The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2017 with a rookie head coach, and a rookie GM. Coincidentally, they lead the league in rookie snaps. with 2,874 snaps taken by rookies, the 49ers lead the second place Saints by more than 661 more than the second-ranked Saints. At first glance, the 2017 rookie class put together an incredible year and should continue to do so. Here’s a look at what to anticipate now that they are no longer rookies.
To say that Solomon Thomas had a disappointing rookie season would be an understatement. When John Lynch and Co. fleeced the Bears to move down one spot and still get their guy at number three overall, expectations were high. Unfortunately, an archaic rule (since repealed) about graduation dates kept Thomas out of OTAs and rookie minicamp, putting him behind the curve from the get-go. Despite his fairly consistent success against the run, he struggled to find his spot along the DL defensive line in the first part of the season and seemed lost in the sauce from time to time (a couple plays in the Washington game stand out). However, by season’s end, he appeared to have found his footing and carved out a niche as an interior pass rusher alongside DeForest Buckner.
Robert Saleh and the 49ers look as though they are going to capitalize on that chemistry moving forward. Thomas will still struggle at times if required to line up outside, but should continue to build on solid run D and a nice repertoire of inside pass rush moves. Double digit sacks is a bit farfetched at the moment, however, Thomas should begin to resemble why the 49ers took him so high in the draft.
Let’s start with this: Reuben Foster is the most exciting defensive player to put on a 49ers uniform since Patrick Willis was suited up in the terrible dark red unis. That said, injuries put a damper on his rookie campaign and questionable decisions this offseason have saddled Reuben with a two-game suspension. When on the field, he is impossible to miss with his long white sleeves and knack for laying the lumber. Without a doubt, Foster has the tools to be an All-Pro linebacker. His sophomore season will be about putting them all together on the field and keeping his head on straight.
Following his suspension, Foster should be able to build on his tremendous skillset as an all-around, three-down player. While many saw coverage as a weak spot in his game, he graded out in the top-10 across the league among all qualified linebackers. Reuben was also graded out in the top-10 against the run, making him one of five players to do that. The expectations will be high this year and not without reason. Look for Foster to take that next step towards being a top-5 LB in the NFL.
A third-round pick that started playing football later than most, Ahkello Witherspoon turned out to be one of the better picks the 49ers made last season. During training camp, however, it did not appear as though that would be the case. Between getting trucked by Carlos Hyde into the end zone and showing some signs of struggling to grasp the speed of the game, Witherspoon was a healthy scratch for the first few games of the season. Injuries forced him into the lineup and his baptism by fire proved to be the turning point. He tied for the team lead in both interceptions and passes defensed playing in a depleted 49ers secondary.
Entering his second year, Witherspoon will be playing across from one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, Richard Sherman. “Uncle Sherm” should provide valuable mentorship and be a significant upgrade over former running mate Dontae Johnson. Look for Witherspoon to continue to build on a strong rookie performance with a year under his belt in the system. He will take his lumps but should also be a top-20 CB.
The first offensive player drafted in the Shanahan era was an odd one. The 49ers traded up from the fourth round into the third to draft the QB out of Iowa. Not at all expected to start, Beathard was thrust into the starting lineup well before he was ready after Brian Hoyer floundered terribly. He completed just 54.9% of his passes with a 4:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. C.J.Beathard did lead the team to their first victory with a win over the Giants but was relegated back to the bench when Jimmy Garoppolo had enough grasp of the offense to take the reins.
Beathard will once again back up Jimmy Garoppolo. A true student of the game, he will continue to learn from the incredible mind of Kyle Shanahan but barring an injury will not see the field except in a serious blowout. That is not necessarily a bad thing. A year behind a clipboard was probably what C.J.Beathard needed during his rookie season, anyway.
The second offensive player drafted in the Shanahan era was also an odd one. Joe Williams had been completely taken off the draft board by John Lynch, only to be persuaded to take him by Kyle Shanahan and his running backs coach, Bobby Turner. Williams struggled mightily during the preseason with a case of the fumbles and was stashed on IR with an “ankle injury.”
It is hard to see where Williams fits in with the depth chart the way it is. Jerick McKinnon was just made a very rich man and Matt Breida (more on him soon) played extremely well down the stretch last season. There’s no doubting Joe Williams’s speed but McKinnon and Breida possess that same attribute. He very well may be fighting for a roster spot due to his lack of ability to contribute on special teams.
