The kickoff of the 2017 NFL season is officially 99 days away, and that means we get a variety of countdowns mixing in the 99 theme. ESPN jumped in on the action with a list of 99 people who will shape the upcoming season. It is no surprise that Kyle Shanahan made an appearance on the list.
ESPN broke the list up into different categories, looking at stars returning from injuries, culture-changers, players in a contract year, stars who need help, names in the MVP race, off-field game changers, and a host of other categories. Shanahan showed up in the culture-changer list, and ESPN had this to say about him:
Yes, he still needs to find his long-term answer at quarterback. But a six-year deal buys him lots of time, and it's encouraging to see Shanahan, known as an offense-minded coach, so interested in building up the defensive side of the ball first.
This is certainly the easy inclusion, although I would argue incomplete in some ways. The 49ers are rebuilding everything, and you could argue that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are tied together at the hip. It would make sense to include both together on any of these lists until the team hits the field. We don’t know exactly how this will all shake out, but they’re in this thing together more than arguably any coach/GM in the league.
It is not surprising that no other 49ers show up on the list. The team is rebuilding, and while they could take some important steps forward this season, it is unlikely they will make a big impact on the rest of the league. That being said, they have a lot of work in front of them in 2017 if they want to get this rebuilding moving in the right direction.
With that in mind, here are six people that will be important in 2017 as we start to consider the bigger picture
DC Robert Saleh
The 49ers are attempting to implement a version of the Seattle Seahawks defensive philosophy. Kyle Shanahan is the guy in charge of everything, but given his offensive background, the 49ers head coach will likely be turning much of the defense over to his defensive assistants. Robert Saleh could have as important a role as any defensive coordinator in the NFL. He’s not the only one who will have a big say on the defense, but coupled with a first year head coach and drastic changes to the roster, he’s going to have a lot on his plate.
FS Jimmie Ward
There is plenty to consider in the new look defense, but the free safety role is generally viewed as the most important. Earl Thomas has been critical to the Seahawks defensive success, and the 49ers will be looking to Jimmie Ward to fill that role. Ward played safety in college, but has played exclusively cornerback his first three seasons in the NFL. His transition at safety is the biggest thing to watch this season on the defensive side of the ball.
DL Arik Armstead/Aaron Lynch
The 49ers pass rush has lacked consistency for the past three years, and Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch could be critical this season. Both are competing for the LEO role in the base defense. The 49ers will spend more time in their nickel and other sub-packages, in which Armstead would likely line up at a tackle role, while Lynch is more likely to play an end role. Regardless, if the 49ers’ pass rush takes a big step forward in 2017, it will be because both of these guys emerge as strong pass rush options. Jimmie Ward is critical on the back end of the defense, but these two could be pivotal for the front of the pass rusher defense.
OL coach John Benton
The offensive line started to attempt to work in some zone blocking under Chip Kelly, but they will go full bore under Kyle Shanahan’s coaching staff. During Shanahan’s time in Cleveland, and then again in Atlanta, the teams’ greatest successes came with strong offensive lines. Alex Mack was the key for both teams, but for the 49ers, it’s a broader project. The 49ers brought in some veterans to compete with returning players, and Benton’s work with the unit will be critical on offense.
RB coach Bobby Turner
Shanahan and Turner go way back, and have worked some magic with a variety of under-the-radar running backs. Carlos Hyde is atop the depth chart, but the team brought in some significant competition. Regardless of who emerges on top, we’ll get to see what kind of magic Turner and Shanahan can spin at the running back position. And with Hyde hitting free agency after this season, what gets done in 2017 will give us some ideas of the plans for 2018.
LB Reuben Foster
There are a host of positions we could have considered for this spot, with quarerback being an easy choice. However, in terms of shaping 2017 in the context of the broader rebuilding process, Reuben Foster is the guy. He is expected to be ready for training camp, and if he is completely healthy for the start of the season, he could make a serious impact on the roster. Part of it is just his pure talent, and part of it is setting up the linebacker position and potentially bumping one of the veterans aside. Foster’s play in 2017 doesn’t make or break the future, but a strong season right out of the gates would have quite the impact.