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49ers make modest climb in ESPN’s future power rankings

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The 49ers quarterback position will dictate much of what happens over the next three years, but there are other areas of note.

The San Francisco 49ers made significant changes this offseason, changing out their coaching staff and key figures in their front office. There is optimism surrounding the team, but the long-term implications of this offseason are still fairly unpredictable.

On Monday, ESPN posted their annual future power rankings. ESPN analysts Louis Riddick, Mike Sando, and Field Yates look at each NFL team through several lenses, and rank them based on how they’ll look over the course of the next three years. They rate each team on a scale of 0-100 in five categories: roster (excluding quarterback), quarterback, draft, front office, and coaching. They average those results and weight them to come up with a final score. The weighting is roster (30 percent), quarterback (20 percent), draft (15 percent), front office (15 percent) and coaching (20 percent).

This year, the 49ers have moved back up a spot, now ahead of the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. In the five categories considered, the 49ers rank as follows:

Roster: 30
QB: 29
Coaching: 16
Draft: 19
Front office: t-21

ESPN’s analysts looked at why each team is ranked where they are, what the biggest worry is, and what could change for the better.

Why they're here: How does a team crater from first in our 2013 Future Power Rankings to 30th now? There's a litany of reasons, but organizational stability has been a critical issue since that time. Jim Harbaugh was ousted as head coach after the 2014 season. Since that time, San Francisco has hired three new head coaches and replaced GM Trent Baalke. With John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan now in control, organizational harmony is atop the list of keys to success. -- Field Yates

There’s nothing too surprising here at this point. Although, I can’t imagine many people coming off the Super Bowl appearance would have thought things would go as badly as they did. After the Super Bowl loss, the 49ers ranked No. 1. In 2014, a decrease in their QB rating dropped the 49ers from No. 1 to No. 3. In 2015, following a bad season and the departure of Jim Harbaugh and a host of talented players, the 49ers plummeted to No. 22. Last year, they dropped to No. 31, ahead of only the Cleveland Browns.

Did they bottom out in 2015 and 2016, and this is the start of a real upswing? It’s hard to tell, but with a new coach and GM handling things, we’re at least hopeful.

Biggest worry: Shanahan and Lynch appear to be hitting on all cylinders in their rookie season together, but until they get the QB they want, it is all just setting the table, like with any team. Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley are quality backups, and I don't see 2017 third-round pick C.J. Beathard as a starter in the league. I like how this team is being built, but QB remains a major concern. -- Louis Riddick

For the three-year look-ahead, the quarterback position is a worry. The 49ers are in a position where they might sign Kirk Cousins, or if things go badly this year, they would be in position to draft one of the quarterbacks in next year’s potentially stacked class. However, there is no guarantee Cousins will be a 49er in 2018 or beyond, and there is no guarantee next year’s class will in fact pan out.

For the purposes of looking ahead three years, the 49ers are in the midst of a serious gamble. Of course, every team without a clear answer at quarterback faces that same problem. And in some ways, I would argue the 49ers are in a better position. For example, the Chicago Bears invested big in Mike Glennon, and then traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky. Maybe one works out, but they’ve invested a lot with plenty of question marks remaining. For the 49ers, Brian Hoyer is not the long-term answer, and nobody is pretending otherwise. They can focus on developing Beathard and seeing what 2018 brings in the market.

What could change for the better: Add the 49ers to the list of weak teams with a realistic shot at drafting one of the highly regarded QB prospects in 2018. San Francisco ranks only 29th in QB outlook. That's understandable as long as guys like Hoyer figure prominently into the equation. Big QB changes are coming in the next year or so, however. The outlook will improve. -- Mike Sando

A change in the quarterback position is one big way things could change for the better. But I would contend the development of the defense could be a big change. This defense has a long way to go to get anywhere near what the 49ers were able to do in 2011 and 2012. And yet, if the heavy investment on that side of the ball pays out, the 49ers could be in a position where they need a good not great option at quarterback. You can’t win a Super Bowl with a quarterback who takes things off the table, but with a great defense, there is at least a little bit less pressure in finding a serious franchise cornerstone at the quarterback position.