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Football Outsiders predicts modest improvement, brutal schedule for 49ers in 2017

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An interesting assessment of strength of schedule. It might not be pretty.

The San Francisco 49ers hopefully hit rock bottom last season, finishing 2-14 and earning the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. They have a lot of work to do to try and get back to the playoffs one of these days, but in 2017, I think most of us will be looking for baby-steps of improvement.

We are likely to see some measure of improvement, but how much is tough to say. This week, Football Outsiders put together their early 2017 projections. They figure out a mean wins projection, which comes from running the numbers X amount of times and figuring out a host of results. They figure out a range of results.

For the San Francisco 49ers, the mean wins was 5.2. That was the lowest mean wins projection across the entire league, just behind the Cleveland Browns at 5.4. This does not mean they are projecting the 49ers to win 5.2 games, or even finish with the worst record in the league. Rather, it provides probabilities of certain results. When FO releases their annual Almanac this summer, it will include the various probabilities.

The NFC West mean wins have the Seattle Seahawks up top (11.2), followed by the Arizona Cardinals (9.7), and Los Angeles Rams (8.1), with the 49ers bringing up the rear. The Rams are projected as one of the big potential improving teams in 2017.

Here’s what FO had to say about the NFC West

As a writer who uses stats to analyze a sport that's tough to analyze with stats, I try to follow two rules: run the numbers unadulterated; and don't be a slave to them. So I don't mind saying that our projection system seems far too optimistic about a rebound performance from the 38-year-old Carson Palmer. That being said, last season's Cardinals were not a bad team, just an average one held back in part by a terrible special-teams performance that is unlikely to be repeated.

The Rams have been trying to compete with a defense and special-teams orientation for years now, but hiring Wade Phillips could finally make that recipe work. Every team that has ever hired Phillips as a head coach or defensive coordinator saw its defensive DVOA improve, including the Broncos, who went from fourth in the league in 2014 to one of the greatest defenses ever in 2015. Phillips' scheme will likely have a similar effect in Los Angeles, where the defense was already loaded with talent in the front seven. If the offense can be garden-variety bad instead of last year's near-historic impotence, it's enough to make the Rams playoff contenders.

The top and bottom of this division are easier to forecast than the middle. The return of Earl Thomas should help the Seattle defense rebound from its December implosion, and that makes the Seahawks the favorites in the NFC, once again. Like Cleveland, there's a good chance San Francisco will improve over last season but very little chance the 49ers will improve to 8-8 or better.

What I found particularly interesting in their projections was the 49ers strength of schedule. At the end of each season, once all 16 opponents are known, we hear about the strength of schedule for each team. In January, the 49ers were ranked No. 14 in strength of schedule. That is based on 2016 performance, so it is not the best measure for looking ahead.

FO put together their SOS based on an average projected DVOA of next season's 16 opponents. Under that projection, the 49ers SOS settled at third most difficult. Dallas and Washington had the two most difficult schedules. The rest of the NFC were all in the 20s (Seahawks: 21, Cardinals: 24, Rams: 20).

The 49ers SOS difficulty seems to come in large part courtesy of improved projections for the Cardinals and Rams. We also see a big improvement from the Jaguars (3-13 last year to 7.5 mean wins this year), Bears (3-13 to 7.0), and Panthers (6-10 to 9.3). They more than offset declines for the New York Giants and AFC South teams aside from the Jaguars.