The 49ers team that began the season promises to be vastly different than the one that will end it. Some of that is due to injury, some to poor performance. Either way, the team’s collective eye now is turning toward 2016. With that in mind, here are five mostly young players to watch over the last seven games.
QB Blaine Gabbert, 26
Was his solid performance against the Falcons a fluke or a sign that two years on the sideline had made a Gabbert a different and better quarterback? The next game in Seattle – where the 49ers have not won since 2011 – will provide a better litmus test. At this point, it’s difficult to see Colin Kaepernick returning in 2016. More solid play by Gabbert will solidify that impulse. If Gabbert plays well, the 49ers could go into next season with him as the starting quarterback and a rookie as the challenger. Gabbert is signed through 2016.
OT Trent Brown, 22
At 6-foot-7, the seventh-round draft pick has exceptional size and an impressive reach. Brown, of course, lacks experience. A knee injury to Joe Staley last month gave Brown practice repetitions he normally would not have received, which, in turn, gave the 49ers confidence to work Brown into nine plays in last week’s win over the Falcons. Look for the rookie to get increasingly more snaps as the season draws to a close. Erik Pears, 33, is not a long-term solution at right tackle. Anthony Davis, meanwhile, wants to come back next year, and the 49ers are in no position to be picky, even if they feel as if he abandoned them this season. Still, he has proven unpredictable in the past and can’t be relied upon in the future. The 49ers need to have a Plan B, and Brown is currently their best bet.
C/G Marcus Martin, 21
Daniel Kilgore is expected to resume practicing with the team this week, 13 months after he broke his leg in Denver. At some point Kilgore is likely to be re-inserted at center, at which time the question becomes: What happens to Marcus Martin? Pro Football Focus ranks him as the worst starting center in the league. Would he better at guard? That’s where he played – right guard – during most of the offseason and training camp. The 49ers’ situation at guard has been consistently fuzzy this season and there’s no focus for next year either. The only competent starter, Alex Boone, isn’t signed beyond this season and there’s been no effort at this point to extend him. Andrew Tiller has offered some hope. But the team signaled its feelings about him when it stuck him on the practice squad to start the season. Tiller is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, too, while heretofore starter Jordan Devey will be an exclusive rights free agent. Brandon Thomas, 23, did not seize a starting role as expected while Ian Silberman, 23, holds promise but needs more seasoning. That leaves Martin, whom team officials obviously love for his combination of size, length and quickness but who has been slow to turn that potential into productivity.
RB Shaun Draughn, 27
He beat out Pierre Thomas for the starting role against the Falcons, which in turn likely earned him a roster spot for the duration of the season. After essentially taking a month off to nurse the stress fracture in his left foot, Carlos Hyde could return for the 49ers’ next game against Seattle. Hyde already has missed four games due to injury in his first two seasons in the league. The 49ers may have concluded that they need another running back to share duties with the hard-charging Hyde if he ever is going to make it through a 16-game schedule. Draughn may not be that player in the long-term, but he is the best bet for the short term. Look for him to get plenty of opportunities to show his worth over the last seven games.
WR DeAndre Smelter, 23.
The Rams’ Todd Gurley is proof that a rookie can suffer an ACL tear in November of 2014 and be effective by midseason the following year. There’s no urgency to put Smelter, who suffered an ACL tear on Nov. 29, on the 53-man roster this season. After all, the 49ers currently have six receivers on their active roster: Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, Jerome Simpson, Bruce Ellington and DeAndrew White. But they will have a three-week window during which Smelter could practice with the team. That at least will give them a glimpse of his abilities and his readiness for next season. Of the group above, Smith is the only one signed for the long term. Boldin is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March.