Coaching changes are usually related to a bad season and a team heading “in a different direction.” Not so for the 49ers, whose success opened their coaching ranks up to be raided by other teams looking to replicate their success. While head coach Kyle Shanahan remains for his fifth season, the 49ers lost defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to the Jets as their new head coach. And passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur left to join Saleh as the Jets’ new offensive coordinator.
Both changes are not likely to result in any significant changes to the offense or defense since both were promotions of position coaches already in place within the existing system.
Shanahan may be the head coach, but he installed his offense after spending ten years as an offensive coordinator for four different teams. He calls the plays and controls the offense. The 49ers were decimated by injuries last year but the same offense ranked No. 2 in points and No. 4 in yardage for 2019 when they went to the Super Bowl. No need for changes to what works well when the roster is healthy.
While Shanahan continues his firm hold on the offense, Bobby Slowick was promoted to passing game specialist after spending the last two years as the offensive assistant. Mike McDaniel was elevated from the run game coordinator to the titled offensive coordinator, though again – Shanahan calls the plays. McDaniel spent the last four seasons with the 49ers as their run game coordinator (2018-2020) and run game specialist (2017).
McDaniel spent the last 11 years in the NFL coaching running backs and wideouts before becoming the offensive assistant in Atlanta (2015-2016). He’s not there to change anything, but to learn and help Shanahan maintain one of the most diverse and productive offenses in the NFL when healthy.
The loss of Saleh has a more significant bearing. With Shanahan more involved in the offense, Saleh was in control of the defense for the last four years and was a very hot head coaching candidate. The 49ers’ defense is an elite unit when healthy and was the biggest reason why they advanced to the Super Bowl in 2019.
The 49ers promoted their inside linebackers coach up to being the offensive coordinator. DeMeco Ryans was a ten-year veteran of the NFL as a linebacker for the Texans and Eagles. Since he retired as a player in 2016, he’s been with the 49ers organization. He served as the defensive quality control coach (2017), and inside linebackers coach (2018-2020).
Ryans was a Defensive Player of the Year at Alabama and a First-Team All-SEC as a senior. He was the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006. He’s been successful at every level and job that he’s ever held in football. As the inside linebackers coach, he’s credited for developing Pro Bowler Fred Warner. Ryans is considered one of the sharpest minds and his quick ascension to defensive coordinator for a very talented defense shows the confidence that the 49ers have in him.
At 36 years old, Ryans is the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL and within that, the least experienced. But he’s impressed in his four short years as a coach in his ability to development and communicate with players. With the entirety of his four years as an NFL coach being under Saleh, there’s no reason to expect any material changes to the scheme since it is the only one that he’s ever coached.
The offense struggled with injured players in 2020, so just having a healthy squad will make a tremendous difference. None of the top players are free agents this year other then LT Trent Williams, CB Richard Sherman and DE Solomon Thomas.
The 49ers own the 1.12, 2.11 and 3.39 picks over the first two days of the NFL draft. That 1.12 pick will be the key to the draft. The expectation is that they use that for either a cornerback or edge rusher to replace the potential loss of Sherman and Thomas. There is also a chance that they opt for a quarterback since they should be in striking distance of landing a Top-5 rookie in a quarterback-rich draft.
Despite rumors, the 49ers appear likely to stick with Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback though he may be grooming his own replacement. The 49ers’ offensive scheme has been very diverse and involves a high number of players. Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson should return as the primary running backs but the offense hasn’t produced a top back in years and that won’t change barring a surprising change.
George Kittle returns as the only lock to be a top fantasy option. The 49ers used high draft picks to select Brandon Aiyuk (2020 – 1.25) and Deebo Samuel (2019 – 2.04) but there hasn’t been any wideout to stay healthy, let alone dominate targets.
Fantasy football takeaway
The defense will miss Robert Saleh and it is surprising that the 49ers went with such a young, minimally-experienced defensive coordinator but the roster has plenty of talent and the scheme won’t change.
On offense, the plays are called by Kyle Shanahan so the same complicated and diverse scheme remains in place. Again – player health has to improve after a disaster for 2020. Kittle will continue to be the No. 2 fantasy tight end behind Travis Kelce. But the backfield will remain a mess to rely on with Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson and Jerick McKinnon set to return and may be joined by another free agent or draft pick. The backfield will continue to produce well in total, but lack consistency and reliability from the individual backs involved.
The most interesting feature of the offense will be the progress made by Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk as the starting wideouts. Both have flashed big-time ability and yet battled injuries and inconsistent play by the quarterbacks.
The 49ers’ offense needs consistency by the quarterback. They can have that if Garoppolo stays healthy, but if they draft a quarterback early, then they are setting up for 2022 and an eventual quarterback change. The scheme remains the same and unfortunately, that’s been almost impossible to rely on individual players outside of Kittle.