The 49ers’ current three-game win streak has the Faithful think big. And if fans are looking for a model for a quick rebuild, they don’t need to look further than the other team playing at Levi’s Stadium today, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jags went 3-13 last year and are now widely regarded as the best team in the NFL that doesn’t have Tom Brady on its roster. The Niners will finish this season with at least 10 losses, but will be primed to be a turnaround candidate in 2018.
The metaphor isn’t perfect, of course. Jacksonville has ridden a top-flight defense to its new heights. The Jaguars rank first in the league in points allowed per game, sacks and QB rating allowed. If the 49ers are going to redefine themselves next season, it’ll likely be on the back of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo thriving in the creative system of head coach Kyle Shanahan.
But, both organizations have experienced better results quicker than expected. The Jags hired Tom Coughlin to be their executive vice president of football operations before this season and he — along with head coach Doug Marrone — have overseen the resurgence.
They inherited a better roster than Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, which explains why they were able to improve the franchise’s fate in record time.
The Niners are taking the steps to catch them, though.
Coughlin and Marrone were bequeathed top-five pick, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who has led one of the best secondaries in the league.
“He is a freak athlete, he’s got freakish length, he’s got freakish size, but what makes him special is he’s a flat dog on the football field and he doesn’t play out of control,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Thursday. “If you let him, he’ll try to embarrass you.”
The Niners’ braintrust were lucky enough to have DeForest Buckner — another top-five pick and young defensive star of the league.
But where the Jaguars really laid the foundation for their complete rebuild was in free agency.
Coughlin took a chance by spending $30 million guaranteed on 31-year-old defensive lineman Calais Campbell. He responded by recording a career-high 14.5 sacks.
They also added free agent cornerback AJ Bouye, who — along with Ramsey and Barry Church, another free-agent signee — provides strong coverage throughout the secondary. The unit locks down the passing game, limiting opponents to a league-best 168.9 yards per game through the air, making life on opposing throwers hell. Because as long as wide receivers can’t get open, the talented defensive line has that much more time to lay a hit on the quarterback.
In the middle level of the defense, Jacksonville boasts three linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ top-35 at the position. The Niners have just one, Reuben Foster. All three of the Jags’ standout backers were drafted by the organization.
The 49ers and their opponents today run the same kind of defense because Saleh used to coach for Jacksonville.
“There is an element of luck to hit on some of those late guys,” Saleh said. “I’d like to say that the blueprint’s already kind of been created. It’s just maintaining your belief and conviction on what you see and know that works in the system and continue to build off that.”
The plan is there and the Niners have solid foundational pieces in Foster, Buckner and in the secondary. But they’ll have to land a few major free agents and rookies on both sides of the ball.
Basically, Jacksonville has proven that an NFL team can have imperfect parts (like Blake Bortles at quarterback), and still compete if its leadership builds on its strengths and creates an identity.
The Niners have a start of that on defense and a born leader in Garoppolo that will make its offense a force to be reckoned with as long as he can stay healthy. It’ll take a big-play receiver, some help on the offensive line and the kind of players who provide elite depth (like Bouye). But it’s not a far-fetched idea to expect them to experience a meteoric rise in 2018.
Can next year’s 49ers be this year’s Jaguars?
It’s possible. But it all depends on what Lynch, Adam Peters and Martin Mayhew are able to accomplish in free agency and the draft this offseason.
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.