The retirement of defensive lineman Justin Smith this week wasn’t a shock. Those who follow the 49ers knew Smith was near the end of the line.
Still, it’s just one more high-profile departure on a team that has had one of the most tumultuous offseasons in its long history.
As the team gathers this week to go through organized team activities (OTAs), new faces are everywhere, from the recent rookie class and the crop of veteran free agents such as wide receiver Torrey Smith, running back Reggie Bush, defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and linebacker Philip Wheeler.
But it’s not the new faces NFL observers are focusing on. It’s the faces who are gone, from head coach Jim Harbaugh to running back Frank Gore to cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland.
Now, with the draft and the free-agent season now complete (for the most part), analysts are weighing and grading teams’ offseason moves – and the 49ers aren’t coming off very well.
Recently, an analyst called this offseason “disastrous.” And former 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia questioned the ownership and front-office decisions to force out Harbaugh and dismantle a coaching staff that had tremendous success.
Now Mike Sando of ESPN.com has given the 49ers the worst offseason grade in the entire NFL, a D-plus.
Sando, in consultation with ESPN analysts Bill Polian, Louis Riddick, Matt Williamson and Field Yates, pointed to the Tomsula-for-Harbaugh trade as a significant cause for concern, but cited the loss of “a long list of key players from its Super Bowl season” as the primary problem.
It’s certainly hard to argue that losing Gore, receiver Michael Crabtree, guard Mike Iupati, Cox and Culliver, Borland and Willis, Smith and defensive end Ray McDonald and linebacker Dan Skuta is good. Certainly the unexpected losses of Borland and Willis – players in their prime – were devastating.
Plus, as Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com noted, some draft analysts also knocked the 49ers for their draft strategy of ignoring immediate needs to select the best talent available and for the future – something that may not help them in 2015. They didn't select an inside linebacker, for instance.
But as some 49ers fans pointed out in response to Sando’s analysis, the 49ers will also get running back Kendall Hunter and linebacker NaVorro Bowman back from injury, have linebacker Aldon Smith and Anthony Davis back for full seasons, have Dockett to replace Justin Smith and Torrey Smith to replace Crabtree. Plus cornerback Tramaine Brock is healthy again and the offense may get a boost from a new offensive coordinator (Geep Chryst) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has spent much of the offseason sharpening his mechanics.
Yet things certainly look bleak now. As Gutierrez said of Sando’s assessment, “It’s hard to argue with him. At least, in mid-May.”
Fortunately for the 49ers, games aren’t played until September. By then, 49ers fans will have a much better idea how this new-look team will perform.