Last season, the San Francisco 49ers used their first two draft picks on A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James in the 2012 NFL Draft. Neither draft pick saw extensive play time in their rookie seasons, which was due in large part to the amount of talent on the Niners’ depth chart. No rookie made much of an impact until the later part of the season.
James was pushed into the main running back rotation following Kendall Hunter’s injury during the week 12 match-up with the New Orleans. James made his debut in week 14 against the Miami Dolphins as Frank Gore’s backup and the team’s primary kick returner. James finished the regular season with 27 carries for 125 yards. His biggest impact came as a kick returner with a 29.79 kick return average on 14 returns.
Jenkins made even less of an impact during his initial season. He made an appearance in just three games and recorded zero receptions. He was targeted on just once in the final week of the season, which was then subsequently dropped for his only recorded statistic on the year.
The plan for last season’s rookies was to come in and learn the team and grow behind the elite talent ahead of them. The management staff saw that group of rookies making an impact in the future years. This year’s class is much different, as they are being counted upon to cover up several key losses to free agency.
There are several candidates for players to have immediate impact on this year’s team. There are a couple of players on each side of the ball that have to potential to make the biggest impact for the team.
Offensively, it comes down to tight end Vance McDonald and wide receiver Quinton Patton.
McDonald is looking to fill a role that was vacated due to the departure of Delanie Walker. McDonald was used in a similar fashion at Rice that Walker was used in San Francisco. The Owls would line up McDonald all over the field, especially in the slot.
Patton looks to come in and compete for the starting wide receiver position opposite of Aquan Boldin. Patton was a prolific wide receiver in college, due to his ability to run great routes and his great hands. His skill set could be successful out of the slot or out wide, which will allow him plenty of opportunities for playing time due to the injury to Michael Crabtree.
Defensively, the players with the most potential impact this season are safety Eric Reid and the dark-horse candidate, outside linebacker Corey Lemonier. Reid will get the most publicity, as the team traded up to select him in the first round and that his is presumed to fill in the starting free safety role left by the departed Dashon Goldson. He plays a similar game to Goldson’s, but has a much bigger frame. Reid has the potential to defend the pass and play that center field role much better than Goldson.
Lemonier looks to be used mainly as a situational pass rusher and substitute at the outside linebacker position. Lemonier might have an increased workload due to the offseason transgressions of Ahmad Brooks. He is a high motor pass rusher that terrorized opposing offenses in the SEC. Lemonier was a play-maker along the defensive line with 24 tackles for a loss, 17 sacks, and nine forced fumbles in his three years at Auburn.
It is tough decision to narrow down which rookie will have the biggest impact on each side of the ball. In the end, it comes down to the potential playing time for each player. Lemonier looks to be in a reserve role at best during his rookie season, while Patton will see his snaps limited to the rotation of the young receivers.
McDonald will be the rookie with the biggest impact on the offense. His success boils down to his versatility in different aspects of the offense. McDonald was mainly used split out in the slot in Rice’s spread offense. He had a solid receiving career at Rice, which saw him lead the team in receiving one season and in receiving touchdowns in consecutive seasons in 2010 and 2011. He finished his career with 119 receptions for 1,504 yards and 15 touchdowns over his four years, which is impressive due to Rice’s preference to run the ball.
McDonald is also a versatile blocker. He has great size at 6’4” and 267 pounds. He was used both out space in the slot and as an inline blocker along the line. McDonald is a great blocker in space and uses his size and long arms to eat up the smaller corners and safeties. He has struggled as an inline blocker, but is aggressive and willing. Some refinement in his technique could turn him into a very capable blocker on the line.
The role that the Niners would use McDonald in would be similar to that of Walker. He can be lined up all over the place as a slot receiver, as a H-back, and outside the tackle as a traditional tight end. He will see plenty of snaps, due to the Niners’ offensive scheme and it utilization of dual-tight ends. He might lose some of the H-Back snaps to full back Bruce Miller, but he will still have plenty of opportunities to make an impact in the passing game and as a blocker.
Reid will be the defensive rookie with the most impact during the season, due to his strong likelihood of being the opening day starter at the position. Reid is likely to beat out Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman, as the opening day starter at free safety.
Reid is a big, physical safety that has the prototypical frame that NFL scouts look. He is also extremely athletic, as he finished near the top amongst all the safesties in most of the drills at the NFL combine. He possesses a skill set similar to the Niners’ former safety Goldson. Reid is able to step up into the box and provide run support. He is a strong and powerful tackler that is able to read and react quickly to attack in run defense. Reid posted nearly 200 total tackles in his three seasons at LSU. He also had 4.5 tackles for a loss.
Reid has the potential to be much better in coverage than Goldson, as well. Reid has the length and size to defend against tight ends and bigger receivers down he field. He also uses his athleticism well. He is able to turn and use his great straight line speed to run with receivers, or to recover and make up ground when beaten. He is a little stiff in the hips, which will limit his ability to cover a receiver in a man to man situation.
Scouts like to point and say that he was protected by several great corner backs in Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne, and Tyrann Mathieu, but his coverage statistics increased over the course of his career and is a sign of growth to his coverage abilities. He recorded six interceptions and 17 pass deflections over his three years in college, including nine pass deflections in his final season.
The Niners will look to several rookies to make early contributions this season, as opposed to last season’s wait and grow approach. They have several rookies that have the potential to stand out on either side of the ball. Vance McDonald looks to be the offensive rookie with the most impact, due to his receiving ability and potential as a blocker fit well with the versatile nature of the Niners’ offense scheme. Eric Reid looks to be the same on the other side of the ball, as he tries to emulate Goldson’s all-around type of game at the safety position.