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Football Outsiders Q&A: A 2016 49ers preview

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Football Outsiders does not expect big things from the 49ers in 2016, although that probably is not a surprise. We talked about the 49ers with Scott Kacsmar.

The San Francisco 49ers kick off their 2016 preseason later today as they face the Houston Texans. Before we start to begin to get some answers, I thought I’d share some information from our friends at Football Outsiders. The 2016 Almanac is on sale now, and we recently had a chance to chat with FO about the 49ers. Scott Kacsmar answered a few questions I had about the team, and how Football Outsiders assesses them heading into the 2016 season. Thanks to Scott for taking a few minutes to talk 49ers.

Niners Nation: How does Football Outsiders factor in a change in coach when considering the various projections? And really, how does FO factor in the change to the entire coaching staff, particularly when the head coach is so focused on the offensive side of the ball?

Football Outsiders: The addition of a new head coach -- one that's an actual change and not a sham of a promotion like Jim Tomsula -- is definitely a significant factor that has to be accounted for. When you look at surprise playoff teams, the presence of a new coach (often combined with a new quarterback) is usually one of the leading causes of that quick turnaround.

As for how we account for this, here is what Aaron Schatz, the brains behind the projections, had to say:

"We project offense and defense separately, and each side of the ball has a variable for coaching changes/coach experience. Essentially, it's measuring whether the team has to learn a new system. On the offensive side of the ball, it's binary: either there's a new head coach and offensive coordinator, or there isn't. On the defensive side of the ball, the projection gets a little better as the team has been using the same defensive system for two years, three years, and four years (which is the maximum). We don't have any element right now that accounts for whether the head coach is considered an offensive or defensive mind.

One thing that people have to remember about a large-scale forecast system is that it is concentrated on "macro" changes rather than "micro" changes. It looks for things that can be easily measured, and it looks for things that have happened frequently to teams throughout the last dozen years. We can't include a factor unless it's strong enough to have statistical significance. Fans often ask us about why we haven't accounted for certain issues that are specific to their team... and the reason is that those issues are specific to their team. That's not what our forecast system does. That's why forecasts come out with a range of possibilities, and why we write each year about teams where we may think our stat forecast is too optimistic or pessimistic for our own subjective reasons.

And so, we don't consider "changing the whole coaching staff." We simplify it by considering the head coach and the two coordinators, and that's all. And we consider whether the system is a continuation of what came before even if there is a change (for example, we don't penalize the Giants and Buccaneers this year for new HC/OCs because they promoted their OCs to HC).

NN: We hear how Colin Kaepernick could be a strong fit for Chip Kelly’s offense because of his mobility. However, is he that strong a fit when accuracy and decision-making seem to be important for Kelly? And isn’t Gabbert’s own mobility underrated, at least compared to a QB like Sam Bradford last year?

FO: Yeah, it's a bit funny to hear Kelly stress "repetitive accuracy" from his quarterbacks when he has been stuck with Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford. He even gave Tim Tebow a shot last preseason. Throw in these two and it's one of the least accurate groups of passers you could find in today's NFL. But the system has helped these quarterbacks get better at completing passes. Whether or not they were actually leading an effective offense is up for debate outside of Foles in 2013, but Kelly should definitely help both quarterbacks raise their completion percentage.

My fear with Gabbert is that a lot of those quick decisions are going to end up being 2-yard throws on first-and-10, setting the offense back in the down and distance. We coined the ALEX stat (Air Less EXpected, which measures how deep a quarterback throws compared to how many yards he needs for a first down) for Alex Smith, but Gabbert really is the king of throwing short of the sticks. Quarterbacks that do that a lot hurt their offenses. Gabbert's mobility is not poor, but it's hard to see many designed runs in his future. In Jacksonville, Gabbert never had a run longer than 12 yards. We saw the same thing last year except for that 44-yard touchdown run against Chicago when the safety took a horrible angle and Gabbert juked him. Consider that an outlier. He can run for some first downs, but it is nowhere near the threat of what Kaepernick brings in mobility and what he could do with the read-option. I still think Kaepernick is one of the most gifted runners to ever play quarterback, and would love to see what he could do with Kelly. I just think it's going to be really hard for either quarterback to accomplish much with such a limited group of skill players around them.

NN: Injuries to Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush resulted in the 49ers signing Shaun Draughn and later DuJuan Harris. Both veterans made some contributions, while Mike Davis put together some awful numbers in limited snaps. Given Carlos Hyde’s foot injury last year, what can we make of the 49ers backup running backs heading into this season?

FO: You would like to see Hyde get at least 250, if not 300 carries in this offense, but contributions from the backups are still important. Hyde's lack of receiving production could also take some snaps away from him, and that's where I think Shaun Draughn can fill in nicely. Draughn won't hit any home runs -- his longest NFL carry is 30 yards and his longest reception is 26 yards -- but he showed he could handle a decent workload last year. It was only 35 carries, but Davis' numbers were historically bad last season. He is the first back since 1978 to average fewer than 1.7 yards per carry (minimum 30 carries). I wouldn't write him off after one season, but the prospects are not looking good. This is not one of the more talented backfields, but the expectations should be for Hyde to be a workhorse the way Frank Gore was for so long.

NN: The 49ers defense took a nose dive last year after losing significant snaps. The defense returns most of that group, with potential upgrades at a few positions. What do we make of that unit with DeForest Buckner added in, Jimmie Ward moving to the outside cornerback role, and Jaquiski Tartt giving them a hybrid S/LB player for their nickel and dime packages?

FO: I'm probably higher than most on this defense, but I think the potential is there to at least climb back to the middle of the pack this season. A lot of the problems last season were early in the year against some really potent attacks like the Steelers, Cardinals, and Giants. If we can assume better health with Chip Kelly's sports science work, along with the additions in recent drafts and new coordinator, then this unit should be improved. I like the back-to-back picks of Oregon defensive ends to fill out the defensive line, and Ian Williams had a breakout year at nose tackle. The linebackers are solid, though it's disappointing to see Aaron Lynch get a four-game suspension. He is a great candidate for increased sacks after having a lot of hurries last season. The pass-rush ability is there, he just needs to finish more plays. The secondary is still the concern, but if they can get more pressure with an attacking front seven, then that should help the guys in coverage.

NN: Expectations are low for the 49ers. What will it take for the 49ers to reach the 16% for playoff contender?

FO: Carson Palmer's play falls off a cliff, Russell Wilson tears his ACL in September, and Jeff Fisher keeps coaching the Rams to 7-9. Even then it would take some big upsets to get the 49ers enough wins to qualify for the playoffs.

The mass exodus of talent from the Jim Harbaugh era always meant this was going to take multiple years to rebuild. We like Torrey Smith to have a career year, and it's nice to see NaVorro Bowman back healthy. The potential of Carlos Hyde in a shotgun-heavy offense is intriguing, and the recent first-round picks should gain valuable experience in the trenches this year. But this is far from a playoff team, and I think trying to resurrect Blaine Gabbert's career instead of giving Colin Kaepernick another shot would be the biggest mistake this team can make in 2016.