The San Francisco 49ers had plenty of struggles in 2014, but one highlight to the year was the performance of the 2014 draft class. The 49ers rookies had some bumps along the way, but this class is already looking like the best since 2011.
Mel Kiper put together his 2014 all-rookie team, and he included Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland. Kiper's NFL analysis should be taken with a grain of salt, but in this case, it was not too difficult to go with these two. Both made significant contributions in 2014, and have a chance to make an even bigger impact in 2015.
In describing Lynch, Kiper said he "showed what we hoped he could be after his breakout freshman season in South Bend." Lynch arrived at Notre Dame as a big-time prospect, and he put together a great first year. Unfortunately off-field issues resulted in him transferring. From what I've heard, he was pushed to Notre Dame by people (including family), and wanted to get away from said family, thus the transfer and return to Florida. He lost a lot of weight and had trouble with discipline. USF's strength and conditioning blasted the 49ers for drafting him, but his rookie year ended up being quite successful.
As the 49ers head into 2015, Lynch's role is still to be determined. Ahmad Brooks could be a cap casualty, while Dan Skuta is a free agent awaiting word on Vic Fangio's status. Lynch very well could be in the starting lineup in the fall, but it depends on how the rest of this shakes out. I would be surprised if he was not starting in 2015, but a lot can happen between now and then.
Kiper went into a little more detail with Borland, saying, "Borland was simply a revelation. He didn't really see any playing time until Week 6, but once he did he excelled in every facet as the tackling machine he was at Wisconsin; he also managed to track pass-catchers and cover pretty well. The guy just has incredible instincts and proved that he should have gone far higher in the draft."
Borland clearly had a nose for the ball throughout the season. His size was an issue at times in shedding blockers, but for the most part he played much "bigger" than his actual size. His performance in pass coverage was a bit inconsistent, but he was not all bad there. That is the one area he will need to work on most this offseason. The 49ers do have other linebackers that will be able to handle coverage, but Borland will surely look to improve there.
Borland's role in 2015 is probably a bigger question than that of Lynch. The 49ers will look to have Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman back in the starting lineup. It remains to be seen exactly when either of them will be available given their respective injuries. Both will have significant time to get back close to 100 percent, but we obviously can't know anything until training camp gets here and we see if they are back on the field.
In that regard, Borland is a strong insurance option. If both Bowman and Willis are back, it becomes a question of how the 49ers structure the defense. Part of that will depend on the next coaching staff. It is entirely possible a new coach would decide to make a move to a 4-3 defense. If that were the case, we could potentially see all three linebackers in the lineup, with Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch moving down to defensive end roles. If they were to stick with the 3-4, I am not entirely sure what they would do.