Every year, with the release of the Football Outsiders Almanac, the folks at FO puts together a ranking of teams over at ESPN based on how their talent is under the age of 25. The idea being that teams with a strong base of young talent have a chance to build something special for the long-term, rather than just be back in the re-building cycle.
In assessing these rankings, FO tries to balance performance with potential. It is never easy measuring potential, so we certainly this with a grain of salt. But it is one more way to look at the young talent on any given roster. They use the following criteria in their assessment:
The number of games started by players under the age of 25 in 2014
The number of snaps played by U25 players in 2014
Whether a team's young starters last season were simply injury replacements
The number of U25 first-team All-Pros and Pro Bowlers a team has on its roster (All-Pros were given more weight than Pro Bowls)
Positional value (young quarterbacks and positions impacting the passing game carry more weight; backup running backs and kickers are devalued)
The amount of value a team added in the 2015 draft, with a focus on the first two rounds (premium picks)
The expected number of key starters and reserves under the age of 25 in 2015
A team's recent track record of developing and retaining young talent
Players with significant injury or suspension issues in 2015 are downgraded
Naturally, this year's ranking of under-25 talent has the San Francisco 49ers taking a hit. A year ago they ranked the 49ers No. 14, with their commentary referencing Aldon Smith, Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, Anthony Davis, Vance McDonald, Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Martin. That alone shows the unpredictability of these rankings considering Davis is retired and they did not even make mention of Chris Borland.
This year, they rank the 49ers No. 25.
The 49ers' stunning offseason has led to quite a few job openings, and San Francisco is not devoid of young talent. It's just a group of largely unproven players who will have to step up for rookie head coach Jim Tomsula. Marcus Martin struggled at center as a rookie, ranking 28th at his position in snaps per blown block. Brandon Thomas has yet to play in the regular season, but he could start at left guard this year. Carlos Hyde will take over for Frank Gore, but he didn't show a lot last season. Bruce Ellington had two touchdowns on 12 targets as a rookie, but he'll be expected to do much more as a No. 3 wide receiver.
The 49ers' linebacker corps will greatly miss Chris Borland, who stood out as a rookie before retiring this offseason at age 24. Linebacker Aaron Lynch seemed to have surpassed Ahmad Brooks on the depth chart even before Brooks' recent legal troubles. First-rounder Arik Armstead has a great shot to step in immediately to replace the retired Justin Smith.
San Francisco added safety Jaquiski Tartt in the second round, but that's more of a future replacement for Antoine Bethea, who is still expected to start and limit Jimmie Ward's snaps. That's why we downgraded the 49ers a bit for having too many safeties and not enough ways to use them all this year. Eric Reid is the Pro Bowler of the group, but his stops -- plays that prevent the offense from having a successful play based on down and distance -- dropped from 29 as a rookie to 14 last year.
The 49ers analysis reveals that national folks have some idea of what's going on, but also are missing on a lot of the nitty gritty. Part of that is likely due to this probably being written up mostly before training camp got into full swing. At this point, Alex Boone is playing left guard and Marcus Martin is playing right guard. That could change of course, but that's the case for now.
It seems unlikely Armstead is going to step right in to replace Justin Smith. I suppose given the departures of Smith and Ray McDonald, it did open the door for a quick opportunity, but given his raw nature, I don't think anybody saw Armstead moving right into the starting lineup. That being said, he is off to a strong start this preseason, and could get some opportunities sooner rather than later.
You can check out the 49ers full roster here, which allows you to sort it by age. Armstead is the youngest at 20, with Eli Harold, Marcus Martin and Bradley Pinion all listed at 21. Considering what they are hoping to get out of that group, that's a potentially strong contingent at the bottom of the age bracket.
But FO does make a good point, and it's one we've hit on a lot here. There is a lot of unproven talent on this roster. There is plenty of upside, but with unproven talent, there is always the potential they will not hit on in fact hit on said potential. That's why this year is such a big question for the 49ers. There are folks that say the team will do really well or do really poorly. In reality, I don't see it as a simple undertaking to predict how the 49ers will perform. There are a lot of questions and a lot of potential answers. Whether they eventually match up makes this one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory.
For those wondering about the rest of the division, they rank the St. Louis Rams No. 3, a year after having them No. 1. They rank the Arizona Cardinals No. 19, a year after they were No. 6. Finally, they rank the Seattle Seahawks No. 32, a year after they were also 32.