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49ers 2021 draft class faces a critical third season

There are a few starters, and plenty of questions that still need to be answered from this class

NFL: JAN 22 NFC Divisional Playoffs - TBD at 49ers Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We usually see the biggest jump in player performances from Year 1 to Year 2. But in most cases, we know who a player is by Year 3. It’s when we begin to see consistency and whether said player will have any expectations going forward.

The 49ers 2021 NFL Draft class already has an All-Pro, a pair of starters, a couple of depth pieces, and the biggest question mark from that entire draft class.

Here’s a look at the 49ers third-year players as we head into the offseason:

  • QB Trey Lance (1st)
  • LG Aaron Banks (2nd)
  • CB Ambry Thomas (3rd)
  • CB Deommodore Lenoir (5th)
  • S Talanoa Hufanga (5th)
  • OT Jaylon Moore (5th)
  • RB Elijah Mitchell (6th)

The 88th overall pick, Trey Sermon, is an Eagle. No players are remaining on the roster from the 2021 UDFA class, as linebacker Curtis Robinson was claimed from the Denver Broncos.

The only player in jeopardy of not making the opening 53-man roster from the list above is Thomas. The 49ers signed two cornerbacks in free agency, and that’s before acknowledging Lenoir being ahead of Thomas on the depth chart.

If you knew the 49ers had multiple starters, with one being recognized as one of the best players in the position pre-draft, you’d take that, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple.


There are three players on that list we can confidently project being on the 49ers in 2024. But the other four could find themselves in the same boat as Sermon heading into next year’s offseason program — on another team.

Looking back at Lance

For a quarterback who has played little to no football, the opinions surrounding Lance are as concrete as it gets. On the outside, it’s simple. If you were a fan of Lance before the draft, you still believe in his talents and want to see the kid get a shot.

If you were tepid on the prospects of Lance living up to his draft status back in 2021, you haven’t been given a reason to change your stance.

We can all agree that Lance has been unlucky. He threw the first touchdown pass of the season as a rookie and, seemingly out of nowhere, he stopped getting any reps. So, there’s one year of development down the drain. Then, last season, the one full game he played in came at the hand’s of some of the worst conditions in recent memory.

At Soldier Field in Week 1 of 2021, you couldn’t take a step on the field without your shoe transforming into a puddle. Yet, Lance wasn’t afforded the same leash as Jimmy Garoppolo, who struggled mightily in a downpour during a Week 13 game at Baltimore in 2019. The one data point from Brock Purdy under slightly uncomfortable conditions saw Brock Purdy look as close to a 7th-round pick as we saw all season.

But Lance didn’t have Deebo Samuel catching a Hail Mary-ish, 33-yard prayer on 4th & 2 for a touchdown — Raheem Mostert ran for 146 yards in that game and the 49ers still failed to win.

Nobody remembers Quandre Diggs dropping an interception that would’ve changed the game in the second quarter. Or how Kyle Shanahan schemed open George Kittle for two wide open touchdowns, all while Dre Greenlaw forced a fumble to give the 49ers a short-field toward the end of the half.

The details always get lost in the shuffle. Here’s a fun fact: Lance had as many first downs in Week 1 when you're including throwing and rushing than any other quarterback in the NFL. It’s do-or-die for Trey because he hasn’t played. Not because he’s without talent.

Can Mitchell make it happen?

Mitchell may be equally, if not more, unlucky than Lance. After nearly running for 1,000 yards in 2021, I’d argue Mitchell was worlds better in 2022, despite barely surpassing the 250 yard mark. Eli was well on his way to a 100-yard game versus the Bears in Week 1.

Then, an injury in the first half keeps him out for the next nine weeks. That’s been the story of Mitchell’s brief career. There’s always a roadblock.

Less might be more moving forward if that’s what it takes to keep Mitchell on the field. Shanahan wants versatility out of his running backs, and the Niners tip their hand when Jordan Mason is in the game. Mitchell is the clear-cut RB2 on the roster and is the key to keeping Christian McCaffrey fresh all season.

But if the nagging injuries continue, San Francisco’s hand will be forced as Mitchell will be the odd man out after this year.

Moore out of Jaylon

This is the year that’ll determine whether Moore ever becomes anything more than a swing tackle for the 49ers. The traits are there. He’s a big, strong, athlete that can move. But at this level, if you’re not in from a mental standpoint as much as you are physically, then you don’t stand a chance.

The lightbulb has to come on for Jaylon in Year 3. He’ll be competing alongside a rookie right tackle and Colton McKivitz, who was picked in the same round as Moore. The difference between the two is trust. McKivitz isn’t on the same athletic plane as Moore, but also doesn’t make the same mental mistakes.

It’s easier to hide physical deficiencies up front, but allowing free rushers because you didn’t study hard enough or whatever the reason may be is how you remain on the bench.

Ambry’s an afterthought

Going in order of potential contributors for this upcoming season, Thomas is last despite being a third-round pick. It’s not a stretch to say the player who showed promise during the 2021 playoff run is fighting for a roster spot one year later.

Cornerback is nearly impossible, but when you struggle to find the ball in the air, and are consistently giving up big plays, it’s tough to put you on the field. It comes back to trust. Thomas must give the coaching staff a reason to play him. Luckily, for Ambry, there’s a new defensive coordinator. That means a different scheme, and, perhaps, a fresh start for Thomas.

Sustainable starters

The sky is the limit for Hufanga after one season as a starter. Will he be an All-Pro each season? That’s unlikely. But the fact that Talanoa has the ceiling of an impact starter does wonders for the ‘21 class.

Banks will get better the more he plays. If he follows the path of Laken Tomlinson where he’s in the lineup each week, that’s a victory in itself. A reliable lineman presents immense value, especially for a team that struggles with injuries.

Finally, Lenoir. There was more growth from Lenoir in ‘22 than there was from Thomas in ‘21 when he played. Does that mean Deommodore is a five-year starter? That’s still to be determined. But the Niners know they have a player who can hold his own on the perimeter.

This is a critical year for everyone in the organization. Hufanga must prove he’s not a one-year wonder, while Banks and Lenoir must show they have what it takes to be sustainable starters.

Some may feel this class goes as Trey does, regardless of the other players. While unfair, that’s the perception when you move up for a quarterback and trade future first round picks to do so.