Kyle Shanahan sought players with high football character in building the 49ers' Super Bowl team. (Craig Davis for Five Reasons Sports Network)

Pressure Point: 49ers’ turnaround a model for Dolphins’ rebuild

Five Reasons Sports at Super Bowl 54 in Miami

Miami Dolphins fans are relegated to watching wistfully as Super Bowl 54 is contested on their team’s home field on Feb. 2.

They can find hope, though, in knowing that one of the teams vying for the championship was in much the same situation in 2017 as the Dolphins were this past season, beginning a rebuilding process led by a novice head coach and general manager combo.

Like the Dolphins, on the field those San Francisco 49ers were losing. A lot: They started 0-9 in that first season under coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch.

As first-timers in their roles in the NFL, there was reason to question whether Shanahan and Lynch were up to the task.

Dolphins need to find the next Patrick Mahomes

Duo with much to prove

Not unlike the Dolphins leadership tandem of coach Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier, now entering a crucial offseason in the rebuilding process.

The work of Shanahan and Lynch can offer a model for the Dolphins to emulate.

Through deft drafting, augmented by some savvy trades and signings of established players, they pulled off one of the most successful three-year turnarounds in NFL history.

Flores and Grier, beginning their second season as co-leaders of football operations in Miami, have a tough act to follow. Shanahan and Lynch haven’t missed much in an uncanny run of decision-making.

The Dolphins have ample resources to follow a similar path with 14 picks in the 2020 draft and nearly $100 million in cap space, the most in the league. Projecting further, they have stockpiled 10 picks for 2021, including two each in the first and second rounds.

The 49ers drafted 21 of the 53 players on their active roster. Of those, 16 came in the past three drafts (seven others from those drafts remain with the team on injured reserve).

Last year’s draft produced defensive difference-makers Nick Bosa, the second overall pick, and linebacker Dre Greenlaw, their second-leading tackler who was taken in the fifth round.

The turning point in the 49ers’ rebuild came when they traded a second-round draft pick for New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during the 2017 season.

Check out Super Bowl Experience on Miami Beach

More than one way to win

The revelation of this postseason has been a deviation from recent belief that it takes a dominant do-everything quarterback to win a championship in the pass-happy NFL of the 21st Century.

The Kansas City Chiefs, the other Super Bowl finalist, have that in Patrick Mahomes. But, the 49ers beat the Packers and future Hall-of-Fame QB Aaron Rodgers via an old-school formula of stout defense and a punishing running game.

Which path will the Dolphins follow?

Grier, in media interviews last week at the Senior Bowl, made it clear that drafting a quarterback to lead the Dolphins turnaround is a top priority of the organization. And indicated he would utilize some of the extra draft picks the team has amassed if needed to trade into position to select the player he wants.

“You see how important it is around the league,” Grier said. “We think it’s important that we find the right guy who could be the quarterback here for a long time.”

While the 49ers chose a different route in trading for their quarterback, it was just one piece of the puzzle, as it must be for Miami.

The key that shaped the 49ers into a team on the brink of a championship is the attention Lynch paid to building strength on the offensive and defensive lines. That provided the impetus for the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack in 2019 and second-ranked total defense (No. 1 against the pass).

Contrast that to the Dolphins who couldn’t generate the push up front to run the ball effectively at all or muster any semblance of a pass rush and it is obvious where the focus must be beyond obtaining a quarterback.

2017 draft started 49ers turnaround

The process that led to the 49ers turnaround began with the 2017 draft, which notably netted George Kittle, who was endorsed as the current top tight end in the league this week by no less of an expert than Rob Gronkowski, one of the best to play the position.

“When I got [to San Francisco] there were probably 80 percent rookies on the team,” Garoppolo said Tuesday. “So it was a pretty young team. But you could definitely see pieces were there [but] there were parts of it that were missing. But Kyle and John did a great job ever since I got there of bringing in the right people, good people, and it’s transferred onto the field.”

There are a few significant contributors to this run to the Super Bowl who were with the team when Shanahan and Lynch arrived, including 13-year veteran left tackle Joe Staley and running back Raheem Mostert, who had been cut by six teams including the Dolphins.

Three defensive starters were first-round picks in the 2014-16 drafts: safety Jimmie Ward (2014)  and d-linemen Arik Armstead (2015) and DeForest Buckner (2016).

But 46 members of the 53-man roster were acquired by the Shanahan/Lynch regime (See the list of personnel moves below.) They have had considerable success with third-day draft picks, which will be vital to the Dolphins restocking a stripped-down roster. Miami will have six picks in rounds five through seven in this draft.

The other area the 49ers have excelled is in their choice of veterans to add as free agents or via trades, including cornerback Richard Sherman, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, linebacker Kwon Alexander , defensive end Dee Ford and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Chance on Sherman pays off

One of the boldest moves that paid off was the 2018 signing of three-time All-Pro Sherman, coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, to a three-year, $39 million contract.

“He’s creative and he’s always evolving,” Sherman said of Lynch, who had no previous experience as an NFL executive.

“You’ve got the obvious moves like [drafting] Bosa, but you’ve got keeping Arik Armstead, you’ve got paying  Jimmy Garoppolo early, which a lot of people questioned. Those are the things that have made him a great GM is having the foresight and the thought to go against what everybody else thinks.”

The 49ers went 6-10 and 4-12 in the first two years before the 13-3 breakthrough this season followed by the dominating playoff run to the Super Bowl.

