49ers Preview: Temper expectations and hope for growth

In the realm of 49ers fandom, optimism has been at a lower premium than a Levi’s Stadium PSL.

And why wouldn’t it be? The young season has already been chalked full of more arrests, more injuries, a continuing quarterback circus and a social protest that has divided the fan base into two bitter halves.

But before the realities of a cruel and merciless season set in when the 49ers kick off the season against Los Angeles on Monday night, I’m here to deliver some much-needed good news.

The 49ers are almost unequivocally a better team than they were last year.

With a tough schedule chock full of Super Bowl contenders, the 49ers 2016 season record may not necessarily indicate this ideal.

But if you squint hard enough, through the obvious roster gaps, impending controversies, and inevitable blowout losses that are all due this year, you’ll see that the 49ers are closer to returning to prominence than previously thought.

Things won’t be pretty for San Francisco this year, as their talent at the skill positions — save for a few obvious players — is among the shallowest in football.

The 49ers, though, have reloaded, to use general manager Trent Baalke’s favorite phrase, in most of the right areas which should provide San Francisco a solid foundation for growth in the future.

Strengths, such as the defensive line, got even stronger with the addition of first-round pick DeForest Buckner and the second-year leap of Arik Armstead. If Ian Williams weren’t plagued with an ongoing ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve before the first week of preseason, the 49ers front-line would have been on of the better units in the league.

Weaknesses such as the offensive line got a crucial overhaul, with contributions coming in from all angles, such as free agency (Zane Beadles), in-house growth (Trent Brown), the draft (Joshua Garnett) and a little bit of good luck (Anthony Davis).

Now, what was once a unit that allowed 53-total sacks last year, is a talented and versatile group with such depth that one of last year’s starters, right guard  Andrew Tiller, and this year’s first-round draft choice aren’t among the starting group.

Areas like cornerback have seen sneaky growth with the ascension of Jimmie Ward to an outside starter, and young talents like Rashad Robinson, Chris Davis and a currently injured Will Redmond adding future depth.

Perhaps most importantly, they have a new face at the helm of the team in head coach Chip Kelly, who may return some much-needed offensive creativity to the struggling squad.

The young talent, the new coach, the strengthening of the trenches. These are all crucial foundations for the 49ers to grow on in the next couple years.

But it doesn’t mean all is well in Santa Clara.

The 49ers quarterback carousel will be fully in motion for at least one more season. And like last year, there’s hardly a bright side to any outcome.

At best, Blaine Gabbert plays as well — if not slightly better than he did last year — giving the 49ers a starting quarterback who ranked at the bottom of the league according to ProFootballFocus, sliding in right behind Matt Hasselbeck, but above Nick Foles in the ratings.

Should Gabbert fail to impress in his role, Kaepernick will get the nod, plunging the 49ers back into another midseason change of chemistry with a starter who ranked 35th in accuracy, according to PFF, while having not played a meaningful snap in the NFL since last November .

However, whoever does get the start at quarterback won’t have it easy due to the 49ers’ talent, or lack thereof, at the wide receiver position.

The 49ers already depleted receiving core looked even more grim as perhaps their most intriguing talent when slot receiver Bruce Ellington was lost for the year with a severe hamstring injury early in the preseason.

Trent Baalke responded by bolstering the depth chart with the acquisitions of Jeremy Kerley and Rod Streater, but was far from making any moves that could be labeled as significant in terms of revamping a downtrodden unit.

Both players will likely see significant time on the field, with Kerley acting as a proven NFL slot receiver and Streater being two seasons removed from an 60 reception, 888-yard season as the Oakland Raiders’ No.1 receiver. But their usage will be out of necessity, not willingness, on Kelly’s part.

With a slew of fill-ins, and Ellington’s potential breakout season being shelved by injury, the 49ers receiving core offers little-to-no excitement both this season and beyond.

Likewise, the 49ers have no clear answer opposite linebacker NaVorro Bowman. The team is so confused in what to do that they kept all three potential contenders for the position on the roster in Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong.

It’s likely that two of the three will see playing time, with different players coming in during different situational downs. Like the wide receivers, though, the second inside linebacker position is a glaring roster hole that has no clear answer moving forward for the 49ers.

Getting the lion’s share of snaps behind an impressive offensive line for the first time in his NFL career, Carlos Hyde has the physical ability to become one of the NFL’s most dominant rushers this season.

On the other hand, Hyde’s inability to stay healthy may also prove to be another source of frustration for San Francisco.

In his two years of service, the young running back has never played a full season in the NFL. While taking the brunt of the blows as a starter last year, Hyde managed just seven games before his year was lost due to a foot injury.

His violent running style has already gotten him in to trouble this year, as he suffered a concussion in Week 3 of the preseason against Green Bay.

In what will be a personal test of attrition, Hyde will look to string together his first healthy season a starter as he attempts to climb the running back echelon in the NFL.

Predicting records is always a crapshoot. But if I had to give a number, I’d say the 49ers end the season with the same 5-11 record as last year.

However, the last thing 49ers should look for this season is the amount of wins the team racks up. 5-11, 6-10, it doesn’t matter. Not in an incredibly stacked NFC West division.

What’s important to remember, is that despite the impending slew of upsetting losses and frustrations, the 49ers enter this season with more talent than last year.

Young and controllable talent no less.

Watch this season not for wins, but for growth on both an individual and by-unit basis and you may make it through the year with the same coffee table and TV you began it with.

Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.