The spotlight is on the San Francisco 49ers’ current crop of rookies - and rightfully so. We’re only a couple weeks removed from the 2019 NFL Draft, and the team just wrapped up their first rookie minicamp last weekend. As the team prepares for OTAs later this month, we’ll turn our attention towards the previous year’s rookies, the players that are expected to take that next developmental step forward in Year 2 of their career. General manager John Lynch’s first three draft picks in 2018 have all earned starting roles. It’s a good sign, but now they’ll be expected to do more for the team to compete in the NFC West. Let’s take a look at the expectations for the 49ers’ first three draft picks in 2018:
OT Mike McGlinchey
Lynch raised eyebrows when he selected McGlinchey with the ninth pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Notre Dame offensive lineman wasn’t seen as a strong need with both Trent Brown and Joe Staley on the roster for 2018. That presumption faded when the 49ers traded Brown to the New England Patriots the following day. Despite his success as a pass blocker, the 49ers didn’t view Brown as a fit in the run game or a candidate for a long-term extension. McGlinchey’s rookie performance was far from perfect, but he’s quickly established himself as a well-rounded and reliable starter.
McGlinchey finished 2018 as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded rookie tackle (73.2) and the second-highest-graded rookie offensive lineman. His 78.2 run-blocking grade was the best among rookie offensive linemen. McGlinchey’s most significant area for improvement moving forward will be his pass blocking. He earned a 64.2 grade and allowed 40 total pressures in 2018. With NFL defenses attacking the right side of the offensive line just as much as the left, the 49ers will be relying on McGlinchey to improve in the passing game to keep quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo upright.
WR Dante Pettis
Pettis was another surprise selection from the 49ers in 2018. Lynch gave up a third-round pick to trade up in the second round to select the former Washington wideout with the 44th pick. Many draft analysts expected Pettis to go later in the draft, but it didn’t take long for him to prove why the 49ers were enamored. Pettis was nearly impossible to cover in training camp, showing off the route-running and hands that Shanahan covets.
A pair of knee injuries suffered in Week 3 and Week 16 limited Pettis to just eight games in 2018. However, his durability isn’t a concern yet, given he never missed a single game in college. The 49ers rookie made an impact when on the field though. His 17.3 yards per catch ranked second among rookie receivers, reeling in 27 passes for 467 yards and five touchdowns on the season. In his final six games of the season, Pettis established a 16-game pace of 62 receptions for 964 yards and ten touchdowns. The 49ers’ offense would be cruising if Pettis can come close to that in 2019, especially in the red zone.
Capable of playing all three receiver positions, Pettis will be relied upon heavily in 2019 as one of the offense’s leading playmakers. The 49ers parted ways with Pierre Garcon in the offseason while speedster Marquise Goodwin struggled to have the impact he authored in 2017. Along with fellow second-rounder Deebo Samuel, a strong season for Pettis would give the 49ers’ confidence in a young group of pass-catchers moving forward.
LB Fred Warner
The 49ers entered into the 2018 season with linebacker Reuben Foster, who seemed destined for a promising career after a strong rookie season. Those hopes quickly unraveled after a myriad of off-field problems that included multiple domestic violence incidents, prompting a parting of ways between Foster and the 49ers. Fortunately, the 49ers picked Warner in the third-round in 2018 and his promising rookie season softened the blow of losing Foster.
Warner totaled 124 tackles last season, along with three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, six pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Warner showed flashes throughout the season but only managed a 63.9 grade from PFF - good for 50th among qualifying linebackers, likely brought down by his team-leading 16 missed tackles.
Warner is now at the center of the 49ers defense behind a line stacked with first-round talent. He’ll be joined by free-agent acquisition Kwon Alexander, who’ll likely occupy the WILL position next to Warner at MIKE. Alexander suffered a torn ACL in 2018 and may not be fully recovered before the start of the season, putting additional pressure on Warner to take the next step in Year 2. Warner already possesses a versatile skill set best suited for today’s NFL. If he can improve his tackling, Warner should be in for a significant step forward in 2019.