Looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. Can the 49ers avoid a new dark age?

After a the worst offseason in team history, 49er fans can only believe in optimism that the team will shock the world. After the smoke cleared, we discovered that the surroundings are even darker than the clouds.

The team is 2-5 and ranked last (32nd) in offensive yards per game, 28th in points scored, 30th in yards allowed by defense, and 19th in points allowed.

To top it off, the front office doesn’t want to make any quality moves to get talent and is more interested in acquiring bodies. It is partially due to Baalke’s belief that he can turn underperformers like Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner into pro-bowl caliber players. So far, only Antoine Bethea has experienced a recovered career in the bay area.

But Antoine Bethea was a top quality talent just looking to make a rebound. Erik Pears and Jordan Devey have never been in consideration of being a pro bowl lineman. In case you didn’t know or forgot, Devey and Erik Pears were both left guards that ranked as the worst and second worst rated guards last year. Jordan Devey was poor in protection of Tom Brady and even he was able to make Brady look bad while starting in the Patriots.

So, the Niners are who we thought they are. What do we do now?

Every team goes through this rebuilding stage. Some manage to get out of it for a year or two. Then head right back down the following year (Miami, New York Jets, Houston). Some manage to fully rebound and become a contender almost every year (New Orleans, Carolina, Atlanta).

The key between either is simple. Some teams just got the right role players to play at a high level for a few seasons and lose them to better teams or better contracts or the level of play declined. Other teams built around a cornerstone player.

We need to build around a cornerstone player. 

It’s arguable that the 49ers possess a cornerstone player to build around. But that’s the key, you have to build around that player.

If you believe that the cornerstone player is on offense, then our picks and free agent pickups must be on the offensive side to compliment that player.

However, Trent Baalke took the team’s first three picks and drafted defense, defense, and defense.

Perhaps, Baalke was building around Aldon Smith. He drafted a prototype defensive lineman named Arik Armstead who should lineup next to Smith if Aldon did not get released after another arrest. Now, that possible cornerstone is Aaron Lynch. But the 49ers did not fully build around him either, The 49ers drafted players after Arik Armstead that did not compliment a pass rush that relies on spot-on coverage to give Aldon or Aaron Lynch enough time to get to the quarterback. Jaquiski Tartt is a bone-breaking safety against the run and makes receivers pay up the middle. However, his play only affects the play after the ball is out of the quarterback’s hands. Eli Harold is only there to spell Aaron Lynch on the other side.

However, we did try to build around an offensive cornerstone with signings/trades like Torrey Smith, Erik Pears, Jordan Devey, and Reggie Bush. The only problem is that two of the four have been the largest liabilities in 49ers history.

Do we have a cornerstone to build around on the team?

Our defense no longer has that game-breaking defensive player. Patrick Willis is gone. Aldon Smith is released. Justin Smith retired. Navarro Bowman is still a tackling machine, but his coverage has declined and he has allowed the 9th best passer rating when thrown against him. To be fair, it’s a design flaw in the defensive scheme as it leaves underneath routes open and makes him the easy scapegoat. Aaron Lynch is promising and with more experience will become a world beater. His production this year has been impressive despite  a defensive coverage that isn’t giving him enough time to reach the quarterback.

On Offense, it may look rough considering that this team is ranked dead last in offensive production. However, there are two diamonds in the rough.

Build around Hyde.

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Carlos Hyde could and should be the cornerstone player. He has all the intangibles and has made a poor offensive line look good at times.

His 180+ yards in the Minnesota opener was league leading and he accomplished this behind the same offensive line that is under-producing this entire season. Do not mistake that game for a fluke. Carlos Hyde is still dangerous and if the 49ers build around him, he could become a top 5 runningback. They have two of the three tools needed for him to explode already.

He needs tight ends blocking and he has some of the best. Vernon Davis may not be beating people in the end zone these days anymore, but he is still one the best in run blocking. Garrett Celek has shown to make that key block on the linebackers this season and Vance MacDonald has shown promise in the blocking area.

