San Francisco 49ers: Predicting each rookie’s role, impact after 2017 NFL Draft

by James Lebreton

Niner Noise takes a look at the 2017 San Francisco 49ers’ rookie class following the NFL Draft. What will each players’ respective roles and impact be this upcoming season?

Heading into the 2017 NFL Draft there wasn’t a San Francisco 49ers fan around short on high hopes.

Although John Lynch had never taken on the draft before, as a former elite player he holds the ability to smell talent from up to a mile away.

At the beginning of the first round the 49ers started with 10 draft picks. By the time it was over John Lynch had netted two first round talents, two additional picks for next season and still came out of the third day with 10 players.

At quick glance, Lynch and Shanahan teamed up to fill all the teams big needs. The two of them have done their job. Now it’s time for the players to step up and show the coaches why they were worthy of a draft selection.

This is a fairly young team, and with the amount of blank spots on the roster, every position is up for grabs.

Let’s take a look at the 49ers recent draft choices and analyze their fit for the upcoming season.

Solomon Thomas – Round 1: Pick 3

Usually the first pick is a slam dunk in terms of why they were picked at that spot.

In this case, there were more names than usual in speculation on who number two overall would be. After a trade with the Chicago Bears the 49ers selected Solomon Thomas at number three overall. Though his name was thrown around quite a bit in connection with the 49ers, not everyone was sold on Thomas being the selection.

After two consecutive years of drafting defensive lineman, it seemed as though the pick would be used to bolster another unit on the roster. However, when it was time for Roger Goodell to announce their selection, the 49ers spent yet another pick on a soldier for the defensive front.

Many people don’t see the fit, but without Solomon Thomas the front four wouldn’t be a complete unit. Now that Thomas is officially a 49er, let’s pin point his scheme fit, and how his ability will complement the defense.

According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas is a base defensive end that can also play the nose in sub packages. Last year, the 49ers ran a 3-4 style of defense with Armstead and Buckner manning the ends. Like all other 3-4 defenses the front line was complete with a defensive tackle. Although, unlike other teams, the 49ers operated with no specific starter, they used more of an inside man by committee.

Under Coach Shanahan, the franchise has something they haven’t had in many seasons, a clear direction. Now with the selection of Solomon Thomas, the newly assigned 4-3 defensive scheme appears to be complete.

Earl Mitchell, who was recently acquired in free agency, will play the nose tackle position. He’s a big bodied defender that will line up across from the center. His primary role is to stuff the run, and draw a  double-team between the center and the pulling guard.

To his right is another defensive tackle known as the 3-tech. Last year, DeForest Buckner had an outstanding rookie season with the majority of his success playing the 3-tech. Moving him would be a mistake.

Playing to the right of Buckner is the six tech, also known as the strong side, he’s the primary pass rusher. This position, conveniently enough, is where Arik Armstead simply dominated last year.

Rounding out the four-man front is the weak side defensive end. His job is to get after the quarterback and focus on the run game as well. Quite simply, there’s nothing weak about him.

Some people question the ability of Solomon Thomas due to his lack of size. However, optimal defensive ends in this very system range between 265 to 295 pounds. Thomas plays at a quick and agile 273. He’s fast around the corner, and he finishes his tackles when in pursuit of the ball carrier.

Fixing the defense is no easy task, but through free agency and the draft the team appears to be whole again. Solomon Thomas is just what this defense needed to pull it all together. At the number three selection he is easily the best player available in terms of scheme fit. Not to mention the fact that Lynch got his man and three extra picks after moving down only one spot.

Needless to say, Thomas will be a day one starter and a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.

Prediction: Starting DE

 

Reuben Foster – Round 1: Pick 31

For months, Reuben Foster’s name was tied to the 49ers in one way, shape or form.

After three seasons of leaving Navarro Bowman to fend for himself in the middle of the field, Foster was the only pick that made sense. He’s been labeled as a top five pick, and quite possibly one of the best defenders to enter the draft.

However, after news of a dilute sample broke franchises steered clear of the Alabama prospect.

Though the 49ers selected Solomon Thomas with the number three overall pick it still seemed as though destiny wanted the 49ers to draft Foster. With day one coming to a close, John Lynch pulled off a trade that would get his team back into the first round. All he had to surrender was the 34th pick and pick number 111 that he acquired earlier that night from the Chicago Bears.

With the Saints looking closely at the Butkus Award winner with pick number 32, Lynch wasted no time pulling him off the big board.

Foster brings a level of play back to the 49ers defense that has been missing since Patrick Willis retired. Foster should be a day one starter. In fact he should be one of the best on the team.

With Navarro Bowman settling into the MIKE position, Foster looks to be a WILL candidate. That would put him directly behind fellow newcomer Solomon Thomas.

Anyone out there see a problem with that?

