Much has been made about the extremely high number of snaps the 49ers got from their draftees in 2017 - over 5,000 of such snaps, which is about 20% higher than the second place New Orleans Saints. Certainly, this can be a point of argument, as detractors may point to the near complete gutting of the roster in an effort to rebuild it in the image of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch as the cause for such prolific action. Should this theoretical detractor decide to go on the offensive, they might point out that the 2016 Browns deployed rookies for over 5,500 snaps en route to a 1-15 season (to be followed up with the 0-16 lemon that has really solidified the team nickname, “The Factory of Sadness”). Thankfully, this hasn’t been a major talking point. Perhaps because it’s complete bunk.
There’s no doubt that the 49ers will rack up less snaps from their draftees in 2018, but that’s because many of the returning second-year players from the 2017 draft have found themselves either a starting job, or part of a productive rotation (a la D.J. Jones). In fact, the outlook for the 49ers’ 2017 draftees continues to look very positive. In discussing the expectations for the returning second-year players, it seems necessary to discount QB C.J. Beathard, perhaps the only loser from the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. The broad assumption is that he’ll make a fine understudy to Jimbo, as a hard working player with some starting experience.
7th round FS Adrian Colbert and 3rd round CB Ahkello Witherspoon look to return as major fixtures of a new look secondary, and 1st round defenders Reuben Foster and Solomon Thomas are expected to take a step forward in the front seven during year 2. The offensive side of the ball features a pair of highly productive 5th rounders in WR Trent Taylor and TE George Kittle, who look to build on impressive rookie seasons. Perhaps the roster rebuild theory carries some weight, for sure, but there’s no reason to believe that these now-veterans didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.
The question marks remaining, of course, are RB Joe Williams and DE/OLB Pita Taumoepenu. The former spent all of 2017 on IR, and the latter appeared on defense exactly 0 times, but added 28 special teams snaps. With a year to train physically and learn the system, this should be the year that we learn something about them. Of course, neither of them has a clear path to a starting job, BUT performing as part of a rotation is the most likely outcome. The 49ers didn’t invest heavily at the edge rushing position, but Pita’s competition (Jerry Attaochu, Cassius Marsh) both have starting experience and production - earning time on the field will be entirely up to Pita’s production during practices.
The team did, however, invest heavily in the RB position, seemingly offering the starting gig on a platter to Jerick McKinnon. Williams, who should appear on an NFL roster for the first time this upcoming year, has a hard road in front of him. With McKinnon slotted, quite clearly, as the starting option, and his former Georgia Southern teammate Matt Breida returning after an impressive rookie debut, Williams will also have to earn time on the field.
Training Camp and the exhibition games should be a good indicator on what happens with these players. For now, I think it’s likely that they make the roster, although with Williams’ chances seemingly a bit better. However, if they fail to show anything in the coming months, would it make sense to cut bait, especially if roster space starts looking like it’s at a premium?
What to expect from 2017 rookies in Year 2 | Biderman, Ninerswire
Sheldon Day expected to take a step forward in 2018 | Bonilla, 49ers Webzone
Grading 2018 roster moves | Memolo, 49ers Webzone