Rookie safety L.J. McCray was surrounded by veterans when Jim Harbaugh walked into the team meeting room Saturday afternoon, so he tried to act cool with what the 49ers’ coach told the group.
“Coach came in and said, ‘Whoever is in this room, congratulations, you’ve made the team,’ ” McCray said. “That’s how I had found out.”
If McCray, who played at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., had studied the room, he would have found a number of other young players trying just as hard to contain their glee. They included offensive lineman Dillon Farrell, who, like McCray, had very little fanfare in the run-up to the draft and signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.
The 49ers chose Farrell over 10-year veteran Adam Snyder, who was due to earn $1 million this season. In all, the 49ers have 18 players on their 53-man roster who are in either their first or second seasons, including nine rookies.
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Of course, a number of veterans – with their own feel-good stories – also made the squad.
Brandon Lloyd, who sat out the 2013 season while working for an aerospace supplier in Colorado, is one of six wide receivers on the roster and one of four veteran wideouts who has had a 1,000-yard receiving season. That’s in stark contrast with most of last season, when Anquan Boldin was the only healthy member who could make that claim.
The 49ers also kept third-year long snapper-tight end Kyle Nelson, who had eight brief NFL stints – including two earlier ones with the 49ers – before making the team this year. Nelson beat Kevin McDermott, who edged out longtime veteran Brian Jennings last offseason.
“Just felt like he’s earned the job,” Harbaugh said of Nelson, who caught two touchdown passes in Thursday’s preseason finale.
Overall, the 49ers will receive an injection of youth this season, which also brings some relief to their salary cap. The team is nearly $10 million below the cap, and any savings this year will roll over to next season.
That was most apparent on special teams, where the 49ers said goodbye to three veterans: C.J. Spillman, Kassim Osgood and Ray Ventrone. Osgood and Ventrone were brought in last year to resurrect coverage units that had lapsed in 2012, and the duo made a noticeable impact as the 49ers finished tied for third in kickoff coverage and didn’t allow a punt or kickoff return for a touchdown.
Osgood and Spillman served as the team’s gunners on punt coverage last year. This year, that job likely will fall to two rookies, McCray and first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward.
“There are young players that are going to have to rise to the challenge,” Harbaugh said. “It’ll be a challenge for our whole football team – the veteran players, young players – to get our special teams where we’re used to them being.”
The 49ers also have little depth along the offensive line. They kept eight linemen, but two, right tackle Anthony Davis and rookie Marcus Martin, are coming back from injuries. Another lineman, Alex Boone, does not count against the 53-man roster as his contract holdout now enters the regular season.
Davis had shoulder surgery in April, and he missed all of the preseason games. Asked if Davis will start against the Cowboys on Sept. 7, Harbaugh said, “We’ll see.”
Martin, meanwhile, will be out at least another five weeks with an injury to his kneecap.
If Davis can’t start, Jonathan Martin will fill in at right tackle in Dallas, and Farrell, who can play any position on the line, will be the team’s only healthy backup.
The 49ers might be able to make another addition after Tuesday when they can put injured nose tackle Glenn Dorsey on injured reserve with a designation to return later in the season.
The team on Sunday will begin building a 10-man practice squad. Prime candidates are offensive linemen Carter Bykowski and Ryan Seymour, running back Glenn Winston and linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas.