The San Francisco 49ers have one of the most stacked rosters from top to bottom in the entire league. For this reason, rookies drafted by the Niners are not as likely to see the same significant playing time their counterparts around the league do. With no glaring weakness on the 49er roster, there just isn’t any place for a rookie to start during this upcoming season, barring injury (or suspension). With that in mind, let’s take a look at the players in the 49ers’ 2014 draft class who have the best shot at being contributors in their debut season.
1. DB Jimmie Ward (Round 1)
This selection was an obvious one; when teams draft a player in the first round, they anticipate that player having a sizable impact on their team. As mentioned earlier, there isn’t anywhere for the Niners’ first-rounder to start. With Eric Reid locking up the free safety position for the next decade and Antoine Bethea having just signed with the Niners to play strong safety after a solid season with the Colts, Ward won’t be starting at safety, his natural position, meaning he’ll have to adjust.
Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver (assuming he does not miss time with his latest run-in with the law) are two young, talented cornerbacks who, if healthy, should start on the outside. That leaves the nickel cornerback position as the only spot in the Niners’ secondary up for grabs. Jimmie Ward has the quickness, vision, and ball skills to be an impact player in the slot.
Given the fact that this position was previously manned by Carlos Rogers, Ward should be an immediate upgrade. The nickel cornerback is a very important player on the 49er defense, as he sees 60 percent of the total defensive snaps. Ward will start here in his rookie season and take over a starting safety spot down the road.
2. LB Chris Borland (Round 3)
This was perhaps the 49ers’ most underrated selection in the 2014 draft. The former Wisconsin linebacker is one the smartest football players in this entire draft class. Analysts have questioned his size, speed, and overall athleticism, but no one has better form or a better grasp of the game than Chris Borland.
For this reason, Borland will the surprise of training camp and claim the other starting middle linebacker job in place of the injured NaVorro Bowman. The front office tendered the contract of Michael Wilhoite, expecting him to be the starting ‘backer for Bowman. However, Harbaugh knows talent and when he sees Borland’s instincts at work during camp, he’ll have no choice but to start the rookie.
3. WR/KR/PR Bruce Ellington (Round 3)
Generally, the 49ers’ offensive system is not kind to rookie wide receivers. Additionally, with Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Stevie Johnson already ahead of him on the depth chart, Bruce Ellington will face an uphill battle throughout the season to earn touches.
But watching Ellington play at South Carolina, I have been impressed with ability to work in the underneath zones. He is sure-handed receiver who has elite lateral quickness and can produce plenty of yards after the catch. With their newfound depth at the receiver position, the Niners may seriously consider adding more three and four-wide receiver sets. Ellington could become a favorite escape option for Colin Kaepernick coming out of training camp.
But Bruce Ellington’s main source of contributions in his rookie year will come in the return game. This selection by the 49ers has officially ended the LaMichael James era in San Francisco. After being phased out of the offense last season, James’s primary duties shifted to punt returns and kickoff returns.
Now that the Niners have Gore, Hunter, Lattimore, and Hyde ahead of James on the running back depth chart, there is no chance he sees any carries on the offensive side of the ball. With Ellington providing more versatility, he will beat out James during training camp for the return job.