Molina: Why 2017 is the Year of the Rookie?

When John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan took over as General Manager and Head Coach respectively much was made of the clean slate that they would have to make over the roster. A huge benefit that they had working in their favor was the amount of draft picks they had at their disposal, which they used to have what most consider one of the best draft classes of any team this year. They were also quite aggressive during the UDFA period and added several undrafted free agents that were graded as draftable prospects.

Throughout the spring and summer many beat writers have published articles on these rookies, highlighting the potential impact that they could have on this year’s team, a team that was low on entrenched starters. From first-round picks DE Solomon Thomas and LB Reuben Foster to undrafted free agents S Lorenzo Jerome and RB Matt Breida much has been made about this year’s rookie class.

Thomas showed off his versatility against the Chiefs as he was lined up in multiple spots along the defensive line and proved to be the disruptive and effective force that Lynch and Shanahan drafted him to be.

Given the reports from practice and what he has done in coverage it won't be long before Foster generates the first turnover of football career.

After a slow start against the Chiefs, Jerome rebounded nicely against the Broncos. He was impactful against the run and the pass and has very quickly proven to be a vital piece going forward as either a potential future starter at Free Safety or as the current backup to Jimmie Ward. A massive success given that he is an undrafted free agent rookie out of an FCS school, St. Francis University in Pennsylvania.

While Breida did not see the field Saturday against the Broncos as the team wanted to see what the rest of the RB group could do he more than made his intentions known during the preseason opener. He showcase all of the traits that made him of the more sought after UDFAs. Power, speed and versatility, he showcased a skillset that has thrived in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and along with fellow rookie Joe Williams proved that they could impactful rookies who in 2018 and beyond could share duties as the primary RB duo for the team.

This group has expanded upon that early hype and in the 1st two games of the preseason they have shown real potential and should have the fan base excited for what they can do this upcoming season. Of course mistakes will be made, that is to be expected from the young and inexperienced but the more opportunities they receive the shorter the period of adjustment that they should have. They have benefited from the schedule makers as they have played two of the best rosters in the NFL in the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos and will play their “dress rehearsal” against one of the better defenses in the entire league in the Minnesota Vikings.

Each game of the preseason has had a group of rookies really shine, whether it was Thomas, Foster, Beathard, Williams, Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne and Breida in KC or George Kittle, Jerome, D.J. Jones, Pita Taumoepenu and Victor Bolden Jr. Saturday at Levi’s Stadium. Some will look to minimize the impact of these performances by arguing that we should take into account the level of talent that the rookies are playing against, the lack of game planning that is done and the limited amount of snaps that they have played. While these are valid arguments to consider that should not dispel the fan base from enjoying what they have been seeing from this group. Even if it is against a lower level of competition this group of rookies have collectively been able to hold their own and pass the proverbial “eye test”. We tend to forget that these are individuals that are fighting for their careers and are just as hungry and motivated as the players and teams that we focus most of our attention on.

Because of the position he plays QB C.J. Beathard has gotten a lot of coverage, our very Jay Moore did his own film analysis on his play Saturday.

Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area went as far as to say that Beathard is the best rookie QB he has ever seen in his time covering the 49ers. Maiocco recounted a story he heard from those in the organization about Beathard on the NBC Sports Bay Area show The Happy Hour with Kelli Johnson and Ray Ratto. The 49ers are one of 7 teams that have a partnership with STRIVR Labs, a VR company that has developed technology that is used to aide in the training of football players, especially QBs. In a one week span Beathard spent his off time reviewing over 1,000 practice snaps, Beathard was quoted as saying on the time he spent with STRIVR Labs technology, “You only get limited reps in practice, but you're able to watch through virtual reality, essentially every rep in practice – all of Brian’s and Matt’ and go back and watch mine, and kind of play things out in your head as you watch practice”. A true sign that Beathard whose mindset is more advance than most rookie QBs.

Justis Mosqueda of the Setting The Edge podcast has evaluated every QB that has played in the preseason and amongst the rookies Beathard has graded out the best.

It is very unlikely that the plan for Beathard is to see the field this season but if he can beat out Matt Barkley for the backup spot behind starter Brian Hoyer with his play this preseason it will be a huge success for him and for the organization as the pick was viewed very negatively when it was made. These developmental snaps will vital for his growth as a QB and could play a factor in the team’s decision making longterm when it comes to the QB position.

Even unheralded members of this rookie class have shown real potential; Erik Magnuson who is making the conversion from Right Tackle to a Center/Guard swing man role at the next level has been one of the more consistent offensive linemen for the team these first two games of the preseason. Darnell Williams Jr., who was overshadowed by his former Western Kentucky teammate and 2nd round pick by the Los Angeles Chargers Forrest Lamp has shown the type of physical traits during the offseason and during the preseason that have teams salivating over in an era where developing offensive tackles is given a huge premium.

They will struggle, they will be frustrated by the level of talent they will be completing against week in and week out throughout the 2017 season but that should not take away from the potential that these rookies have. The fans will be frustrated by the mistakes that these rookies make but given where the franchise is currently they will be forced to depend on this class to play a significant role in the success, however you want to quantify success for the 2017 San Francisco 49ers.

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