The 49ers had six rookies play on offense or defense during the 2020 season for a total of 1,858 snaps—and that’s not counting two games where UDFA Jared Mayden played on special teams. I didn’t go through each team, but I imagine that’s closer to the top than the middle regarding the number of snaps played this past season.
Brandon Aiyuk did not disappoint from a statistical standpoint, while Javon Kinlaw left a bit to be desired. Let’s review each rookie who stepped on the field for San Francisco’s season, going in inverse order from the snaps they played.
NT Darrion Daniels - 66 snaps
It’s not an excuse when you mention how rookie defensive linemen have one of the biggest adjustments to make when they jump to the NFL. Daniels was your typical nose tackle in college that could overwhelm the majority of interior offensive lineman he went against with his strength. That’s not how it works in the NFL. If you don’t have the proper pad level or hand usage, you’re not going to win.
Expectations weren’t high for Daniels, and the 49ers weren’t expecting anything from him this season, anyway. When Daniels played, he was too easily moved off his spot in the running game and rarely won as a pass rusher.
Kevin Givens flashed as an undrafted free agent and gave the team a reason to bring him back. I’m not going to pretend like I know what goes on at practice, but, in limited action, Daniels didn’t do the same.
RB JaMycal Hasty - 97 snaps
Hasty appeared in six games, and his first three games couldn’t have been any different from his last three. Hasty ran for 103 yards on 20 carries against the Giants, Rams, and Patriots. Versus the Seahawks, Packers, and Saints, Hasty ran for 46 yards on 19 carries.
Hasty was at his best, unsurprisingly, running outside of the tackles. Per Sports Info Solutions, Hasty averaged 4.6 yards on carries to the outside compared to 3.1 yards per carry running up the middle. To Hasty’s credit, he did a great job in limited action at creating for himself. He broke four tackles on the season, and 42% of his yards came after contact.
Broken tackles and yards after contact only tell part of the story, however. Discipline as a runner was an issue for Hasty as a rookie. Too often, he’d attempt to bounce runs or wasn’t patient behind the line of scrimmage. In his defense, not many runners would be patient behind the Niners' offensive line. Still, after seeing the success that Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. had, it was disappointing to see Hasty finish the season the way he did.
Hasty flashed, but his issues in pass protection continued from Baylor. If I’m San Francisco, I’m continuing to add undrafted free agent running backs. If Hasty beats out a rookie, then so be it, but I’m not going to stop adding competition at running back.
TE Charlie Woerner - 117 snaps
The 49ers drafted Woerner in the sixth round to be a blocking tight end, which was about all Woerner got to do this season. He was targeted four times and didn’t receive a target until Week 13.
Kyle Shanahan’s offense asks its offensive line, fullbacks, and tight ends to execute a handful of difficult blocks each game. This will surprise you, but the sixth-round rookie struggled to execute the same blocks that George Kittle makes with his eyes closed.
Finding a backup to Kittle was the goal heading into 2020, and the Niners thought they had the answer in Jordan Reed, but he went down with an injury early in the season and looked like a shell of himself from an explosiveness point of view. Ross Dwelley is a restricted free agent this offseason. Woerner could be a Dwelley replacement as he becomes more comfortable with the speed of the NFL.
Woerner played better the more he stepped onto the field. In 117 snaps, which is essentially two full games, Woerner showed enough progression to where you’d think he could be a contributor to your offense. We’re not looking at the next Kittle, but Woerner will help the 49ers moving forward.
OL Colton McKivitz - 301 snaps
McKivitz started two games for the 49ers this season but played at least 20 snaps in four other games, so the fifth-rounder gained quality experience during his first year. McKivitz was a significantly better run blocker than he was a pass blocker.
Per Sports Info Solutions, McKivitz’s blown block rate in pass protection was 3.3%, compared to 1.6% as a run blocker. They only credited McKivitz with two blown blocks on 123 snaps. If you recall, one of those came on 4th & 1, where McKivitz stepped the wrong way.
“Fine” would be the best way to describe the rookie out of West Virginia, who seemed to settle in more as the season went along. His first couple of exposures against the Packers and Saints did not go well, but, again, the Niners had zero intentions of McKivitz playing in 2020.
McKivitz’s profile is likely a swing guard/tackle. His athleticism shows up on certain run plays, but the better pass rushers got the best of the rookie this past season and did so rather easily.
DT Javon Kinlaw - 547 snaps
John Lynch said he sees some Warren Sapp in Kinlaw:
“I think Kinlaw is going to be a dominant force in this league — now, I should say ‘is going to become’ because he’s not there yet, he’s shown flashes. I played with Warren Sapp, and I remember Kinlaw’s rookie year was about like Warren Sapp’s rookie year. They’re different players — Kinlaw is a much bigger man, but I think they both have the ability.”
Lynch said his point was that defensive linemen don’t always come in and dominate right away in terms of numbers. If all you’re looking at is numbers, you’re going to be disappointed with Kinlaw’s season. Kinlaw finished in the top-five for a rookie interior defensive lineman in QB hits, but the 49ers took him at No. 14 overall, so isn’t that expected?
Let’s compare Kinlaw’s numbers to Derrick Brown, the lone interior defensive lineman who was drafted ahead of Javon. Brown’s QB hit and pressure percentage were both 1.3% higher than Kinlaw’s. When you look at both of their numbers side by side, Brown had a better rookie year.
Now, on the field, Kinlaw flashed, as Lynch mentioned—but he also had some concerning plays that happened each game. Kinlaw would often play with poor pad level, and a double team would drive him out of his gap. Other times, Kinlaw lacked a plan as a pass rusher, and lineman kept him at bay.
Nick Bosa’s rookie season ruined expectations for Kinlaw’s. The hope is that Kinlaw has a full offseason this year, which helps take his game to another level.
WR Brandon Aiyuk - 728 snaps
If you look at Aiyuk’s season numbers, you’d think he got off to a great start, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Aiyuk suffered a hamstring injury during training camp that kept him out of the final couple of weeks and stretched into the first regular-season game.
The Jets game looked more like a preseason game for Aiyuk, who didn’t appear to know what he was doing. It wasn’t until Week 3 where Aiyuk made his presence felt, and he never looked back after that.
Despite only playing in 12 games, Aiyuk finished the season with 748 receiving yards with five touchdowns through the air and two more on the ground. Aiyuk’s season was impressive when you factor in his surroundings and see how successful he was. Aiyuk had 60 receptions this season, and 71% of those went for first downs. He also averaged 4.8 yards after the catch. The receiver who Aiyuk models his game after, Davante Adams, had 63.5% of his receptions, resulted in a first down, and finished with 5.3 yards after the catch.
Aiyuk finished with four drops—a drop rate of 5.6%, which isn’t bad. If he keeps that number under 8%, it’ll be tough to nitpick Aiyuk’s game. Drops happen, and many of Aiyuk’s appear to be “focus” drops, where he’s running before he has the ball.
If this is the worst version of Aiyuk we’ll see during his career, the 49ers have a special talent on their hands, and we didn’t need a starting QB on the field to confirm Aiyuk’s ability.