The 49ers selected eight players in the 2021 NFL draft, and after a grueling month of training camp and three preseason games, all eight made the cut and will be on the final 53 man roster heading into Week 1.
I will give a quick rundown of how each rookie performed during the preseason, going in order of where they were selected during the draft.
Trey Lance - Round 1, pick 3
Final Preseason Stats :
Passing - 19-41, 276 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception,
Rushing - 3 carries, 16 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 fumble
Trey Lance flashed some of the brilliance that led to the 49es brain trusts' decision to pick him third overall. The highlight of Lance’s preseason came on an 80-yard bomb to Trent Sherfield that not only showed off the cannon for an arm Lance possesses but also showed off the value of his legs as he was able to quickly move to his left off of a play fake to make the throw outside of pocket.
Lance also had some issues with accuracy at times, sailing balls high and often looked like the timing just wasn’t quite there as he was late and missed behind his targets on more than one occasion.
Overall I thought Lance looked exactly like you’d expect a promising 21-year-old rookie would. At times, he struggled. But, Lance also regularly demonstrating the talent that caused the 49ers to bet their future on him.
Aaron Banks - Round 2, pick 48
Final preseason stats: 18 pass-blocking snaps, four pressures allowed, one sack allowed. The 49ers clearly had high hopes for Banks when they selected him in the second round, but unfortunately, the rookie out of Notre Dame had about as rocky start of a start to his career as you could have, struggling in training camp before injuring his shoulder in the first preseason game after pancaking an opposing defender while run blocking.
It is important to remember that a considerable amount of Banks struggling is likely due to the growing pains of moving over to the right side after playing left guard in college. The pass blocking Banks put on tape in college leaves me optimistic that he can get things figured out at the NFL level with a bit more seasoning, but even though it’s far too early to panic, I do believe his struggles shouldn’t be disregarded.
Trey Sermon - Round 3, pick 88
Final Preseason Stats :
Rushing - 16 carries, 63 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, 0 touchdowns, 1 fumble
Receiving - 2 targets, 2 receptions, 14 yards, 0 touchdowns
Sermon is among the players who I thought looked much better in 11 on 11’s in training camp than he did during the preseason games. While I understand the 3.9 yards per carry is nothing to get carried away about, what I saw from Sermon during camp certainly left me with a good amount of optimism about his projected production in the short and long term.
Sermon’s ability to maintain balance through contact was by far the most encouraging trait he displayed, regularly extending runs after being met by a defender and seemingly having the patience and physicality required to slowly wear down a defense over the course of a game with calculated and methodical runs.
Ambry Thomas - Round 3, pick 105
Final preseason stats: Targeted 14 times, 11 receptions, 11.5 yards per reception, 104.2 passer rating allowed, 11 tackles
Thomas comes from a press-man background at Michigan, so the 49ers' selection of him in the third round signified they likely were looking to increase the amount of man coverage under new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans (everything I saw during training camp would reinforce this as well).
Thomas has great physical traits (6’0 183 pounds with plus speed), but there is no way to beat around the bush when discussing his performance throughout the preseason. It was flat-out, not good.
Thomas did not play for Michigan in 2020 after opting out of the season, so there is a strong chance a lot of his poor play can be attributed to shaking off the rust that has built up since he last played at game speed nearly two years ago. Like Banks, it’s far too early to write Thomas off, but the frequency with which he was getting beat is extremely discouraging at this juncture.
Jaylon Moore - Round 5, pick 155
Final Preseason Stats: 69 pass-blocking snaps, 3 pressures allowed, 1 sack allowed
Moore is a player who I believe far exceeded expectations, getting a significant amount of work with the first team and, as a result having the opportunity to log a generous amount of snaps against first-team defenses.
Moore has shown he has what it takes to be, at the very least, a versatile lineman who can contribute in a swing tackle role, with the additional upside of potentially becoming a starting-caliber tackle sometime in the future. As a result, the 49ers might have found themselves a steal here with this Day 3 pick.
Deommodore Lenoir - Round 5, Pick 172
Final Preseason Stats: targeted 10 times, 4 receptions, 12.0 yards per reception, 1 interception, 1 pass breakup, 15.8 passer rating allowed, 4 tackles
Lenoir might have had the best overall performance of any 49ers rookie during the preseason, consistently shutting down his opponent in coverage and displaying the ability to regularly stick opposing wide receivers in man to man at the NFL level. On top of that, Lenoir has also displayed an uncanny ability to make tackles in the open field, particularly when he has been left alone on an island on the perimeter.
The change in potential trajectory over the course of the last month has been astounding as Lenoir has gone from a player who projected as a depth piece/nickel corner to now having a feasible path to being a starting NFL cornerback in the near future.
Talanoa Hufanga - Round 5, pick 180
Final preseason stats: 4 tackles, 1 pressure, targeted 2 times, 1 reception allowed 5 yards.
Hufanga might have been the biggest riser of the preseason, going from taking reps with the third team at the start of training camp to wrapping up the preseason, getting a substantial amount of playing time with the first team. Hufanga plays much faster than he looks on tape and quickly dispelled the belief that I and many others shared that he would be relegated to some kind of hybrid safety/linebacker role within the box.
Hufanga’s instincts have been as impressive as his athletic ability, as he has on multiple occasions made a key play to thwart a drive by an opposing offense, highlighted by two huge third-down stops in the first preseason game vs. Kansas City. The defensive staff has put a lot on Hufanga’s plate, regularly leaving him as the single-high safety, and Hufanga has responded about as well as you could ask a fifth-round rookie to do. This pick is looking like yet another heist in the fifth round by the 49ers front office.
Elijah Mitchell, Round 6, pick 194
Final preseason stats: 6 carries, 24 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 fumbles
A hip injury limited Mitchell to only one preseason game, and it certainly wasn’t a performance to write home about, given that he only had 6 carries for 24 yards. But during camp, I thought Mitchell displayed a tremendous amount of burst and particularly shined as a receiver out of the backfield. Mitchell also looks slated to handle a good portion of the kick return duties, giving the special teams unit a boost with his explosive speed.
It should be noted that Mitchell is the closest player the 49ers have to Raheem Mostert in terms of physical ability, and should Mostert miss time or need his touches scaled back for any reason, the 49ers now have a viable option who they can plug and play to still reap the rewards of the home run threat that Mostert provides every time he touches the ball.