For Chip Kelly and Blaine Gabbert, this season is about a second chance at NFL success.
After being run off from his first NFL coaching job in Philadelphia, Kelly took over in San Francisco and has picked another reclamation project in Gabbert as his starting quarterback for the 49ers.
Gabbert, who took over as the starter in San Francisco midway through last season, begins a season in that role for the first time since 2013, which was his third and final season in Jacksonville after being the 10th overall pick in 2011.
Gabbert beat out Colin Kaepernick for the job, staying mostly in the background as Kaepernick made big headlines with his protest over the national anthem.
“That’s one thing you like about Blaine’s makeup, There are not too-high highs or too-low lows,” Kelly said. “He’s very steady in his approach. You get the same Blaine Gabbert every day and I think that’s a good thing, especially at the quarterback position.”
The problem for the Niners is that the Gabbert from the past five years has been far from special. He has just an 8-27 record as a starter in the NFL, completing only 55.8 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and 31 interceptions.
That kind of play led Jacksonville to trade him to San Francisco three years after drafting him. Gabbert looked a little better last season with the 49ers when he completed 63.1 percent of his passes and posted a career-high 86.2 passer rating in eight starts.
The Niners hope for even better results this season in Kelly’s quarterback-friendly system that helped players such as Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez have perhaps their most success as pros. That wasn’t enough for Kelly to keep his job with the Eagles, but Gabbert is excited about the opportunity to run that fast-paced offense.
“Coach Kelly puts a lot of trust in us to go out there and make the plays,” Gabbert said. “That’s what you want as a competitive player. You want to have the ball in your hands. You want to be kind of leaned on to make the plays, score the points for this team. And that’s what this offense does. It puts guys in position to have explosive plays.”
Here are some other things to watch this season for the 49ers:
CATCH THE BALL
No matter who is at quarterback this season, finding proven players to throw the ball to will be a problem. Torrey Smith was the only wideout on the roster with even 40 career catches before a couple of late trades added Jeremy Kerley and Rod Streater. Kerley had just 16 catches last season for the Jets and Rod Streater has only 10 receptions the past two years. Smith has been a good deep threat for much of his career, but the Niners lack a true No. 1 receiver.
The 49ers dealt with a string of retirements last offseason with Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis all deciding to call it quits. Davis’ proved to be temporary as he decided to come back at the start of training camp, giving a boost to San Francisco’s offensive line. After being a stellar right tackle his first five years, Davis has moved to right guard this season for the first time since college with Trent Brown entrenched at tackle.
DUCKS ON THE LINE
Kelly will have a couple of familiar faces on the defensive line as GM Trent Baalke used his top draft picks each of the past two years on former Oregon linemen who had played for Kelly in college. Arik Armstead had just two sacks as a rookie last year, but is expected to make a much bigger impact in 2016. No. 7 overall pick DeForest Buckner has the potential to be dominant against the run and a strong pass rusher, giving the Niners a foundation for their defense.
RUN TO DAYLIGHT
The Niners have one potential game-breaker on offense in third-year running back Carlos Hyde — if he can stay healthy. Hyde showed his potential when he rushed for 168 yards in the opener last season. But he added only 302 more in six games before being shut down with a foot injury. Hyde’s downhill running style fits well in Kelly’s system.
BOWMAN THE BEAST
Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is one of the few links left from the dominant defense that helped lead San Francisco to three consecutive NFC championship games from 2011-13. After sitting out 2014 with a knee injury, Bowman returned last season and made the All-Pro team despite looking like he had lost a step. But he has looked more explosive this summer and is poised for another big year.