There are seven games left on the schedule for the San Francisco 49ers, so it's only fitting that we've highlighted seven topics that will dominate the headlines over the next few months.
Here's an in-depth, bye week breakdown of the team's most noteworthy narratives moving forward. 1. Gabbert's tenure as the 49ers quarterback
How long will Blaine Gabbert be starting under center? This could very well be a week-to-week question. All that Jim Tomsula has promised is that Gabbert will start in Week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks. That's it.
That puts pressure on the fifth-year quarterback to earn the job each game. Gabbert was impressive in his first outing, throwing for 185 yards and two first-half touchdowns. The road gets much tougher from here, though. San Francisco's next two contests are against the Seahawks and Arizona Caridnals. Those two teams, heralded for their stout defenses, will serve as a good barometer for whether or not Gabbert will keep the job for the remainder of the regular season.
2. The progress of Hyde's foot
After a blistering start to 2015, Pierre Garçon's foot injury has put the running back on the shelf for the time being. Hyde battled through the ailment for two games against the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks before being shut down the last two contests.
San Francisco has done an admirable job finding pieces to fill Hyde's shoes, but there's no question that the 49ers need their franchise runner back. The second-year running back has a rare combination of lateral quickness, downhill burst and power to break tackles. The 49ers haven't given a timetable for if/when they believe Hyde will be ready for game action once again.
Until Hyde's return, whoever carries the workload for the 49ers will be an interesting situation to follow. Against the Atlanta Falcons, it was Shaun Draughn. That could change by the week, especially with Travaris Cadet in the mix now.
3. A "more confident" Bowman
The 49ers star linebacker said in a recent 1-on-1 interview with 49ers Studios that he is feeling "more confident and (is) reacting faster to what teams are trying to do." NaVorro Bowman offered that response when asked about his quote following the Falcons game when he said that "the corner is being turned" in regards to his knee.
Connect those two dots and it sounds like Bowman is getting closer to 100 percent. Watching the linebacker play at full-throttle for seven games sounds like appointment viewing.
In nine games this season, Bowman has two sacks and his 88 tackles rank second in the NFL (Indianapolis Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has 93).
4. The youth movement defensively
San Francisco's Week 9 win over the Falcons served as the signature moment for the young players on defense.
Marcus Cromartie had two tackles for loss and led the team with seven solo stops just one day after being called up from the practice squad. Dontae Johnson held Julio Jones in check and had a pass breakup in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Jimmie Ward saved a touchdown, tackling Justin Hardy near the goal line on the very next play.
Aaron Lynch is turning into a bona fide star pass-rusher and has already matched his rookie season total with six sacks.
Jaquiski Tartt has made plays in both of his first two starts, including a crushing hit on Jones last Sunday. There's also Kenneth Acker, who is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Arik Armstead, along with a number of others, also continue to show flashes of potential.
5. The rotation at offensive line
Left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Alex Boone and center Marcus Martin have remained constant through nine games. However, the 49ers have begun shuffling the right side of the o-line. Andrew Tiller and Jordan Devey have been splitting reps for a few games now at right guard.
Now rookie tackle Trent Brown has entered the mix. For nine snaps against the Falcons, Brown made his NFL debut at right tackle while Erik Pears slid inside to right guard.
Jim Tomsula has said that the team will continue to shuffle guys around until they find a combination or two that works.
The 49ers didn't allow a sack against Atlanta so things are certainly trending upwards.
6. The depth chart at cornerback
Tramaine Brock, Acker and Keith Reaser had a strangle hold on the top three cornerback spots through eight games. That was, of course, until all three corners missed the Falcons game due to injury.
That opened the door for Johnson, Cromartie and newly-acquired Chris Davis to earn their stripes. As mentioned above, all three were standouts in San Francisco's win.
It will be curious to see if any of the three have carved out a bigger role in the team's defense. When Brock, Acker and Reaser are back to health, each player's snap count on Sundays will be worth monitoring.
7. Food for thought
Here are a few more questions that will be answered in the next seven weeks.
- Will Daniel Kilgore play this season?
- Will Mike Davis play again this year?
- Who will be the next player called up from the practice squad?
- Will Jarryd Hayne get another shot in 2015?
- Who will be the surprise performer of the second half?
- Will Anquan Boldin's hamstring hold up over the final seven games?
- Which best friend will record an interception first, Tartt or Ward?