Carlos needs a bruising fullback. Bruce Miller is still playing well and he is still playing at a pro-bowl level. In fact, Carlos has already been showing better results when Bruce Miller is on the field with him.

Most importantly, he needs an offensive line. This is where we struggle. On runs to the right, he has not fared as well as runs to the left that feature pro-bowl tackle Joe Staley and team fixture Alex Boone. As bad as Jordan Devey and Erik Pears are on the pass block, they are equally as bad in the run block with each posting negative Pro Football Focus. The 49ers will need to address this today by coaching up the highly regarded picks of Brandon Thomas and Trenton Brown. If those two are not the answer, then they need to address it in the offseason through trade, free agency, or draft. In fact, it should be priority number one if in case the cornerstone player that the 49ers still believe in happens to be…..

Colin Kaepernick

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Say what you want about Colin, but he has shown brilliance at times. Consistency has been the issue and it is understandable given that he has been under pressure two years in a row by poor play by Jonathan Martin last year, and Marcus Martin, Jordan Devey, and Erik Pears this year.

Many will disagree that Colin should be the cornerstone and there is good reason. Colin has shown year to year regression and has been given enough time to show that he is ready for the key to the team. That day has not come yet. He still is better than a multitude of options that other teams are forced to play. I believe he still has trade value. This kid is not Johnny Manziel, Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Eli Manuel, or Geno Smith, so that’s good news. Sometimes, he plays well enough to match up with the elite. These days, those are flashes in the pan and not a trend.

Yet, if the 49ers still believe he is the cornerstone, they need to finally build around him. Kaepernick has some of the components he needs already.

Kaepernick needs weapons to throw to. He has one of the best tight end cores in all of football that isn’t named the Patriots or Bengals. Vernon Davis showed yesterday that he can still get open and Garrett Celek has led the team in receptions on occasion. He has two pro-bowl caliber wide receivers that can beat you deep or inside. He has developing wide receivers in Patton and Ellington that have potential to be solid slot receivers. Then, he has a pass catching back in Reggie Bush.

Kaepernick needs an offensive line to protect him. It appears that no matter who they build around on offense, that offensive line will be important. When the 49ers are producing league worst yards per game and one of the highest sack totals, you can’t operate that well in that offense.

Kaepernick needs a competent offensive coordinator and a better playbook. The play calling has been predictable and routes have been basic. But take note that Quinton Patton was able to score last week on a complex route that changed direction and left Shareece Wright falling in the wake of a supreme move by Quinton Patton. Now more than ever, Kaepernick needs to be running a west-coast style offense to allow for quicker passes, easier reads, and unpredictability that forces a defense to be on their toes. While zone coverage reads have led Kaepernick to hesitate the ball, utilizing the quick pass to his favorite target Anquan Boldin can lead to increased production and will open up the vertical pass to Torrey Smith easier.

Aaron Lynch can be a cornerstone

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It’s important to build around only one cornerstone until the team starts to see success. It’s more likely that we build around the offense, but if they choose to build around Lynch. He has some quality players around him already.

Aaron needs a good lineman to his left or right. He’s got Dial and Ian Williams that can help him penetrate and help him avoid the double team. If Dial can get even better, he can possibly gain the double team instead.

Lynch needs coverage to give him time. The current defensive scheme is allowing very quick decisions as quarterbacks are dissecting the zone defense. The linebackers are giving up short passes and Acker is very open to letting his safeties cover his receivers one on one while sometimes not putting any contact on his man after 5 yards. If the 49ers decide to go after a corner in free agency, he needs to lockdown his receiver to give Lynch more time.

If the 49ers fail to make either one of these three their cornerstone, the diamond in the rough will not shine and that diamond is the light that is at the end of the dark tunnel that the 49ers are in right now. Have no fear 49ers fans. The savior of the team is already on the squad, they just need to build around him.

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