The folks at Football Outsiders regularly put together content for ESPN's Insider section, breaking down various topics from both an analytical and narrative perspective. They will be releasing their annual Almanac soon, and one section will be on breakout prospects. Tuesday afternoon, they published some of that content at ESPN, breaking down the Top 25 breakout prospects of 2014.
The San Francisco 49ers were included in the honorable mention category, and a special side category. Corey Lemonier got honorable mention listing, while Marcus Lattimore was listed under "Still stuck on the Top 25 prospects' PUP list".
Lemonier makes a lot of sense for this kind of list. Aldon Smith is likely facing a suspension, which opens the door for Lemonier, Dan Skuta, and potentially Aaron Lynch to get more playing time. Lemonier seemed to move ahead of Skuta on the depth chart last year while Smith was in rehab, and odds are pretty good he'll get the bulk of the passing down opportunities if Smith serves a suspension. Additionally, once Smith returns, it is entirely possible Lemonier could work his way into additional pass rush work ahead of Ahmad Brooks. I don't think he would get a huge amount of Brooks's playing time, but I could see him getting a little bit of it this season. And we've of course had plenty of discussion about the potential for the NASCAR package to do some damage. There are a lot of opportunities for Lemonier.
Each year, Football Outsiders releases their Top 25 breakout prospects. You can check out the 2013 list, the 2012 list, and the 2011 list, to fill you up on the Harbaalke era. In the 2013 list, Kendall Hunter gets a mention among the 25, while Daniel Kilgore is an honorable mention. Here's what they had to say about Hunter:
San Francisco's second-string running back was decent as a rookie (4.2 yards per carry, minus-6.5 percent DVOA) but really blossomed last year (5.2 yards per carry, 29.1 percent DVOA). Hunter combines speed with good balance and instincts. Though he's small at 5-7, he runs low to the ground, which helps him break tackles. He also has been a good receiver in the NFL, even though his lack of participation in the passing game was seen as one of his weaknesses coming out of Oklahoma State. In the short term, Hunter will likely miss part of the season recovering from an Achilles tear, and could take time to get back to full strength even when he returns. In the long term, however, he's set up for a nice career. Hunter is a more complete back than LaMichael James and the likely choice to take over the starting job from Frank Gore when the time comes (pending the return to health of Marcus Lattimore).
I think Hunter emerges as the primary backup this year, although Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde should see plenty of opportunities. I don't know that Hunter is re-signed at this point, but he'll get a chance to show some things. And with a full season under his belt since his torn Achilles, we should see more of the skills that got him a lot of work as a rookie.
The 49ers had nobody listed in the 2011 and 2012. Kaepernick would probably the biggest under the radar guy to emerge in 2012, given how he performed once he took over the starting role. Michael Crabtree was not exactly under the radar, but he really busted through in 2012, finishing with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. The 49ers had not seen wide receiver production like that since Terrell Owens.
Who do you see as under-the-radar prospects that could really break out in 2014? I don't know that a guy like Daniel Kilgore really counts this year, since everybody knows he is a strong candidate to be starting center. Darryl Morris is a deeper sleeper that I'm looking at this year. I think there is a decent chance he could supplant Perrish Cox for the dime back role behind Jimmie Ward at nickel back. That would not lead to huge numbers in 2014, but it would be pretty important for the secondary's long-term prospects.
I'd also consider a guy like Joe Looney, with Alex Boone's holdout keeping his status in limbo. Of course, as soon as Boone is back, Looney heads back to the bench. But he could develop into that primary utility guard if Boone does come back sooner rather than later.