The Vikings travel to San Francisco this weekend to play a 49ers team that just (unwillingly) went through one of the craziest roster overhauls in a recent memory. Four quality starters retired, three of them seemingly out of nowhere. The 49ers lost several other key contributors in free agency. Oh, and they may or may not have fired their head coach.
So who exactly are these 49ers that the Vikings will face on Monday night?
Let’s turn to Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, to give us the lowdown on what we can expect to see from the 49ers — and believe it or not, they still have some talent left on that roster.
MV: Do you still need a media guide to identify all the new faces?
MB: Contrary to popular belief, the 49ers will indeed field a team this season. I feel as if I mastered the retooled roster in early June, though I admit I still sometimes confuse Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser, cornerbacks who were drafted one round apart in 2014, who missed their rookie seasons with injuries and whose names begin with “K.” One of them will start Monday. Don’t ask me who. (Seriously, the 49ers are keeping this a secret right up until game time).
MV: The departures hit hardest on the defensive side of the ball, with Pro Bowlers such as Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis gone. What will the 49ers defense look like Monday night with all those newbies?
MB: It will be full of new faces for sure, but it’s still talented. The 49ers general manager, Trent Baalke, has had 10 or more draft picks in his last three drafts. That created a stockpile of young players behind the Smiths and Willises. The question is how quickly can the new talent fill the shoes of the former talent? The biggest change has been brought in by new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini. He will blitz far more than his predecessor, Vic Fangio, whose squads mostly were content to sit back and play coverage.
MV: Another big change was Jim Tomsula replacing Jim Harbaugh. Can you tell us about his history in San Francisco and what he is like as a coach?
MB: I use this analogy: You know how, after a messy breakup, you rebound with someone who is the polar opposite of the person you previously dated? That’s the situation in San Francisco. Where Harbaugh had a notoriously difficult personality, Tomsula is exceedingly nice. That is, there is a zero percent chance of him getting into a post-game scrap with the opposing coach because he shakes that coach’s hand too hard. The 49ers have known Tomsula since he began coaching the defensive line in 2007. Players love him. The question Tomsula must answer, of course, is whether nice guys can finish first.
MV: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick garnered national headlines for working with Kurt Warner this past offseason. What was the purpose of that for Kaepernick, and have you noticed anything different about him?
MB: His long delivery has been shortened somewhat, but he’s still not a quick-draw artist like Drew Brees. The 49ers want him to do two things he was not asked to do often over the previous three years: throw short passes to guys like Reggie Bush out of the backfield and throw deep, deep passes to guys like Torrey Smith down field. There have been positive results with the short stuff as Kaepernick has learned to throw a changeup instead of a fastball. The long passes, however, remain unsteady largely because the offensive line has not been able to give him enough time to throw.
MV: We’ll finish by grooving one right down the middle of the plate. After a crazy offseason, what are your expectations for the 49ers?
MB: I’m going to check swing and foul this one off behind the plate. 8-8. It’s a weak answer, I know. No team has gone through an offseason like the 49ers — four players retire? — but none have been able to absorb an offseason like this, either (with 32 draft picks in the last three years).