Going into last season, the 49ers ranked No. 3 in the NFL in ESPN.com’s power rankings.
Coming off a third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game the 49ers were perceived as a talented group with great coaching and some fresh talent added through the draft by general manager Trent Baalke.
Nearly a year later, the 49ers have fallen off a cliff.
Coming off an 8-8 season, the loss of a proven head coach and several key player departures, the 49ers have been ranked by NFL.com as now having the fourth-best roster in the NFC West.
That’s fourth, as in last.
As Dan Hanzus wrote for NFL.com in doing the ranking, “New coach Jim Tomsula and general manager Trent Baalke need to reload on the fly to avoid a steep franchise downturn.”
The Seattle Seahawks, coming off two straight trips to the Super Bowl, are ranked No. 1 in the division in roster strength, followed by the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams. Though the Rams struggled in 2014, they’ve added a new quarterback in Nick Foles and two new defensive standouts in tackle Nick Fairley and outside linebacker Akeem Ayers.
Even with those improvements, it seems a bit strange that the 49ers have been ranked below the Rams.
After all, the Niners still have some terrific players across the offensive line, plus quarterback Colin Kaepernick, wideout Anquan Boldin, tight end Vernon Davis, deluxe pass rusher Aldon Smith and a pair of good safeties in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.
But with all the departures – including Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Mike Iupati, Ray McDonald, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and Frank Gore – the Niners roster now looks much different than it did a year ago.
“For the first time in years, expectations are absent in San Francisco,” wrote Hanzus. “More people will pick the Niners to finish last in the NFC West than to make it back to the Super Bowl.”
Hanzus now sees the 49ers as having huge question marks in their defensive front seven, at cornerback and wide receiver.
Plus, he writes, Kaepernick now has the pressure of trying to rebound from a down season and prove again that he can be the type of quarterback who can carry his team.
With so many departures and a shift in coaches and schemes, the 49ers definitely will be challenged to prove they belong again among the top teams in their division, let alone the NFC.