Pro Football Focus has a working relationship with ESPN that results in various rankings and analysis for the World Wide Leader. This week, they posted a 1-32 ranking of the various NFL rosters. It is no surprise the San Francisco 49ers finished poorly in the rankings. The team ended up ranking No. 32. I was a little surprised they were not at least a couple spots higher, but I imagine a lot of people would rate them fairly low.
To determine the team-by-team rankings, PFF took the past two years of data and averaged out the grades for each roster, giving the 2015 season more weight. They then, "added a closer evaluation for added context, which allowed us, for example, to reward teams that have an excellent quarterback situation but a relative hole along the defensive line when it came to run defense."
I disagree with some of PFF's assessments, but they do also raise some important issues. Like any player grading, there is a subjective element to it. I think most of us would agree that the 49ers roster has a lot of weaknesses. PFF opened each team section listing the top five players, and then a handful of starters who should be upgraded. The 49ers top five starters were:
- Joe Staley, OT
- NaVorro Bowman, ILB
- Ian Williams, DT
- Arik Armstead, DE
- Aaron Lynch, OLB
The starters who needed to be upgraded were:
- Ahmad Brooks, OLB
- Erik Pears, OT
- Daniel Kilgore, C
- Blaine Gabbert, QB
- Michael Wilhoite, ILB
- Quinton Patton, WR
Their grading is clearly not high on Kilgore, but with a full offseason under his belt, I think the 49ers will be fine with him at center. My bigger concern is that he stay healthy, but if he can, I think the 49ers will have an average-to-above-average center at their disposal.
From that list of starters who should be upgraded, we can say there is a decent chance some of them will not be starting when Week 1 arrives. Michael Wilhoite is competing with Gerald Hodges for the starting ILB job next to NaVorro Bowman. Wilhoite is a capable option, but he has a fairly limited ceiling. Whether Hodges can surpass that remains to be seen, but there is a very real chance Hodges is starting this fall.
Quinton Patton is getting first team work at wide receiver, but there are a lot of options competing for snaps. For basic wide receiver work, DeAndre Smelter and Eric Rogers will likely be the most significant options for WR2 work. Bruce Ellington could get more touches than all of them this season if the 49ers use his versatility. Patton is getting his most significant opportunity this season, but that spot opposite Torrey Smith has as many questions (meaning upside AND downside) as any on the 49ers roster.
Erik Pears is currently getting first string work at offensive tackle, with Trent Brown working on the second unit. Fahn Cooper and John Theus have been getting work, with Cooper in particular impressing some of the beat writers. There's also Anthony Davis further down the radar, but as always, I'm just assuming he won't return until he actually files his paperwork. But all this is to say that Pears is certainly not a lock to start at right tackle.
PFF included some analysis for each team. Here is what they had to say about the 49ers roster:
The 49ers aren't far removed from having one of the league's best rosters. They were once being complimented for being so loaded that they could essentially draft "redshirt" prospects like running back Marcus Lattimore. That depth -- and talent -- unraveled in a hurry and has not been helped by a series of retirements by some of their best players. DeForest Buckner has the potential to make an immediate impact and turn around the defensive front, but he's only a rookie. The rest of the defense is in turmoil, too, with Bowman the only tried and tested performer. He was far from good a year ago despite racking up tackle numbers.
The offensive line, once the bedrock of the offense, is now really just Staley and a collection of below-average starters. Rookie Josh Garnett could add some quality eventually. At quarterback, Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick will battle, which speaks for itself as to how far the 49ers have fallen.
The red shirt strategy left the team struggling after the string of retirements and free agency departures. The team is slowly working their way back from that hole. They could still get value from recent red shirts, but more importantly, they've added some potential impact players this year. The rankings likely do not factor in the rookies since they have no NFL grades, but there is plenty of the rest of the roster to consider.