fooch's Update: Aaron provided an update to this question on the secondary - ""I totally forgot Jimmie Ward. Whatever I was looking at had him listed at safety. We generally know that when it comes to highly-drafted cornerbacks, rookie expectations are almost always far greater than what ends up being reality. But that's always generally been an issue with guys playing outside, I don't know whether it says anything about the ability to play nickel as a rookie. Mathieu looked good last year, although you can't take anything from one example. Anyway, the better point may not be that the third and fourth cornerbacks suck but rather than the fourth and fifth cornerbacks suck and the third may not be quite as good as fans are expecting."
NN: Vernon Davis returned from his holdout, but Alex Boone remains away, with no signs of a return. Joe Looney basically has one game of NFL experience under his belt. What do they need from Looney to potentially replace Boone for the season?
FO: Honestly, this isn't really a question that fits our area of expertise. It's really a purely scouting-related question. I could toss it at Ben Muth if the 49ers were one of the teams he covered last year, but they were not. However, I will note Looney was probably the last cut off the Top 25 Prospects Honorable Mention list. So, whoops.
NN: In what area(s) does Colin Kaepernick need to improve to take the next step as a quarterback?
FO: Basically, he needs to get better as a pocket passer to improve on the plays when he's not on the run and to solidify his game for when he gets older. Improved accuracy, better read progressions. Though honestly I don't know if Kaepernick's concentration on just a couple of receivers is about his ability to progress through reads or if that's just Harbaugh's offense. And the 49ers didn't really do well with really deep passes last year -- but again, I'm not sure how much that's Kaepernick and how much is the receivers he was given. Honestly, it's hard to criticize the guy's game too much. This is pretty good for three years in the league and only a year and a half as the starter, especially when you consider how run-focused the offense is and how much less they run three-wide and four-wide compared to the rest of the league, plus the quality of defenses on the 49ers' schedule. "He's not Aaron Rodgers yet" points out that the guy has areas to improve, but it isn't really a serious criticism.