Sherman said he was convinced from the time he arrived that the rebuild would lead to this level of success.

“I thought we’d be a little closer last year, but thank God we weren’t because we got Nick [Bosa] out of it,” he said. “We got banged up last year and it ended up being a blessing in disguise.”

There has been a lot of talk this week about team chemistry and the positive vibe in the 49ers locker room — similarly with the Chiefs.

Group of selfless players

That, of course, is easier to maintain when you’re winning. But in this case it was partly by design of the process.

“The one thing I keep coming back to is everybody is very selfless,” Staley said. “It’s a team that really doesn’t care about individual accolades. It’s all about the team, and I think that was built with the people that we’ve brought in here who we’ve drafted.”

Shanahan said: “I always believed culture just has to do with an accumulation of good people. We wanted to get people who really cared about football, people who worked hard.

“We always described it as high football character. When you do that and you make most of your decisions based off of that, usually the culture takes care of itself. You never know if it will work out that way exactly. You hope you are getting the right guys.”

That’s the thing about the rebuilding process, there are no guarantees stockpiling draft picks will pay off. Look at the Cleveland Browns, who can never get it right.

The 49ers, playing Sunday on the Dolphins’ home field, are the poster child for how to turn a team around, and quickly.

Crucial offseason for Dolphins

That’s the gauntlet the Dolphins will attempt to run through beginning this offseason with a boatload of draft picks and cap space.

There were some positive signs in the first season of the Flores/Grier pairing as the Dolphins finished 5-4 following the dreadful 0-7 start. They maintained unity despite the early losing and constant churning of the roster.

But now the real work begins on a team with so many needs: quarterback, pass rush, o-line, running back, corner cover, linebacker — name it, Miami needs it.

Consequently, Super Bowl 54 is just a diversion for Dolfans. Once these teams get off their field Sunday, the important game they care about can begin leading to free agent signings and the NFL draft.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

More on Super Bowl 54 from Five Reasons Sports:

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Here are the personnel moves by Lynch and Shanahan to acquire players since 2017, according to NBCsports.com:

2017

DL Solomon Thomas, 2017, first round
CB Ahkello Witherspoon, 2017, third round
CB C.J. Beathard, 2017, third round
TE George Kittle, 2017, fifth round
QB Nick Mullens, 2017, rookie free agent
RB Matt Breida, 2017, rookie free agent
WR Kendrick Bourne, 2017, rookie free agent
K Robbie Gould, 2017, veteran free agent
DB K’Waun Williams, 2017, veteran free agent
FB Kyle Juszczyk, 2017, veteran free agent
LB Elijah Lee, 2017, veteran free agent
LB Mark Nzeocha, 2017, veteran free agent
DT Sheldon Day, 2017, waiver claim from Jacksonville
LG Laken Tomlinson, 2017, trade from Detroit
QB Jimmy Garoppolo, 2017, trade from New England

2018

RT Mike McGlinchey, 2018, first round
WR Dante Pettis, 2018, second round
LB Fred Warner, 2018, third round
DB Tarvarius Moore, 2018, third round
DB D.J. Reed, 2018, fifth round
S Marcell Harris, 2018, sixth round
WR Richie James, 2018, seventh round
RB Jeff Wilson, 2018, rookie free agent
TE Ross Dwelley, 2018, rookie free agent
CB Emmanuel Moseley, 2018, rookie free agent
CB Richard Sherman, 2018, veteran free agent
RG Mike Person, 2018, veteran free agent

2019

DE Nick Bosa, 2019, first round
WR Deebo Samuel, 2019, second round
P Mitch Wishnowsky, 2019, fourth round
LB Dre Greenlaw, 2019, fifth round
OT Justin Skule, 2019, sixth round
LB Azeez Al-Shaair, 2019, rookie free agent
DL Kevin Givens, 2019, rookie free agent
LB Kwon Alexander, 2019, veteran free agent
RB Tevin Coleman, 2019, veteran free agent
OL Ben Garland, 2019, veteran free agent
OL Daniel Brunskill, 2019, veteran free agent
TE Levine Toilolo, 2019, veteran free agent
CB Dontae Johnson, 2019, veteran free agent
WR Jordan Matthews, 2019, veteran free agent
DL Anthony Zettel, 2019, veteran free agent
DT Earl Mitchell, 2019, veteran free agent
TE Daniel Helm, 2019, waiver claim from L.A. Chargers
DE Dee Ford, 2019, trade from Kansas City
WR Emmanuel Sanders, 2019, trade from Denver

INJURED RESERVE
TE Garrett Celek, 2012, rookie free agent
DE Ronald Blair, 2016, fifth-round draft pick
WR Trent Taylor, 2017, fifth-round draft pick
NT D.J. Jones, 2017, sixth-round draft pick
WR Marquise Goodwin, 2017, veteran free agent
DL Kentavius Street, 2018, fourth-round draft pick
DL Jullian Taylor, 2018, seventh-round draft pick
RB Jerick McKinnon, 2018, veteran free agent
C Weston Richburg, 2018, veteran free agent
T Shon Coleman, 2018, trade from Cleveland
WR Jalen Hurd, 2019, third-round draft pick
CB Tim Harris, 2019, sixth-round draft pick
WR Shawn Poindexter, 2019, rookie free agent
OL Andrew Lauderdale, 2019, veteran fee agent
DL Damontre Moore, 2019, veteran free agent
CB Jason Verrett, 2019, veteran free agent

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