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A whole lot of good to be found in the 49ers 2017 rookie class

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The 49ers got production up and down the draft board, but mid- and late-rounders really shined.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

A lack of established talent, coupled with a historical amount of players landing on injured reserve, led to a ton of action for the San Francisco 49ers’ 2017 rookie class. In a rebuilding season focused on taking inventory for the future, the Niners couldn’t have asked for a better sampling of their first-year players. I can’t remember a season in which so many rookies got so much playing time.

Let’s take a look at some of the more notable first-year performances in 2017 and what it means for the team moving forward.

Solomon Thomas

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

There was no greater disappointment in the rookie class than Thomas (honorable mention goes to Joe Williams for being shelved for the year).

Sure, it’s only his first year and there was some shuffling along the defensive line, but for a first-rounder, let alone a No. 3 overall pick, Thomas never stood out. It was partially due to not having a true home or proper fit on the line; nevertheless, playmakers find a way to make an impact (more on that with the rest of the class). Thomas had some decent games if granular PFF metrics are your thing, and he did get in the backfield for ten tackles for a loss. But by and large, he felt invisible for too many stretches in the pass game this past season. Every player on this list had at least one or two signature plays this season, if not more. Even C.J. Beathard had that bomb to Marquise Goodwin against the Giants for christ’s sake. Can you name one for Thomas? I can’t.

As the line further solidifies in 2018 and, hopefully, gains an edge rusher, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and the rest of the coaching staff will have to figure out where he best fits and how to maximize his potential. At the same time, Thomas must elevate his level of play.

Reuben Foster

NFL: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Thomas, Foster’s performance in 2017 lived up to his first-round selection. He jumped off the screen several times throughout the season … unfortunately, a lot of times it was because he was on the sidelines being looked at by trainers. His exit from the home opener with an ankle sprain after just a few plays became an unbelievably ridiculous, recurrent theme for the rest of the season. Upon returning to action in Week 7, Foster sustained a rib injury which forced him out of the lineup the very next game. In the second half of the season, it became apparent why Foster was graded as a top-ten talent in the draft; however, his relentless and reckless style has led to extended vacations on the turf.

While Foster’s energy, and raw talent are undeniable, he has to take better care of himself and modify his technique or he’ll jeopardize his career. He’ll also do well to learn not to over-pursue and expose the middle of the defense. The Niners were already likely to add a linebacker or two in the offseason, but Foster’s alarming inability to make it through almost a single game without an on-field visit from the training staff should bump it up on the list of priorities.

Ahkello Witherspoon

Jacksonville Jaguars v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The third-round selection out of Colorado improved by leaps and bounds as the season wore on. He started slowly but got upped his level of play each week after ascending to a starting role. The rookie cornerback played well down the stretch and flashed some big-play ability, nabbing INTs against the Eagles and Jaguars and forcing a fumble in the season finale against the Rams. His 9 deflected passes was tied for 9th among all rookie defensive backs, a nod to his coverage skills. He also fared pretty well against the deep ball.

San Francisco still needs a lockdown No. 1 cornerback; a boatload of salary cap cash likely means that will be a top-target in free agency, but Witherspoon has shown he’s capable to man the other starting spot in 2018.

C.J. Beathard

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Iowa product unexpectedly took over under center when the Brian Hoyer Experiment came to an unceremonious halt in Week 6 against Washington. Beathard went on to start five games for the Niners before handing the keys over to Jimmy Garoppolo. There weren’t high expectations for Beathard—many felt his third-round selection was a huge reach and starting any games, let alone five, was never in the cards. While he was far from perfect, he showed some grit and better poise than one would have anticipated given his supporting cast. He definitely has his work cut out for him in terms of accuracy and keeping his eyes downfield when pressured.

The question going into next season is whether Shanahan feels comfortable with Beathard as the backup, or whether they’ll add someone to compete for the role.

George Kittle

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kittle split time with Garrett Celek at tight end in 2017. The fifth-rounder registered several big plays and strong performances with all three 49ers starting QBs in 2017, a true testament to his talent and capacity to get open. His 515 receiving yards was eighth among all rookies.

Kittle has the speed and strength to be a valuable receiving threat and red-zone target for San Francisco. His drops were a slight hiccup but, hey, if Nelson Agholor can overcome them, so can Kittle. His durability was a bit concerning though as he popped up on the injury report with a multitude of nicks and bruises through the first three months. The tight end position is a key cog in Shanahan’s offense. He loves to utilize his tight ends in a variety of ways to spread out the defense. Kittle and Celek thrived with Garoppolo late in the season and should only get better with more time under Shanahan. This position group is in great shape for next year.

Trent Taylor

Tennessee Titans v San Francisco 49ers

Taylor led the nation in receiving yards during his final season at Louisiana Tech. The knock on him coming into the NFL was his size and the pedestrian competition he faced in Conference USA. His level of play far exceeded his frame in 2017.

