SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan put his faith in a select few veterans when he arrived in 2017.
Three years later, the guidance of players such as left tackle Joe Staley and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner had turned a broken culture into a winning one as the Niners surged to a 13-3 record and an NFC title.
"We looked back from when we first got here and Joe Staley, DeForest Buckner, those guys were as strong and good of veterans as anyone I've been around," said Shanahan, who started 0-9 and had just 10 wins in two seasons before last year's run. " ... When your best players are like Joe Staley and Buckner, that's what allows you to weather a storm like we did and have a turnaround that we're extremely proud of."
And now, they're gone. The Niners did their best to keep much of their NFC championship team together, but the few losses they did suffer were big ones. When Buckner's price tag soared, the 49ers traded him to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick. Citing health concerns, Staley made the difficult decision to retire.
All told, the Niners lost 404 games and 20,712 snaps of regular and postseason game experience. While San Francisco acquired obvious replacements for Staley, Buckner and Sanders in Trent Williams, Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, respectively, the question of who will replace them as locker room leaders still lingers as the 49ers head into training camp.
Perhaps none of the departed players will be missed more than Staley. He played all of his 13 seasons with the Niners, earning six Pro Bowl nods and a spot on the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2010s. More important, Staley was a pillar in the locker room through the franchise's many ups and downs, which gave him unique insight into how to handle both the good and the bad the right way.
"I don't think there’s any replacing Joe Staley," tight end George Kittle said. "But I think what Joe did such a great job of was, he did instill a lot of great values and virtues into most of the team and all the guys that he got to communicate with. ... We’re going to have guys and we’re all going to have an opportunity to step up and fill the shoes that Joe left behind."
In four seasons in San Francisco, Buckner was a two-time captain. He earned the Len Eshmont Award, given to the player who "best exemplifies inspirational and courageous play," in 2018 and the Bill Walsh Award, given to the team MVP, in 2019. Soon after news of the trade broke, multiple teammates took to social media to express their support for Buckner.
"We're all going to have to pick it up to fill that void," defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. "I think we're up for it. ... I think we’re built the right way to adjust to something like this."
Sanders didn't have the longevity with the team of Staley and Buckner but his impact was immense and immediate, especially in a room full of mostly young and unproven wideouts. Beyond his production on the field -- 36 catches for 502 yards and three touchdowns in 10 regular-season games with the Niners -- Sanders could regularly be found counseling young receivers like Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne on the finer points of route running, among other things.
"When we got Emmanuel, the whole room changed," Samuel said. "I mean, he brought the leader mentality, like the vet mentality that we needed in the room. Any time we needed advice or anything, he was always there. The things that he told us about the game, whether it’s like on the field or off the field, taking care of your body and things like that. But the loss of him, it was kind of big."
The 49ers still have leaders. They welcome back previous captains such as cornerback Richard Sherman, kicker Robbie Gould, Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Among those who likely will be in the mix to be captains are Williams, linebackers Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander, tackle Mike McGlinchey and Armstead.
But even if they aren't voted captains, emerging young stars such as end Nick Bosa and Samuel know that more will be expected of them moving forward.
"We still have plenty of leadership on the team," Bosa said. "For guys like me and Deebo and Dre [Greenlaw], rookies that played a lot, I think it's time for us where we're not just deers in headlights anymore, we know the routine, we know how an NFL season works and now we can really just take the next step."