Coined as the most complete linebacker in the draft according to Pro Football Focus, Rueben Foster is the complete package. He can provide heavy pressure on the quarterback as evident by his five sacks in 2016. He’s also had great success dropping back into coverage. In his junior season he logged 10 passes defensed, all of them resulting in a defensive stop.

Foster will have no problem starting over Ahmad Brooks, and has all the tools to beat out Aaron Lynch. As a senior against the run, he recorded 20 tackles in 106 snaps, that’s a run stop percentage of 14.2, 15 of those stops resulting in a turnover on downs.

He’s the kind of guy you build franchises around. With any luck, he won’t just perfect his position for many years to come, his presence should help preserve the career of Navarro Bowman.

Once again, the 49ers have themselves two of the most feared linebackers in the game.

Prediction: Starting OLB

 

Ahkello Witherspoon – Round 3: Pick 66

At quick glance the 49ers have one of the youngest secondaries in the national football league. Add in the release of Tramaine Brock and the 49ers are starving for proven starters.

With pick number 66 in the third round, John Lynch may have remedied that situation. Ahkello Witherspoon is long, lanky, and athletic in build. Even more intriguing than his body frame is the most recent comparison to Richard Sherman.

He’s the perfect complement to Rashard Robinson, who just may be the starter on the other side of the field. At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds he will have no problem posting up against the taller receivers in the league. His 33 inch arms will allow him to stay aggressive in the 49ers new look physical defense.

By surrendering only 28 catches on 88 targets, he’s the definition of a lock down corner. That’s a remarkable completion percentage of 31.8, and was good enough for fifth in the nation.

Last year, the 49ers secondary gave up a completion percentage of 61.8 percent as a unit. This is not a horrible unit. In fact, they were one of the few bright spots on the team overall.

However, with the exit of Brock this unit has been left with a huge question mark in terms of who can start and who provides good depth. Regardless of who steps up, there is always a need to get better. With the addition of Ahkello Witherspoon, the 49ers have done just that.

With his proven ability and coverage skills, Witherspoon could push for the starting job right away. With the lack of proven starters at the cornerback position, he may be forced to sooner than he thinks.

Prediction: Starting CB

 

C.J. Beathard – Round 3: Pick 104

It’s no secret that the 49ers need help along the entire roster. However, since the turn of free agency, its the quarterback position that’s been getting all the chatter.

In large part to the additions of Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, Shanahan can sit back and weigh his options of who will be the next franchise quarterback. Before the start of the draft there was talk that maybe the 49ers would invest a high pick at the quarterback position.

On the other hand, Shanahan who was fully aware of Kirk Cousins discontent in Washington could’ve banked on a reunion for next season. By selecting C.J Beathard with pick number 104 in the third round, the 49ers made it perfectly clear which direction they were headed.

All signs point to Kirk cousins in 2018, but that doesn’t mean that you should count out Beathard by any means. He was 12-2 as a starter last year for Iowa while leading them to a Rose Bowl appearance against Stanford.

He will have his chance to compete with Hoyer and Barkley. He could quite possibly win the starting job. After all, he’s been on the team less than a week, and has already been placed in a position to succeed.

Shanahan has a knack for getting maximum potential from his quarterbacks, and in the fifth round the 49ers drafted a familiar pair of hands in George Kittle.

In four years with the Hawkeyes, Beathard posted a average career rating of 129.8 while throwing for over 5500 yards. Many people have high hopes for the youngster, and the comparisons to existing players are already starting to roll in.

Realistically, he’s a third string quarterback, but if the 49ers decide to only carry two quarterbacks on the roster then he’ll see action on the practice squad. Last year, Shanahan carried three quarterbacks on the roster, there’s no reason to think that he won’t this year as well.

Prediction: Third String QB

 

Joe Williams – Round 4: Pick 121

Carlos Hyde is in a lot of trouble. Not because the team signed Tim Hightower, or because they traded for Kapri Bibbs during the draft. Having a platoon of running backs is the normal Shanahan thing to do.

The reason that Hyde should kick it into high gear is because the 49ers drafted Joe Williams. Last year, the former Ute ran for over 1400 yards and averaged 6.7 yards-per-carry. He also knows how to get small and escape through blocks. However, his biggest asset yet is his speed, once he reaches the open field he’s as good as gone. Last year alone, Williams posted 22 runs of 15 yards or more.

Being the first to sign his rookie contract just shows that he’s all business, and can’t wait to compete.

Although he is coming into a system that operates with multiple running backs, Williams is capable of handling a heavy workload. In 2016, he averaged just over 27 carries-per-game through his last seven games of the season.

In free agency, the 49ers have done their due diligence to upgrade the offensive line, and they signed one of the best fullbacks in the game in Juszczyk.

The stage is set for one of these young running backs to pull ahead of the rest of the pack. Joe Williams is definitely capable of being that running back. He could easily run away with the starting job, but realistically he’ll see 30% of the workload.

