Of all of the players and staff transitioning this season in the San Francisco 49ers franchise, it might be the underclassmen that have it the toughest. It will be the third system in as many years for the team, which means third year players have had no consistency in coaching or schemes from season to season. (with the exception of RB coach Tom Rathman remaining with the team)
We already took a look at the rookies and their transition to the league, and now we assess the underclassmen who are looking to make an impact this season.
The receivers: This list is made up of players that are in their third year in the league or less, with one exception, Quinton Patton. Patton is in his fourth season with the 49ers but he seems to fit more here than in the veteran category. He has a youth and exuberance that just doesn’t make you think veteran. Patton had a few nice plays during OTAs and minicamp working mostly with the 1s and Blaine Gabbert, but he also worked in with the other QBs.
Both Patton and Bruce Ellington had a rough day during the middle OTAs where the defense had several PBUs and the offense really couldn’t get going. Ellington, who should have a pretty solid role returning kick offs is, like Patton, in a position to either make it or break it this season. Great seasons could solidify them with the franchise for seasons to come. With the void that Anquan Boldin left, Patton and or Ellington could be poised for a huge rise in production this season with the only veteran in the WR room being Torrey Smith.
The food network has Triple D but the 49ers have quadruple D in their WR room: DeAndre Smelter, Dres Anderson, DeAndrew White, and DiAndre Campbell.
The sleeper: Anderson had few amazing grabs during minicamp that exemplified his athleticism and speed.
The underdog: Smelter, who red shirted in 2015 sustained a hamstring injury during OTAs which limited him during minicamp. Continued lack of field work could hinder his growth.
The running backs:
Carlos Hyde clearly has a hold on the starting job and his ability to be a receiving back will bode well for his production in the coming season. It’s the remainder of the RBs that will need to solidify their roles in the new offense.
Mike Davis, who was sidelined last season with an injury, will be competing with DuJuan Harris and Shaun Draughn for playing time. All of the backs had several pass attempts thrown to them during minicamp and seemed to handle it well. It will take time in pads to see who will be able to run between the tackles the best.
The sleeper: DuJuan Harris caught several passes and showed good speed as he worked with all of the QBs.
The underdog: Mike Davis did score a TD on a pass thrown by Colin Kaepernick during minicamp but missing part of last season and having less time in the league could go against him as he adjusts to the new system.
The offensive line is where most of the questions lie. With some questions regarding conditioning, the six weeks the team has off could shape the offensive line for the beginning of the season. This group includes Brandon Thomas, Ian Silberman, Marcus Martin and Trent Brown. At the end of minicamp rookie John Theus did some work with the 1s at RT which leaves some question in the coaching staff’s confidence of the OL underclassmen.
The underdog: The entire group, although they could make strides to change that during the six week break through extensive work including conditioning. It would take a jump in performance for any of the vets (Staley, Kilgore, Beadles) on the OL to be unseated from their spot at this time. The right side remains in flux and the learning curve of rookie Joshua Garnett will play a role.
The tight ends: This group includes Busta Anderson, Blake Bell and Je’ron Hamm. Bell is the only one of the three with NFL game experience, playing in 14 games with 34 receptions for 186 yards. Bell worked with all of the QBs during the offseason program but had more work with the 1s than the others.
The sleeper: Je’ron Hamm has been quietly getting a lot of playing time in during the offseason, working with all but the 1s.
The underdog: Busta Anderson who spent 2015 on the practice squad will really have to stand out in order to move up in the ranks.
The secondary: This group includes Jimmie Ward, Keith Reaser, Jacquiski Tartt, L.J. McCray, Dontae Johnson, Chris Davis and Marcus Cromartie. Most of the talk in the offseason has been about Ward moving from safety to cornerback. DC Jim O’Neil deemed Ward one of the best 11 players on the defense saying they will find a way to get him one the field one way to another.
The sleeper: Kenneth Acker had the best day to close out minicamp. He had several PBUs as well as forced fumble and and interception. His second day of minicamp wasn’t the best giving up two touchdowns, but it’s how you finish.
The underdog: Chris Davis who was picked up by the 49ers towards the end of last season has been doing some consistent work recording two INTs during OTAs and minicamp
The defense: This includes, Gerald Hodges, Shayne Skov, Eli Harold, Aaron Lynch, Kaleb Ramsey, Arik Armstead, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Mike Purcell and Jaquiski Tartt. Armstead is likely to solidify his role in the starting position, taking the majority of the snaps with the ones. He and former teammate DeForest Buckner look to cause a lot disruption on the line. This is one of the more difficult group of players to analyze only having seen them without pads on.
The sleeper: Tartt has has been quiet during the offseason but has been doing solid work on his fundamentals. He had a solid rookie season and should expect to keep improving.
The underdog: Harold put on quite a bit of muscle weight during the offseason. It could prove to be helpful or adjusting his movement and speed as a result could also prove to be a hinderance. Only time will tell which it will be.
Another offseason round up coming soon on the veterans.