If you were to poll executives around the NFL, it’d be close to unanimous that the San Francisco 49ers have a top-10 roster in the NFL. The front office has been aggressive in both free agency and the NFL Draft to help reel in some of the top talents from around the league while finding talent at a bargain price.
How bright does the future look for the Niners? First, let’s look at the top players on the roster under 25 to get a better idea. The bottom of the list was like pulling teeth, but it was smooth sailing once I got closer to the top.
10) Aaron Banks - OG - 23
The first two players on this list are rookies. Therefore this is all projection. Aaron Banks will have every opportunity to start at right guard this season. As the team’s second-round pick, the hope is that he could start somewhere along the offensive line for years to come.
Banks comes from a school that pumps offensive linemen into the NFL yearly. History would suggest that he’ll be, at worst, a serviceable starter during his rookie contract. Physically, Banks has the upside to become better than competent. We’ll see Banks can outplay his draft position.
9) Ambry Thomas - CB - 21
Speaking of projection, the 49ers hope the 21-year-old Thomas can develop into a starter as Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, and K’Waun Williams are all on one-year deals. So the 2021 third-round pick doesn’t have to play right away, which could turn out to be a blessing.
With injuries, the 49ers' hand may be forced to put Thomas into the lineup. His speed and athleticism should make Thomas competitive. Thomas was playing his best ball heading into the 2020 season. Hopefully, he can pick up where he left off when training camp starts later this month.
8) Kevin Givens - DT - 24
Givens made a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2. I’m not sure there is a person higher on Givens in the 49ers building than Javon Kinlaw, who brings Givens up every time he speaks to the media.
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans singled Givens out as a potential breakout player this season for the defense. When you have 19 tackles and five of them are behind the line of scrimmage, it’s easy to see why. In addition, Givens has an impressive get-off that allows him to cause ruckus and chaos in the backfield.
It’ll be interesting to see Givens usage this year, given the depth along the defensive line and how he makes it difficult for Ryans to keep him off the field. However, the 49ers need an interior pass-rush, and Givens was the most efficient a season ago. We’ll see if that remains true in 2021.
7) Dre Greenlaw - LB - 24
Greenlaw made a name for himself as a rookie but didn’t take the step many expected him to in Year 2. Greenlaw could be more aggressive. With the coordinator change, Ryans could simplify life for Dre. He has the speed to run down just about any ball carrier.
I’d like to see Greenlaw evolve from “just an athlete” playing linebacker to an instinctive guy, trusts what he sees, and goes and makes plays. Referencing his interception and big hit against Seattle from 2019 was a long time ago. Likewise, it’s time for Dre to grow as a player. The talent is there.
6) Trey Sermon - RB - 22
A running back? Yes, a 22-year-old who excelled at Oklahoma and Ohio State. Sermon has an opportunity in front of him to put up numbers in this offense if he stays healthy. Don’t focus on Sermon’s 40 time. Instead, focus on his 10-yard split time, which was elite.
That initial burst will be the reason Sermon has a bunch of 10 and 20-yard gains. In addition, his vision, patience, and balance make Sermon an ideal fit in Shanahan’s wide zone scheme. But, of course, he plays for the 49ers, so he has to stay healthy.
Sermon’s abilities out of the backfield as a receiver are why he’s so high on this list. It’s been a while, but Shanahan and Mike McDaniel have a running back who could be their bell-cow.
5) Javon Kinlaw - DT - 23
When you trade multiple first-round picks away, you’re betting on your previous picks to pan out. The 49ers need Kinlaw to be a good player. He doesn’t have to be dominant, nor does he have to live up to DeForest Buckner’s standards.
Kinlaw has to produce, though. We’ll find out about the second-year player, and if he’s the real deal come September with a full offseason under his belt, Kinlaw should be improved. As a run defender, Kinlaw was above average as a rookie.
The 49ers didn’t draft Kinlaw to stop the run. In today’s game, you need to generate pressure and affect the QB. He’ll have more help, which is why it’s easy to imagine Kinlaw taking the next step.
4) Brandon Aiyuk - WR - 23
Aiyuk was efficient, explosive, and dependable as a rookie. That doesn’t happen when you have a strong supporting cast. It certainly doesn’t happen when you’re surrounded by backups.
Aiyuk has a chance to be special. Sure, he’ll have to refine some aspects of his game and become more consistent, but that’s to be expected for any second-year player. It’s been a long time since the 49ers had a receiver who could win at all three levels. Based on 2020, Aiyuk is that guy.
3) Fred Warner - LB - 24
You know you have a strong core when Warner isn’t your top player under 25. Warner burst onto the scene during his second season in 2019 and found a way to improve during his third season.
Now, we’re a few weeks away from Warner potentially becoming the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL and possibly history. He deserves it. Warner hasn’t missed a start in three years. He’s the best coverage linebacker in the NFL, and his instincts allow him to make plays against the run and as a pass rusher.
Warner is a complete linebacker who allows the 49ers to be multiple in ways they wouldn’t be able to if 54 weren’t around. Where can he improve? It feels like we’re nitpicking.
2) Nick Bosa - Edge - 23
As is the case with Warner, it’s tough to find faults in Bosa’s game when he’s on the field. The reason he’s not No. 1 on this list is because of positional value and how big of an investment the top player is.
Bosa could very well be the reason the 49ers' defense returns to their elite status. He’s that good of a player. However, I’m more interested in how Bosa performs this season and how big his contract will be next offseason or the year after.
Bosa is going to cost a pretty penny, and he’ll be worth every cent.
1) Trey Lance - QB - 21
The future of the 49ers lies in the hands, or on the arm, of a 21-year-old. Bosa can be transcedent. Warner could break records. I’m not sure any of that will matter if Lance isn’t as good as the team thinks he’ll be.
The excitement surrounding Lance is palpable. Fans haven’t had someone to look forward to in quite some time. Everyone knew Bosa was the real deal. There’s this mystique surrounding Lance as the variance for his career, not just this season, could be all over the place.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a rookie QB entering a better situation. The Niners have two high-quality wideouts, a star tight-end, a much-improved offensive line with veterans, and the best play-caller in the sport.
Lance has talent. He’s a much better quarterback than given credit for. He’s the team’s biggest investment in recent memory. Lance has to be No. 1 on the list.