Prediction: Platoon RB

 

George Kittle – Round 5: Pick 146

In the fifth round the 49ers selected Iowa tight end George Kittle with pick number 146 overall.

This came as no surprise for two major reasons. First, Shanahan is known for running plays with two-three tight end sets.

Second, the 49ers are not exactly overflowing with talent at the tight end position. In the off-season, Shanahan signed free agent Logan Paulsen. His reception total will not amaze you, but he is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.

Kittle is not only NFL ready, he was one of the better blocking tight ends to enter the draft. He also enters the league, by way of the 49ers, with established chemistry. In two years as upperclassman, Kittle and Beathard connected on 42 passes for 604 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Although Beathard won’t win the starting job, this is a connection we could see quite often in the preseason.

Vance McDonald’s game can be underwhelming, but Kittle won’t push him for the job initially. However, in time he could be the starter based on his versatility alone. For now, he beats out Garrett Celek for second string.

Prediction: Second String TE

 

Trent Taylor – Round 5: Pick 177

Trent Taylor isn’t the biggest guy on the field, but he just might be the quickest. So don’t sleep on him, or he will light you up. He gets open, breaks free and he moves the chains quickly.

In four seasons with Louisiana Tech, Taylor averaged 12.8 yards per catch. And that’s not just because he got lucky with a few deep grabs to boost his average. He’s the Bulldogs all-time leader in receptions with 327. That stat speaks volumes more so when you consider that his teammate was Carlos Henderson. Although Henderson had more yards and receiving touchdowns, Taylor bested him by more than 50 receptions.

In his senior season alone, he reeled in 136 catches for 1803 yards while capping off the season with 12 touchdowns.

Although he won’t push Kerley or Goodwin for full-time slot responsibilities, he will make good on every down that he’s utilized. He also contributes on special teams as a returner. Taylor is an intriguing prospect to say the least. It’ll be interesting to see his growth under the tutelage of Coach Shanahan.

Prediction: Return Man

 

D.J. Jones – Round 6: Pick 198

D.J. Jones is labeled as a short and stout run defender. So it’s easy to see why the 49ers drafted him.

The sixth round pick fits the requirements that Robert Saleh looks for in a defensive lineman. He joins a crowded defensive core, so if he wants to make this squad he needs to shine in more areas than just against the run.

Although, his ace in the hole is that the 49ers only have one true nose tackle in Earl Mitchell. This bodes well for Jones because he’ll be a rotational player up front, he’ll also be next in the rotation if Mitchell can’t play.

Either way, he figures to see significant time in the new look defense. In two seasons alone at Mississippi he totaled 21.5 tackles-for-loss and 12 quarterback sacks. He’s strong with quick hands and is rather athletic for a player his size. Jones strikes the center low and finishes him off with a well-executed swim move.

He’s play tough against the offensive interior, and detects the screen pass as good as anyone. As stated before, it’s a crowded front, but he should be able to stick around and impress.

Prediction: Back up Nose Tackle

 

Pita Tauemoepenu – Round 6: Pick 202

One of the biggest needs of the off-season is someone who can play the edge position. After that, the 49ers could use some serious help at linebacker. By drafting Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round, the franchise has addressed both.

He’s been labeled as a pass rushing specialist, the only problem is that he’s had limited exposure to the game. In two seasons at Utah, he played a total of 13 games while starting in only seven of them. He’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds, but nonetheless he has a passion for the game and knows how to get to the quarterback.

His work ethic is high energy, but time is not on his side. Unfortunately he was drafted five rounds too late. With Rueben Foster waiting in the wings to take over at the WILL position, the fate of Taumoepenu rests in the hand of special teams.

If he can impress the coaches then he’ll be used frequently as quality depth. No matter the outcome, Shanahan has made it perfectly clear that the best man will win the job.

Lucky for him, Pita T controls his own destiny.

Prediction: Special Teams

 

Adrian Colbert – Round 7: Pick 229

With their only pick in the seventh round the 49ers selected University of Miami defensive back Adrian Colbert.

At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds he brings physicality to a very inexperienced secondary. By running a 4.38 second 40 yard dash he’s proven that he can go step for step with pretty much any receiver in the league. His measurables aren’t the problem.

In fact, on paper he may be one of the better safeties from the draft. However, if you can’t stay healthy, you can’t play football. He’s had injuries hamper him in the past, but hopefully for the 49ers those days are behind him.

Usually seventh round picks don’t make the team, or they go directly to the practice squad. Colbert will fair differently than most picks this late primarily due to his versatility. He can play cornerback, safety and is a special teams contributor. He also stands a great chance for playing time due to the shakiness of the defensive backfield.

