Everyone thinks the San Francisco 49ers will be competitive in 2019. If the team is going to remain competitive beyond this season, they’ll need to develop some of the youth on the roster. The core of Deforest Buckner, George Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo, Dante Pettis, and Nick Bosa give the team a chance. Not many teams can say they have a young, dependable offensive line, either. You’re never going to replace Joe Staley, but Mike McGlinchey and Weston Richburg have plenty of talent to ensure the offense doesn’t fall off a cliff when Staley decides to hang it up.
Now it’s about time the talent around them into players that can be depended on, and not just players with potential. Here are four players the Niners need to develop both short and long term.
WR Jalen Hurd
Hurd should be treated like the Carolina Panthers treated D.J. Moore last season. Moore finished his rookie season with 55 catches for 788 yards. I’m not saying Hurd needs to have that type of production as a rookie. It will be crucial for Hurd to learn on the fly as a rookie, much like Moore.
Moore ran slants, curls, and Carolina gave him the ball on quick screens so he can create. It is going to be a learning curve for a guy that hasn’t played much football. Hurd is going to run the wrong route. He’s going to drop some passes. He’ll also have plenty of “wow” plays. Kyle Shanahan will have a plan for an athlete with the upside of Hurd. If he can develop into a reliable threat that defenses have to respect, that would give the 49ers four legitimate threats on offense for many years to come. Hurd’s development could make the offense scary.
DL Kentavius Street
The future for Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas are uncertain. Both will need to prove that they are worthy of a second contract with the Niners. Developing a third pass rusher that can be counted on will be crucial. If it turns out to be one of the former first-round picks, great.
Street is intriguing. He played with great effort at North Carolina State. Before he was injured, he was turning plenty of heads with his athleticism. Street supposedly ran a 4.58 40-yard dash and had a vertical jump over 40 inches. North Carolina State’s strength and conditioning coordinator labeled Street as a “big receiver.” Those are the type of guys you work with on the defensive line.
If Street can give the 49ers 15-20 plays this season, allowing Ford/Bosa to stay fresh throughout the season, that would go a long way. Those live reps would also let Street get the experience he needs. I’ll have a close eye on Street this season.
DB D.J. Reed
Reed is a smart football player with incredible ball skills. In the secondary—especially a Robert Saleh defense—those qualities trump athleticism. Because of that, Reed’s development may be more important than some of the more prominent names in the secondary. Being able to play as a slot cornerback and free safety, and do so well, should keep Reed on the roster. I like him. I think he is one of the top-six defensive backs on the roster.
The injuries in the 49ers secondary have been talked about ad nauseam, for a good reason. K’Waun Williams’ contract is up after 2020. Reed showed glimpses in limited action last year, and with the lack of turnovers, I’d be surprised if Reed doesn’t get more opportunities to play early in training camp and earn a role, even if it’s in one of the Niners sub-package defenses.
LB Dre Greenlaw
If Shanahan were calling the plays on defense, there wouldn’t be three defenders on this list. He is not. There is plenty of talent on defense; they just don’t have defined roles. It’s on Saleh to mold the balls of clay that is the youth and put them into positions to succeed.
Greenlaw is an example of that. Within a couple of plays, you can tell Dre can move. There’s a place for him on the defense. If the Kwon Alexander signing doesn’t work, Greenlaw could slide into the “run and chase” linebacker spot. Even if Kwon turns out to be a home run, Alexander has the type of athleticism where he could help the team in coverage and space. Those were two areas the team struggled in last season.