Earlier this week our 5-Questions guy, Jeff Berckes (@gridironborn), caught up with the top dog over at Niners Nation, David Fucillo (@davidfucillo), who is also an editor and producer for SB Nation, to get his take on the San Francisco 49ers before they travel to Chicago this Sunday to play the Bears.
This isn’t our usual 5 Questions — Jeff actually asked 7! — and David really brought the goods this week. Considering the recent draft history between these two teams, the Vic Fangio connection, and the fact that both of these franchises are in rebuilds, this one is a must read.
Windy City Gridiron - The Bears inexplicably gave the 49ers the #67 and #111 picks in this years draft and next year's 3rd rounder to move up one spot. The #67 pick was traded to New Orleans for next year's 2nd and the Saints drafted the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara. The #111 pick was used as a chip to move up three slots to nab Rueben Foster. Just how many victory laps would you like to take on this exchange of picks?
Niners Nation - Well, plenty of us would love to see Alvin Kamara in the 49ers backfield. And prior to his torn ACL, there were complaints about the 49ers passing on Deshaun Watson. I suppose it falls under, you can't please everybody.
I think people remain pumped about the draft picks, but the Solomon Thomas pick at No. 3 still has some folks a little hesitant. I think people have overreacted to the fact that he does not have huge sack totals. Prior to suffering an MCL sprain and missing two weeks, Thomas led rookie defensive linemen in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. He has been inconsistent, but has shown some signs of being an impact player. He still has to work on improving his pass rush skillset, but all offseason he showed the kind of interest and hard work needed to improve his game. Seeing him work with Demarcus Ware, Von Miller, and other pass rush greats has made it easy to get excited.
The big key will be what the 49ers do with the second and third round picks acquired in all these deals. I could very well see the 49ers moving back from No. 2 overall (or whatever high pick they have), but if they don't, they have enough picks to be incredibly active the first three days. This is back-to-back drafts where they need to hit some home runs.
All of this is to say, yes, we love the draft picks y'all gave us. THANKS!
WCG - John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan both received guaranteed 6-year deals with no offset language to ensure them that the merry-go-round in the General Manager and Head Coach positions was over. Speaking to a Chicago fan base that once again will be looking to dip back into the market, can you give a sense of how useful that negotiation piece was to entice a top candidate like Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers?
NN - The 49ers absolutely had to offer up the house to get Shanahan, and probably Lynch as well. The 49ers "parted ways" with Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 season, fired Jim Tomsula after the 2015 season, and fired Chip Kelly and GM Trent Baalke after the 2016 season. It's safe to say stability has not been the name of the game for the 49ers the past three years. They landed one of the highest profile coaching candidates, and a GM candidate that came out of nowhere and really had the advantage in not needing to take the job.
The team has collapsed since the end of the Harbaugh era, and it is entirely clear this was a huge rebuilding effort. Shanahan knew he had work to do, and with a rookie GM, it is entirely reasonable to assume Shanahan has more say than a lot of first time head coaches. I don't think he is a de facto GM, but he and Shanahan have made it very clear they are on equal footing for the most part. They recognized the needs of this rebuilding process and have firm control of the operation.
There are numerous events of the past ten months that show the stability they have created, but you can just look at how they handled the quarterback position. Lynch and Shanahan signed Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, and then drafted C.J. Beathard. It's not exactly like they made impact moves. Well, until the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. But I would argue the way they handled the QB position this offseason gave me as much confidence in the return of stability as anything else.
WCG - One of the names that keeps circulating in conversation for the impending opening is Jim Harbaugh. What can you say about Harbaugh's time in San Francisco for his potential to reenter the NFL? Does the presence of Vic Fangio in Chicago give any inside track here?
NN - What to say about Jim Harbaugh? Where to even begin. Harbaugh and the 49ers "mutually parted ways," but it was obviously a messy situation. You don't go to three straight NFC title games, and then part ways with your coach after a single down year without there being messiness. There are distinct camps in this. The pro-Harbaugh angle is that Trent Baalke feuded with him, and Jed York sided with his GM. There is some thought that York thought Harbaugh was a good coach, but not good enough to put up with his gruff attitude. Speaking of that attitude, it is no secret that Harbaugh is difficult to get along with. Stanford was fine seeing him leave, and clearly the 49ers were ready to end things. How it ends in Michigan if he doesn't leave this year will be something to behold.
That being said, I do think he will return to the NFL at some point. He was beaten in the Super Bowl by his brother, and I just can't imagine he is comfortable never going back to the NFL with that mark on his record. I think he ends up in the NFL sooner rather than later, but given his struggles at Michigan when it comes to beating Ohio State and Michigan State, I could see him taking another year before he goes to the NFL.