The speedy wideout was a force to be reckoned with out of the slot. He demonstrated a knack for finding soft spots in the middle of the field, evidenced by a 33-yard catch-and-run on 3rd and 9 to set up the game-winning FG against Chicago in Garoppolo’s debut. He finished the season with 43 receptions, tied with teammate George Kittle for 8th among all NFL rookies.

Taylor also proved to be a reliable return man—his 8.9 yard average on punt returns ranked San Francisco 10th in the NFL. His auspicious debut and early chemistry with Garoppolo appear to have all but locked up his role as the slot receiver in 2018.

Adrian Colbert

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Wow. Hard to say anyone in the 49ers rookie class looked better over the last six games of the season. Colbert burst onto the scene once Jaquiski Tartt went down with a broken arm. In his first career start against the New York Giants, he launched a bone-crushing hit on Tavarres King that you could feel from your couch. It was the kind of ferocity San Francisco’s secondary has lacked since the heyday of Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner five years ago.

From that point on, Colbert seemed to rack up more and more big-time plays each week. He’s still raw but he’s shown some great range and speed, which is crucial at the free safety position and even more so in Saleh’s Seattle-based defensive scheme. His violent nature gives the defensive backfield some teeth again.

You can bet Colbert’s passion and style of play have struck a chord with GM John Lynch—I’m sure the future Hall of Fame safety sees a lot of himself on plays like that one against King.

I don’t see San Francisco sticking with Jimmie Ward considering his level of play, injury-riddled career, and the $8-million price tag on his fifth-year option. Even if they decide to retain Ward, he may end up moving back to nickel corner. In just six games, Colbert has made a very strong case to be the starting free safety in 2018, with Jaquiski Tartt primed to take over at strong safety if Eric Reid leaves in free agency.

Matt Breida

Jacksonville Jaguars v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The undrafted rookie out of Georgia Southern turned a promising preseason into a darn good rookie campaign. Despite playing second fiddle to Carlos Hyde, Breida carved out a nice role for himself in the 49ers offense. His 465 rushing yards placed him 8th among all rookies, outpacing 2017 eighth-overall pick, Christian McCaffrey. Behind an iffy offensive line, Breida’s burst and shiftiness allowed him to create opportunities and break through some tight spaces—something the Niners lack with Carlos Hyde.

Breida showed some solid hands catching out of the backfield too, snaring 21 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown. His performance was good by any measure, especially considering he was undrafted and saw a limited number of snaps behind Hyde. He looks to be a great fit in Shanahan’s zone rushing attack given his speed around the edge and ability to make something out of nothing. Although Breida isn’t necessarily built to shoulder the load as a feature back, that doesn’t really pose issue—Kyle Shanahan prefers to employ a running-back-by-committee approach.

Carlos Hyde’s future with the team is dubious at best as a free agent in 2018. The injury-prone veteran has yet to notch a single 1,000-yard season and just doesn’t have the vision, speed, or urgency to consistently make plays. His league-leading dropped passes among running backs and questionable ball security don’t help his cause either. Regardless of whether the team moves on from Hyde, expect Breida to be firmly in the mix as a rotational second or third running back next year. It will be interesting to see what Joe Williams brings to the table after a disappointed red-shirt rookie season.

Kendrick Bourne

Tennessee Titans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Another notable undrafted free agent acquisition, Kendrick Bourne didn’t really become a contributor until the second half of the season. He was inactive from Weeks 2 through 6 but Pierre Garçon’s neck injury opened the door of opportunity for the young wide receiver out of Eastern Washington. After making his first career catch in Week 9, Bourne’s netted 16 receptions and 257 yards on the year, capped by a four-reception, 88 yard day in the win over Tennessee. When you consider that he basically missed the whole first half of the season and never started a game, those overall numbers look better.

The coaching staff had enough interest to sign him in the first place and he impressed them enough to earn a roster spot right out of the gate. Shanahan was quick to sing his praises following the Titans game. The front office will definitely look to free agency and the draft to stock a depleted, largely mediocre wide receiving corps. Bourne was ultimately the beneficiary of that lack of talent and depth. Although it remains to be seen how prominently he will figure into the organization’s future plans, his effort and late-season action in 2017 sets him up nicely to fight for a spot on the roster in 2018.

Along with the arrival of Jimmy Garoppolo and late-season emergence of a winning culture, 2017 was highlighted by a very impressive debut from a deep 49ers rookie class. The staff got a much closer look than anyone could have expected which should greatly expedite the rebuilding process.

Kudos to Shanahan and Lynch—early signs point to a hell of a job by two guys in positions they’d never held before. The duo identified and developed some key players on both sides of the ball this past season, some whom may become cornerstones for the franchise.