The 49ers may not be good in 2017. Despite making wholesale changes across the organization – from general manager to head coach to up and down the roster – it’s going to be an enormous challenge for San Francisco to improve from 2-14 to playoff contender in one season.
Yet this season -- which begins Sunday when the 49ers host the Carolina Panthers at Levi’s Stadium -- does promise to be exciting, even if wins are hard to find.
The 49ers, for the first time in years, have young players worth watching all across both units. This isn’t a roster filled with over-the-hill, big-name players and veteran journeymen. It’s a team with some upside. Not all the team’s rookies and second- and third-year drafted players will succeed. But several will, and that will give the 49ers a foundation.
* On defense, the 49ers have a pair of Rookie of the Year candidates in starting linebacker Reuben Foster and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Safety Lorenzo Jerome, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and defensive linemen D.J. Jones and Pita Taumoepenu should also get the opportunity to play key roles. And, the 49ers' first-round picks of the past two years, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, are healthy and look poised to take big steps forward this season.
* On offense, tight end George Kittle has won a starting role and has received rave reviews about his blocking, route-running and good hands. Running back Matt Breida and wide receiver Trent Taylor also are expected to make significant contributions in the season opener.
* Wide receiver Victor Bolden Jr., a small, quick former Oregon State standout, could be a special teams ace as a returner. Though he goes into the season as the No. 2 man for both punt and kickoff returns, Bolden showed in preseason that he can be electric, returning one each for touchdowns.
* If the season goes as hoped, rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard will get few snaps. That will mean experienced starter Brian Hoyer is having a solid, injury-free year. But Beathard, a third-round pick from Iowa, beat out veteran Matt Barkley for the backup role to Hoyer with a strong summer. If given time to settle in and learn, Beathard could be the team’s quarterback of the future.
On Sunday, Foster, especially, has a chance to show 49ers fans – and the entire NFL – why he deserved to be taken at the top of the draft, and not at the bottom of the first round. A shoulder issue caused most teams to shy away from Foster. But this summer, Foster looked like a star in the making.
“He’s a heck of a player, man,” said Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. “He’s fast. He’s physical. He’ll stick his nose in there. He’s good getting to the ball and he’s a high-energy player, somebody that is definitely going to be tough to go against.”
Let the excitement begin.
The Panthers are 4-point favorites for Sunday’s matchup. Kickoff is set for 1:25 p.m.