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49ers season may not be a lost cause after all



hyde carlos denver preseason

Chip Kelly won’t be making the playoffs in his first year as the head coach of the 49ers. He won’t be finding a long-term solution at the quarterback position, either.

But Saturday against the Denver Broncos was a perfect display of what Kelly can hope to squeeze out of a frustrating season.

Young building blocks Eric Reid and Carlos Hyde were the stars of the show in preseason game No. 2 and that trend could continue come Week 1. The 24-year-old safety had an interception return for a touchdown. Hyde slugged his way through a dense Denver defense on a 20-yard gallop, and also scored a touchdown for himself.

If Reid, Hyde and a handful of other young building blocks make big personal jumps in 2016, the 49ers will be sitting in a much prettier place come 2017, where they can hopefully insert a quarterback into the puzzle.

The season before Russell Wilson arrived in Seattle, the Seahawks were doing the same exact thing — developing their core roster. It’s exactly what the 49ers hope to emulate. Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman each had four interceptions, K.J. Wright was a young linebacker who posted 50 tackles and Doug Baldwin snagged 51 receptions and four touchdowns. Even with a band-aid at quarterback in Tarvaris Jackson, the 2011 Seahawks became an incubation lab for young talent waiting for liftoff once a promising quarterback arrived.

Theoretically, the same can happen in San Francisco. While the fan base has justifiable frustrations with Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick, there are pieces in place that can evolve and grow as football players. The talent may not be as elite as Seattle’s, but the foundation is there.

The maturation process can take time in the NFL, and different aspects can lead different players to hone in on their potential. Reid just had his second child, and is in a contract season. Hyde, drafted in 2014, completely missed out on the Harbaugh era and desperately wants to return to the winning ways he experienced at Ohio State.

“Going against the team who won the Super Bowl last year, those guys, they are up there,” Hyde said about the Broncos. “We’re trying to get to where they’re at.”

If Reid becomes an elite safety in the NFC and Hyde rushes for 1,300 yards, the 49ers are going to be grinning from ear-to-ear — and it could save GM Trent Baalke’s job, even with a 5-11 record. They’ll need help, of course, especially from their young compadres.

Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner will have to become playmakers, not space-eaters. Eli Harold needs to emerge as a consistent pass rusher. Whether it’s Gerald Hodges, Ray-Ray Armstrong or Michael Wilhoite, somebody has to be a reliable coverage linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman. Obviously, how well Jimmie Ward and Tramaine Brock play will have a direct effect on Reid. If he’s cleaning up their messes, he’ll never make the leap; if they’re locking down receivers, he’ll have more freedom to jump passes like he did in the first quarter on Trevor Siemian.

For Hyde, success will be more challenging. Struggles from Gabbert and/or Kaepernick will lead to opposing defenses stacking eight in the box — forcing one of the flawed quarterbacks to beat them through the air and suffocating any running lanes for Hyde. Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington will have to get open if Hyde’s going to break out. An improved offensive line could be Hyde’s saving grace, and he is going to become a larger pass-catcher out of the backfield. Most importantly, Hyde also has to prove he can stay healthy for 16 games.

If there are two players poised to breakout in 2016, you saw it on the field in Denver Saturday night. Eric Reid and Carlos Hyde’s potential stardom is so close you can taste it. If they produce come September, 2016 won’t be a completely wasted season after all.