One of the stories we have not yet heard a lot about in this Super Bowl build-up is the 49ers 2012 draft class. For most of the year, the entire class was inactive. Injuries and depth kept players off a 49ers roster that had loaded up at most positions.
At the time of the 2012 Draft, Mel Kiper gave the 49ers a C+, discussing how difficult it was to add early impact to a good roster. And that was how it appeared to be, until Kendall Hunter went down with an Achilles injury. Brandon Jacobs was brought in before the season to fill a back-up role, but first and injury and then general unpleasantness with the team led to his release.
Enter LaMichael James.
The 49ers will likely end this season with James being the only significant contributor, but it has been a pretty significant impact. He has been a beast in the kick return game, ranking second in the regular season for kick return average. In the backfield, he has been a great complement to Frank Gore. When the 49ers can get him in space, his speed and athleticism can be overwhelming.
You can be cynical by looking at this draft class and asking, "Where's the impact?" Then you can be realistic and wonder exactly how the 49ers were going to draft players capable of improving what was already the best roster in the NFL. A.J. Jenkins might have seemed like a reasonable need pick at the time, but are you surprised a young wide receiver wasn't used on a team where Mario Manningham and Randy Moss were added in free agency?
And LaMichael James is a major offensive threat, but with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter already on the roster when he was drafted, there weren't go to be many carries available. James, fittingly, is now playing a key role as the Super Bowl approaches. If you want a memory of a player with big-time talent who didn't play an immediate role on a good team, recall that Ricky Watters was taken by the 49ers in 1991 and didn't see the field as a rookie. It was a really good team. But in his second season, Watters had more than 1,000 yards rushing and started to emerge as a star.
After the draft I wrote, "Not a bad draft at all, and you could see their strategy. It's tough to add early impact to a good roster." The Niners didn't see early impact, but given where the team is, we can't say this won't be an impactful draft. Consider it an "incomplete" with the highest compliments.
The 49ers did have a solid run game in 1991, but it is worth noting Ricky Watters also dealt with injury issues that scuttled his rookie season. The 49ers finished the 1991 season 11th in rushing yards and 7th in yards per carry. Football Outsiders ranked their rushing attack fourth in the NFL. Of course, part of that was due to Steve Young rushing for 415 yards at 6.3 yards per attempt. The team's two leading running backs in 1991 were Keith Henderson (561 yards) and Dexter Carter (379 yards). They also got 245 yards from Harry Sydney and 183 yards from Tom Rathman.
This offseason will be incredibly important for A.J. Jenkins. It'd be nice to see him make an impact in the Super Bowl, but for the most part, this is all about looking ahead to next season. The 49ers will be in the market for wide receivers given the numerous injuries and potential departures. Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham will both be working back from injuries, with Manningham in particular a big question mark to be back with the 49ers in 2013.
Williams suffered a torn ACL in Week 12, which means it is tough to tell if he'll be back and good to go in time for the start of the 2013 season. Manningham suffered a torn ACL and PCL in Week 16. While Williams has a 2013 base salary of $575,000, Manningham is due $3.6 million and a $250,000 roster bonus. Odds would seem high that Manningham is not on the roster next year. Or if he is, it would likely need to be at a reduced salary.
Add in Randy Moss potentially leaving in free agency or retiring, and there are plenty of question marks. Moss could be back, but even if he is the 49ers are likely still adding wide receiver talent in the draft.