Prediction: Special Teams

 

Undrafted Free Agents

When the draft concluded, the 49ers welcomed 18 undrafted free agents. You can expect a massive amount of cuts when they trim the roster to 90 players, but don’t expect them all to be undrafted rookies. This is a new regime with a new look offense and defense, but Shanahan has made it perfectly clear that the best man will win the job in every single situation.

Kendrick Bourne, WR, Eastern Washington

Bourne is one half of the best receiving duo in FCS history, he and Cooper Kupp cleaned up at Eastern Washington. He’s tall with good arm length and plays physical. Thats just what Kyle Shanahan is looking for.

 

J. P. Flynn, OL, Montana State

The 49ers did not select a single offensive lineman in the draft. Clearly, they were not impressed with the prospects. Nonetheless, they need to upgrade that tire line. Flynn weighs over 300 pounds and put up 21 reps on the combine bench press. He’s worth a look.

Jimmie Gilbert, LB, Colorado

Gilbert’s entire immediate family plays basketball, so right off the bat genetics are on his side. He has outstanding athletic traits and long arms. He isn’t the best against the run, but he plays tough against the pass. For that trait alone, he may be worth keeping around as a special teams contributor.

Lorenzo Jerome, S, Saint Francis

In 2016, Jerome played hard all over the field. For the defense, he contributed six interceptions, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and 11 PBU’s. He added also 405 yards and a kickoff return for a touchdown on special teams. His versatility could land him on the 90-man roster.

Erik Magnuson, OT, Michigan

Magnuson is one of the more intriguing prospects on this list. He was a four-year starter on the Michigan offensive playing at both the guard and tackle position. He started every game in his senior season and earned All Big-Ten honors. He has good balance and footwork, and he’s patient enough to let the play develop into his block. Despite not being drafted, Magnuson could be a future starter in the NFL.

Darrell Williams, OT, Western Kentucky

At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds he could be an immovable force on the 49ers offensive line. If it’s one place they could use the most help, it’s at the guard position. Only time will tell, but he’s a definite possibility for the 90-man roster.

Zach Franklin, CB, Washburn

Franklin played all four years at Washburn appearing in 45 games and starting in his last 34 consecutive. He racked up 109 tackles and four interceptions. If he wants to make the team, he will need to catch on at special teams.

Bret Treadway, OL, Lamar

Described as one of the most athletic offensive lineman in the draft, Treadway has excellent work and excels in the zone blocking. His size was a concern heading into the draft. His height at 6-foot-3 is sufficient, but he only weighs 249 pounds, that’s an issue. Despite his athleticism, he’s long shot to make the 90-man roster.

Noble Nwachukwu, DE, West Virginia

He’s quick off the snap and has an excellent motor, but he’s a tweener and lacks a certain length desire to play the edge. Could compete for a back up role.

Tyler McCloskey, FB/TE Houston

He brings versatility to a team that needs an upgrade at many different positions. However, they are set at fullback with Juszczyk and competition is building quickly at the tight end position. Special teams is a possibility.

Malik Golden, S, Penn State

Golden has decent size and speed, but he’s a poor tackler and does not make enough plays to cover the deep ball. He lacks the proper attributes to make the squad.

Evan Goodman, OL, Arizona State

Goodman started 23 games in two years at left tackle. His style of play is aggressive, and he has excellent balance and body control. Due to the lack of stability across the offensive line he could certainly and up on the 90-man roster.

Cole Hikutini, TE, Louisville

Lamar Jackson’s favorite target. He has sure hands and is difficult to cover. Hikutini is another prospect that Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek should be leery of. He may end up being one of the better tight ends on the team. Kittle just may be the other one.

Donavin Newsom, LB, Missouri

Newsom is an instinctive three down defender who has enough speed to play sideline to sideline. However, he is undersized and doesn’t handle blocks well. He’s a longshot to make the 90-man roster.

Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State

Bolden is an absolute athlete. He’s fast and ran hurdles in high school which turned into a sufficient role as a returner. But at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, he’s a bit undersized. Another long shot for the 90-man roster.

Matt Breida, RB, Georgia Southern

After two impressive seasons of a combined 3000 yards and an amazing 8.4 yard average, Brieda hit a wall in his senior season with 646 yards total. Even if he bounces back at the pro level, the 49ers have an lot of talent at running back. He may catch on somewhere, but it won’t be in Santa Clara.

Nick Mullens, QB, Southern Mississippi

Mullens is all heart and tough as nails. It’s hard to imagine him not making the team after he suffered a compound fracture and came back in to finish the game. However, he won’t pass Beathard on the depth chart. He could however go to the practice squad.

It should be an interesting battle across the board to say the least when it comes time to make the final cut. One thing is for sure, no one is safe as we inch closer to the 53-man roster.

 

James Lebreton is a screenwriter, publisher, and author for Niner Noise

Twitter @jamesplebreton

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