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Pre-Game Recon: Five Questions With Niners Nation

The Niners might be in "rebuild" mode for now, but they will still provide a stiff challenge for Houston's depth this weekend.

Gabbert vs Kaepernick. Yep...this is happening.
Gabbert vs Kaepernick. Yep...this is happening.
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to Sunday Night’s preseason opener against our beloved Texans, David Fucillo of our sister site, Niners Nation, was kind enough to answer a handful of my burning questions about Chip Kelly, Blaine Gabbert, and the enigma that is Colin Kaepernick. Here is what he had to say about some of the most intriguing storylines within the team as Kelly embarks on his first campaign in the bay.

1. Blaine Gabbert versus Colin Kaepernick for a starting job in a Chip Kelly San Francisco. If you had told me four years ago that this would be a thing, I would have laughed in your face, but now that seems to be our reality. Gabbert played much better than his Jacksonville iteration last year in his limited time as the starter, while Kaepernick's obvious mobility advantages seem to make him a perfect fit for Kelly's fast-paced offense. Who seems to be the leader in the clubhouse right now for the starting job?

Blaine Gabbert would appear to be the leader at this point. The reason for that is he got all the first team reps in OTAs and minicamp while Colin Kaepernick was rehabbing a shoulder injury. They are splitting snaps evenly through the first week of training camp, and my guess is one will start versus Houston and the other will start the next week. My guess is Gabbert has the edge because of Kap's missed snaps this spring. It's not necessarily a huge edge, but it's there.

As for the Kelly offense with these two guys, I don't know that the focus on mobility is the right one. It would certainly be valuable in this offense, but the real key is quick decisions and accuracy. Kaepernick's athleticism and arm strength are both off the charts, but his decision-making and accuracy have raised questions in the past. I think he can definitely win this job, but it's not as simple as, he's mobile. Also, it's worth noting that Gabbert is no slouch. I'd say he's more mobile than any of the quarterbacks Kelly had in Philly. The one exception might be Michael Vick, but even he was on the downside at that point.

2. How has DeForest Buckner looked in his first training camp? He was a personal favorite prospect of mine (and arguably one of the three best players in this entire draft), so I'm eager to see how he does as a rookie.

Buckner is off to a strong start. He opened OTAs and minicamp with the third team defense, but has quickly worked his way up to the first team. His former Oregon teammate Arik Armstead has been the most dominant defensive lineman in training camp (as dominant as one can be without full tackling), but Buckner is impressing. The 49ers run a 3-4, and they have used two 1st-team DL looks in camp. They will roll out Armstead and Quinton Dial at defensive end, with Mike Purcell at nose tackle, and then they will run Armstead and Buckner at ends, with Dial at nose tackle. The average height of that latter group is 6'6 1/2". That's filthy. My guess is the team will use the Purcell line more against run heavy teams, and the Buckner line more against pass heavy teams. And of course, Buckner should get plenty of nickel and dime work.

3. What are your impressions of Chip Kelly so far? Are you more confident with him at the helm rather than Jim Tomsula?

I would probably be more confident with a monkey at the helm than Jim Tomsula. He was a really nice guy, and the players liked him, but he proved he had no business being an NFL head coach. As Judge Smails said, the world needs ditch diggers, too.

Thus far, Kelly seems to be enjoying that first year honeymoon. The players say he communicates well (after critiques about that in Philly). All the practices were moved to the morning, so players get done earlier and get through their meetings faster. The offense is running significantly quicker, as would be expected. The real questions at this point are about the personnel. The defense seems to be ahead of the offense, but we don't know what the 49ers' offensive line will look like this season. They invested in it with the additions of Zane Beadles in free agency and Joshua Garnett in the draft. The quarterback position is important in Kelly's offense, but I think if the offensive line improves from the past two years, that could bode well for Kelly's offense.

But yes, 49ers fans like Kelly so far, and are considerably happier with him in charge instead of Tomsula.

4. What can we expect from Carlos Hyde in 2016? Does he deserve all of the hype that he is currently accumulating in fantasy circles?

If he can stay healthy, he most definitely deserves the hype. Through two seasons (the last one abbreviated due to a foot injury), he was among the league leaders in breaking tackles. He has a physical, punishing style that allows for plenty of yards after contact. The big question is if he can stay healthy. He was healthy his first year, and then suffered the foot injury last year. He is not yet "injury prone," but it is something 49ers fans (and fantasy owners) will be tracking this season.

But like in the response above, it could depend on the offensive line as well. With a bad or even average line, I think Hyde has the ability to be a very solid back, but probably more of an RB2 in that situation. With an above average or better line, he's a RB1 and could put up huge numbers. So that difference comes down to the line and his health.

5. Overall, what are your projections for the Niners this season? Do you think they can challenge the rest of their division for a playoff spot, or are they still a couple years away from returning to the upper echelon of the league?

Right now I don't think they are challenging the Seahawks and Cardinals at the top of the division. If the line is improved, they could surprise folks and get up around .500. But with a tougher schedule this year, it is entirely possible they are a better team but still finish with a poor record. I won't say they can't make the playoffs, or they can't finish above .500, but with the turnover and the questions, it's hard to say right now that they will do that.

A big thank you to Dave for stopping by. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve been planning to go "all in" on Carlos Hyde in fantasy football for about six months now, and I agree that if his offensive line is even slightly better than San Francisco’s 2015 lineup, he can be a special, special back.

On top of that, I’m eager to see how Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick perform against a loaded Texans defense (even in the absence of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney). This has the makings to be a really entertaining, but perhaps more importantly a really informative, preseason affair. Sunday night can’t come soon enough!

For my own Q&A with Niners Nation, you can find it at this link right here.

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