The San Francisco 49ers head into the 2017 season with a fairly rigorous schedule. They finished in last place, but even some of the “bad teams” they are facing will likely be better than expected. The Carolina Panthers are a perfect example. They regressed badly, but it’s likely they will take a sizable step back into contention in 2017.
Gil Brandt recently ranked out his top ten most talented teams, and it was topped by some of the usual suspects. The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers were on top, followed by the Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders, and Dallas Cowboys. Some teams that just missed the top ten included the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, and Seattle Seahawks.
In that top ten, the 49ers have four teams on their schedule. They face the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, and Washington. Add in the Seahawks, Texans, and Jaguars on the “also considered” list, and that could be quite the list of talented teams on the 49ers docket.
Who is “most talented” is not exactly a clear indicator of who will win the most games. After all, the Jaguars have been listed as offseason winners for most of the past five years, and they regularly come up short. Is this the year they finally get things moving consistently in the right direction? Talent is important, but over the years, plenty of teams that have added a lot of talent have come up short when it comes to execution.
The 49ers have made an overhaul of their own, but we won’t see them on “most talented” lists to start this year. I am curious to see what the defense looks like by the time this season ends. If things come together with the additions they’ve made, there is a chance this defensive unit could go from awful to maybe middle of the pack by season’s end.
That will require quite a few things coming together, but there is some intriguing talent. Up front, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas have tons of upside. The 49ers will need to figure out how they want to use them to maximize that talent. In the middle, if Reuben Foster is healthy and NaVorro Bowman is fully healthy all season, that linebacker corp could be a solid unit. On the back side, Rashard Robinson and another corner still to be determined could be an intriguing pairing. But Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid at the safety positions has a chance to be the game-changing unit the 49ers will need on the back-end of their defense.
That assessment obviously involves quite a bit of optimism, but this defense at least has the potential to take a big step forward this season. Scheming and talent optimization are critical, but there are at least some reasons for optimism. And in late May, as OTAs are in full swing, that’s about what to expect for a team with a new head coach and GM!