Chip Kelly wasn’t out of the league long, and while he didn’t necessarily revolutionize the NFL during his three years in Philly he did demonstrate enough offensive acumen that fantasy owners will want to start paying attention to the 49ers once again.
How does Kelly plan to turn around an offense that ranked 31st in yards and 32nd in scoring last season, with a 14.9 points per game average that was the lowest the NFL had seen since 2012? With the same hallmarks that made him a success in Philadelphia: spreading the field with big targets, then running the ball at the undermanned middle of the defense. And volume, as in rapid-fire snaps that wear down a defense and allow Kelly’s teams to consistently run more plays each week.
Let’s start at the top, where on the surface Colin Kaepernick appears to be just what the doctor ordered for Kelly at the quarterback position. After all, since Kaep took over as a starter in 2012 only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have more rushing yards, and Kaepernick’s 6.0 yards per carry betters both Newton and Wilson.
And while Kaepernick would most certainly bring a dynamic element to Kelly’s read option, ultimately he may not be Chip’s quarterback of choice in San Francisco. Because while mobility is nice, what Chip really wants is a quarterback who can make quick reads, figuring out where Kelly’s scheme has created a mismatch and taking advantage. And Blaine Gabbert may do that better than Kaepernick, while still bringing plenty of mobility (185 rushing yards at 5.8 yards a pop in half a season last year) to the table.
As it stands in San Fran, Kaepernick is rehabbing from three surgeries (throwing thumb, non-throwing shoulder, knee) and, depending on which way the wind is blowing today, is either open to returning to the team or is requesting a trade. Kelly has indicated he expects Kaepernick to return and battle Gabbert for the starting job. Meanwhile, the Niners need to make a decision by April 1, when Kaepernick’s $11.9 million contract becomes guaranteed.
There’s also buzz that Kelly could pursue Sam Bradford in free agency, but he’d have to talk Baalke into that with the Niners already on the hook for Kaepernick’s salary. But it’s safe to assume that filling the quarterback position shouldn’t be an issue for the Niners.
Carlos Hyde, who played in a similar spread type of offense at Ohio State, looks to flourish in Kelly’s ground game. The Eagles ranked 7th, 5th and 4th in rushing attempts under Chip, 2nd, 5th and 6th in rushing yardage and 6th, 5th and 2nd in rushing touchdowns. However, Kelly prefers versatility—he isn’t one to substitute when his offense is driving and snapping the ball at a breakneck pace—and Hyde’s 23 career receptions render him an unknown in that phase of the game. Could Reggie Bush return to play the Darren Sproles role in the San Francisco version of Kelly’s offense? Shaun Draughn probably isn’t the answer, so unless Hyde reveals a Roger Craig side to his game this may be an area the Niners address via free agency or more likely the draft.
While Kelly isn’t immune to the home run ball—his Eagles ranked fourth in the league with 109 passing plays of 25 or more yards—Torrey Smith isn’t the prototypical Chip receiver. Impending free agent Anquan Boldin is, though Kelly prefers to skew younger. Don’t be surprised if Riley Cooper ends up with a tryout in San Francisco; also don’t be surprised if Kelly devotes draft picks and UDFA resources to bigger targets as well.
Perhaps the selling point for Kelly in San Francisco was the team’s abundance of tight ends; heck, they even have a freshly-signed Celek, just like Chip had in Philadelphia. Kelly loves to use multiple tight ends, though we saw in Philly that fantasy-wise the Zach Ertz/Brent Celek split was more frustrating than fruitful. Expect something similar with Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek in San Fran. Team TE, anyone?
Free agency and the draft should also allow Kelly to replenish a 49ers offensive line that was dismantled last offseason. Joe Staley returns as the cornerstone, giving Kelly the same kind of anchor he had in Philadelphia when Jason Peters was healthy. Anthony Davis has also indicated he’s coming out of retirement, potentially giving the 49ers another answer up front. It won’t be the same mauling unit Jim Harbaugh used to power the San Francisco running attack, but that wouldn’t have meshed with Kelly’s up-tempo approach anyway. Staley is athletic enough to fit, and the Niners can draft and mine free agency to fill other needs.
Despite the threat of a dumpster fire last season, this 49ers roster isn’t that far removed from a team that played in back-to-back NFC title games. And while the defense is no longer as dominant, the arrival of Kelly should spark an offensive revival that could push the Niners back towards the postseason sooner rather than later.