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Predictions on when 49ers rookies will earn significant roles

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The 49ers have ten draft picks competing for serious opportunities. We predict when they’ll get some serious snaps.

The San Francisco 49ers head into training camp on Thursday with drastic changes on both sides of the roster. The organization signed 22 veterans in free agency, drafted 10 players in April, and signed a host of undrafted free agents.

We’ll see quite a few changes to the starting lineup, but for today, I wanted to focus on the draft picks. There is a chance not all ten players make the 49ers roster, but six or seven of them have a decent shot of landing a significant role in 2017.

They have a lot to prove in training camp, but for now I thought I’d take a look at how soon we might see each rookie getting significant snaps. I’m thinking at least a third of snaps is a step in the right direction in this regard, but feel free to offer your own thoughts on what you consider “significant” work.

1 (3) Solomon Thomas, DL

The 49ers top pick is not yet signed to his rookie deal, but the hope is that it gets done tomorrow when rookies and veterans report. Barring a holdout, Thomas will compete with Tank Carradine at the strong defensive end role in the base 4-3, and then at defensive tackle in the team’s sub packages. He missed all but one day of the offseason workout program, so that slows him a bit. If it’s enough to impact him at the start of the season, I could see him ramping up in September, and by the beginning of October playing at least a third of defensive snaps.

1 (31). Reuben Foster, LB

If Foster is ready to go when Week 1 arrives, I suspect we see him getting significant snaps right away. My guess remains that he plays in nickel packages early on, while Malcolm Smith plays next to NaVorro Bowman in the base defense. I think he supplants Smith as the starting weak side linebacker by the start of next season. Of course, depending on how NaVorro Bowman’s recovery from his Achilles injury goes, maybe Foster eventually replaces him.

3 (2). Ahkello Witherspoon, CB

Witherspoon is competing with Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson for the starting cornerback job opposite Rashard Robinson. I think we see Witherspoon starting by the back half of this season, but at the beginning of the season, more than likely he is working as the first or second cornerback off the bench for the nickel and dime packages. If K’Waun Williams or Will Redmond secure the nickel slot role, Witherspoon likely opens the season as a dime back.

3 (40). C.J. Beathard, QB

If Beathard has taken anything more than mop-up duty snaps this season, something has either gone really wrong or really right. The really right would be Beathard emerging as an entirely unexpected rookie presence and securing the 49ers QB position for the future. The really wrong would be injuries to Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley and the 49ers deciding to toss Beathard out there rather than sign another veteran. If the 49ers sign Kirk Cousins next offseason, or they draft another QB and retain Brian Hoyer as the starter, I could see Beathard claim the backup role. Backup QB is what I see as “significant” for Beathard until we see more of him.

4 (15). Joe Williams, RB

The running back position is going to be an interesting one with Carlos Hyde entering the final year of his deal. With Tim Hightower serving a complementary role, I could see Williams getting up over 30 percent of snaps by October or November. Some folks want to speculate on the team cutting or trading Hyde. While the latter is possible, the former seems unlikely. As long as he and Tim Hightower are on the team and healthy this season, I think it will take Williams some time to grab a significant role. But I do see it happening this year.

5 (2). George Kittle, TE

He could be the first clear starter of this group. Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster could both be playing near starter-level snaps, but Kittle has a chance to actually claim a No. 1 role on the team. The team tried to trade Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek has never overly impressed, and Blake Bell has not shown a lot of much in his first two seasons. I think at least one of McDonald and Celek is gone by the time Week 1 arrives. Kittle will at the very least be regularly in the rotation at the start of the season, and a starting role Week 1 would not shock me.

5 (34). Trent Taylor, WR

The 49ers re-signed Jeremy Kerley as their slot receiver, but Taylor is the guy who will eventually replace him. I see Taylor securing the starting punt returner role fairly early on, but it will take some time to replace Kerley. I see Taylor getting serious third or fourth receiver snaps later in the season due to an injury of some kind to somebody else, but potentially winning a job outright next season.

6 (14). D.J. Jones, DT

Jones could develop into a solid nose-tackle type of player, but my guess is if he makes the 53-man roster, he will be primarily inactive in the early parts of the season. I could see an eventual rotation later in the season, but significant snaps likely would not be happening until 2018.

6 (18). Pita Taumoepenu, LB

He strikes me as one of the stronger practice squad candidates, but with enough questions in the pass rush, he could surprise. Any role this year would be as a nickel or dime rusher off the edge. If he makes the roster, I could see him eventually getting 7-10 snaps a game later in the 2017 season if the team is looking for a little spark.

7 (11). Adrian Colbert, CB

There has been talk the 49ers would give Colbert some time at safety, but he spent the entire offseason workout program at cornerback. If he makes the roster, I could see him getting significant special teams snaps, but as a defensive player, I don’t see it happening this year. Maybe next year, but he could evolve into primarily a special teams player as we often see with late round picks.