Fangio is an interesting angle on this. He worked with Harbaugh at Stanford before following him to the 49ers. He seems to be the kind of gruff coach that Harbaugh likes, and I could see him being down to work with Harbaugh again. It seems like Harbaugh was comfortable turning the defense over to Fangio and just staying out of the way. That would certainly be a weird situation seeing Fangio's current boss getting canned, but then him sticking around with the new head coach. But nothing with Harbaugh is ever simple.
WCG - The conventional wisdom coming into the season was that the 49ers didn't draft a QB high in this year's draft because they wanted Kirk Cousins. They instead took a guy with a similar pedigree to Cousins in the 3rd round, C.J. Beathard. The 49ers then made a huge splash at the trade deadline for Jimmy Garoppolo. Is the plan going forward Garoppolo and Beathard to be the starter and backup? Will the 49ers sign Garoppolo to a long-term contract or work off the Franchise Tag? Is there reason to believe the 49ers still might draft a QB at the top of the draft even with Garoppolo?
NN - Yes, the plan is to have Jimmy Garoppolo starting and C.J. Beathard serving as the backup. Beathard looked moderately decent in five starts and a sixth appearance. I think he has some potential to eventually get a regular starting opportunity down the road, but at the very least, he's shown he could be a decent enough backup quarterback. And with the 49ers having him under contract relatively cheap for three more seasons, you can't really ask for a lot more in a backup.
The contract is a big question given the kind of money Garoppolo could be looking at. Quarterback contracts are inflated compared to the rest of the league, so it will be a big cost no matter what. For the time being, the franchise tag makes sense. He only has a couple starts under his belt, so the sample size is limited. Garoppolo could start the final five games of the season. It would give the 49ers more of a sample size, but it's hard to tell if it will be enough to work out a big five- or six-year contract. I would really like to see them get a long-term deal done, but these next five games will be something to watch.
I do not see the 49ers selecting a quarterback at the top of the draft if Garoppolo is on the team. There has been all sorts of wild speculation about what the 49ers want to do with Garoppolo. Some have suggested an eventual trade, some have suggested the non-exclusive franchise tag with a chance to net two first round picks. I think they acquired Garoppolo with the hope he can become their franchise QB. That suggests to me they will not spend a first round pick on a quarterback.
WCG - Past the QBs and the front office, who are the players that Bears fans need to focus in on this weekend as budding stars / bright spots for this team?
NN - Offense: Rookie wide receiver Trent Taylor (5th round pick) is emerging as a solid presence in the return game. He has been in the top ten in punt return average, and is among the leading rookie receivers.
Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin is putting together a career year. Injuries were a problem in Buffalo, but in Santa Clara, he has been a real presence. He currently leads the NFL in yards per reception, and is among the fastest guys in the league.
Defense: The 49ers spent a third round pick this year on cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. He was inactive the first four games of the season, and there was concern he was too undersized and this would be a lost season. However, he got his act together, and has moved into the starting lineup. He is not playing the best among the 49ers cornerbacks, and will potentially get the toughest matchups on Sunday.
First round pick linebacker Reuben Foster is also looking like a real bright spot on defense. After missing much of the first half of the season with a high ankle sprain and then a rib injury, Foster has been able to stay on the field in recent weeks. There has never been any doubting his physical tools. The question was if he could stay on the field. If he can keep it up, he could be one of the 49ers best defensive players.
The real best player right now? Second year defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is looking like a force. He is not piling up sack totals, but he is consistently in the backfield, and among PFF's leaders in pass rush efficiency.
WCG - Vic Fangio built a competitive defense in San Francisco under Jim Harbaugh. He left for Chicago when the 49ers brass passed him over for Jim Tomsula. Are the 49ers still running a version of the Fangio defense or have they moved onto something new?
NN - The 49ers have changed to a defense similar to what the Seattle Seahawks run. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was a defensive quality control coach for Pete Carroll. He then followed Gus Bradley to Jacksonville, where he served as linebackers coach. Bradley was actually reportedly Shanahan's first choice for defensive coordinator.
Instead, they landed Saleh, who has been an interesting option. He like Bradley know the Seahawks system, and so that is what is being implemented. It means more attacking rather than reaction. It means more bigger, lengthier physical cornerbacks. It means a centerfield free safety role, a'la Earl Thomas, and a thumper in the box, a'la Kam Chancellor. And of course, it means a switch from a 3-4 base defense back to a 4-3 base defense.
WCG - If I had one day in San Francisco, how should I spend it?
NN - So many options. I lived in San Francisco for a little over nine years, and the list is lengthy. You can do basic touristy stuff like Alcatraz, which is fun. You can take a bus tour around the city and get a chance to see a little bit of everything. Personally, I'd rather eat my way around San Francisco. My favorite burrito place is Pancho Villa's Taquiera. My favorite Italian place is Mona Lisa. My favorite Chinese place is a hole in the wall in Chinatown, although you can head out to Clement Street in the Richmond District for some quality Chinese.
Great job fellas and a special thanks to Fooch for the Niners knowledge!