The ninth tight end drafted in the 2017 Draft, George Kittle fell to the fifth round partly due to the run-first offense with C.J. Beathard as his college QB. He fought through injuries most of last season but truly burst onto the scene once Jimmy Garoppolo took over. Finishing second among rookie tight ends with 515 receiving yards receiving, Kittle showed flashes of athleticism and the run-after-catch ability that Shanahan covets.
An extra offseason with Garoppolo will translate to very good numbers for George Kittle in 2018. Assuming he can avoid the injury bug that bit him last season, he could finish in the top-10 among all TEs in receptions and yards. The 49ers lack of a true red zone target could also lead to a serious uptick in touchdowns, as well. Look forward to a very good second year from Kittle.
“Undersized” and “slow” were two words consistently attached to Trent Taylor during the draft process. Taylor proved the critics wrong with pristine route running and solid hands. He posted 43 catches for 430 yards and a pair of scores. Unsurprisingly, he was another player that a bump in his play when Garoppolo started slinging the rock. A shifty slot WR, Taylor also posted solid punt return numbers to go with his penchant for third down conversions.
Taylor will not likely resume his punt return duties after the team drafted college football’s most prolific punt returner in, Dante Pettis, ; however, he will continue to occupy the slot. As a key role in Shanahan’s offense, the slot will be very productive for Taylor. He will be stuck in a crowded WR corps but will carve out his spot to remain on the field.
A late round pick, D.J. Jones appeared in nine games for the 49ers with a logjam of defensive linemen in front of him last season. Seen as more of a nose tackle/run stuffer, Jones played well with the time he was given. With his position, it will never overload the stat sheet, but he did his job.
Jones still faces an uphill battle to make the roster. The gridlock has not gotten any less crowded in front of him on the depth chart. A rotational backup is probably the best to expect from him this coming year.
Seen as a raw prospect coming out of Utah, Taumoepenu was a healthy scratch for 14 of the 16 games. He never made an impact on the field during games and is seen as a pass rushing specialist.
Luckily for Taumoepenu, pass rusher is the weakest position on the whole squad. If he made significant strides during the offseason, he has an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Training camp will be the true make or break moment to see if he can eclipse either Cassius Marsh or Jeremy Attaochu on the depth chart.
Making an instant impression on special teams, seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert worked his way into the starting defensive lineup after injuries to the starting safeties. Once he got a taste, he worked to make sure he’d never get it back. Quickly becoming one of the bigger hitters and bigger personalities on the team, stand out plays in multiple games put him on the map. Although sometimes it looks like he cares more about big hits than technique, a closer look at the tape reveals that he tackles with form and plays the ball well when it’s in the air.
The sky is the limit for Colbert. Alongside Jaquiski Tartt, they form one of the better safety duos in the league. His play has even forced the team to move Jimmie Ward back to CB for the time being. Adrian should become a well-known name across the league. While he had no interceptions last season, look for that to change with better corners playing in front of him. The Pro Bowl is a realistic goal for Colbert to have this upcoming season.
The first of two UDFAs on this list, Matt Breida not only worked his way onto the roster, he beat out veteran Tim Hightower and fellow rookie Joe Williams for the primary backup role. Serving as the change of pace back, he averaged half a yard per carry more than lead back Carlos Hyde. Breida was also solid in the receiving game and as a pass blocker. He possesses an extra gear that works extremely well in Shanahan’s outside zone scheme.
This season, Breida joins fellow Georgia Southern RB Jerick McKinnon in an extremely fast backfield. Expect him to continue to be the primary backup running back even though his skillset is very similar to McKinnon. Running behind an upgraded offensive line, his numbers should see hike up a bit. Steadier QB play should also bump his receiving numbers, as well.
Another 2017 UDFA, Kendrick Bourne only had only 16 catches in 11 games last season. However, it seemed like each one of those catches kept a drive alive or moved the ball down field significantly. He worked his way onto the field as the 49ers receiving corps suffered injuries and made the most of it. His 54-yard catch and run against the Titans was his stand out play of the season.
A sexy pick to be the 49ers breakout player after solid OTAs and minicamp, Bourne will be given every opportunity to earn playing time this year. Very similar to Trent Taylor, he is part of an extremely talented WR group and will have to do something to separate himself from the crowd. He is all but a lock to make the roster again and should contribute key plays for the team all season long. Don’t expect huge, 1,000 yard numbers but very respectable third-string WR numbers are well within reach.
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