San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Rookie class, led by DeForest Buckner, plays to mixed reviews

49ers first-round pick DeForest Buckner has big plans

DeForest Buckner, chosen by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the spring's draft of college players, shared his thoughts about what's coming for him as he begins his NFL career, speaking with the media after reporting for training camp
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DeForest Buckner, chosen by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the spring's draft of college players, shared his thoughts about what's coming for him as he begins his NFL career, speaking with the media after reporting for training camp

The 49ers held onto – in one way or another – 10 of their 11 picks from the NFL draft in April. The impact those rookies have had so far? It’s been mixed at best. Here’s a look through seven games:

1. DL DeForest Buckner, Round 1, No. 7 overall: In an ideal situation, Buckner would enter games when the 49ers are in nickel defense. That’s what they did in 2011 with the No. 7 overall pick, Aldon Smith. He didn’t start a game that season and only played 54 percent of the defensive snaps. Yet he had a huge impact with 14 sacks while learning the finer points of his position.

The 49ers can’t afford to be as patient and judicious with Buckner. Injuries have weakened the defensive line, forcing the rookie to be an every-down player. He missed a game with a foot injury but still leads all 49ers defensive linemen with 389 snaps. No other first-round defensive lineman has logged even close to that amount. For perspective, Arik Armstead played 375 snaps during his rookie season a year ago.

Buckner is incredibly lithe and athletic for someone his size, and he makes tackles all over the field. In fact, he might be better when the play is run away from him, enabling him to use his skills to run down the ballcarrier. When the play is in Buckner’s direction, his 6-foot-7 frame can be used against him and he can be moved.

Still, his athleticism, smarts and doggedness all point to Buckner becoming an excellent all-around player for the 49ers.

2. G Joshua Garnett, Round 1, No. 28: The 49ers not only took a guard in the first round, they traded ahead nine spots to get him. Those circumstances strongly suggest they expected that guard to be a Day One starter, but Garnett only cracked the starting lineup in Week 6.

Coach Chip Kelly continues to cite Garnett’s missed time in the offseason – Stanford classes were still in session – when it comes to the rookie’s slow start. But that excuse got old in mid-August. The truth is that Garnett has been rough as a pass protector. The scouting service Pro Football Focus reports that he’s allowed 13 quarterback pressures in 100 pass-blocking situations, a terrible mark. In addition, the 49ers’ offensive line has been called for just three holding penalties this season. Two have been called against Garnett.

3. CB Will Redmond, Round 3, No. 68: Redmond spent the first half of the season on injured reserve as he recovers from a college ACL injury. He is eligible to start playing when the 49ers host the Saints on Nov. 6.

The 49ers believe Redmond’s injury allowed them to land him at least one round before he would have otherwise been taken. But that’s also how they felt about cornerback Keith Reaser, offensive lineman Brandon Thomas, receiver DeAndre Smelter and several other ACL patients who have yet to pay dividends for the team.

Furthermore, if Redmond does indeed merit playing time, likely as a nickel cornerback, it might mean sending another draft pick like Rashard Robinson or Jimmie Ward to the bench.

4. CB Rashard Robinson, Round 4, No. 133: Long-limbed and aggressive, Robinson was very good early in the season but has been picked on by opposing offenses in the 49ers’ past two games. Those games also have resulted in injuries – a concussion and an MCL sprain that could keep Robinson out a few weeks.

Robinson’s long-term prospects seem good. But they will have to be weighed against players drafted immediately after him. One is Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who is 5-1 as a starter. Another – running back Devontae Booker (Grant, American River College) – has looked sharp this season and will take over the Broncos’ starting role with C.J. Anderson out with a knee injury.

5. DL Ronald Blair, Round 5, No. 142: Blair dropped a bit in the draft because nobody knew quite where to play him. The 49ers have used him as a situational passer rusher along the defensive line, but he’s only gotten a handful of snaps per game. Perhaps he’d be better utilized at outside linebacker behind starters Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch.

6. OT John Theus, Round 5, No. 145: The 49ers have only three true tackles on their roster. Theus is No. 3, but has been inactive for every game this season. The 49ers are eyeing him as their swing tackle for the future, but he must get stronger from Year 1 to Year 2.

7. OL Fahn Cooper, Round 5, No. 174: Cooper has been on the practice squad since the start of the season. He played some left tackle at Ole Miss. but is probably limited to right tackle or guard – both of which he played in the run-up to the regular season – in the NFL.

8. QB Jeff Driskel, Round 6, No. 207: The 49ers decided they were better off with Christian Ponder as their No. 3 quarterback and cut Driskel with the intention of placing him on the practice squad. The Bengals, however, signed him to their 53-man roster. He’s been inactive for every game this season.

9. RB Kelvin Taylor, Round 6, No. 211: Taylor averaged 5.1 yards on 21 carries in the preseason but landed on the practice squad to start the year. He’s currently the fifth running back in the team’s pecking order behind Carlos Hyde, Mike Davis, DuJuan Harris and Shaun Draughn.

10. WR Aaron Burbridge, Round 6, No. 213: Burbridge’s most memorable play this season involved him crashing into Jeremy Kerley on a punt return. That’s unfortunate because he’s otherwise been solid on special teams, especially as a gunner. That underscores his toughness. Burbridge has two catches for 20 yards on the season but does not appear to be the type of catch-and-go receiver that Kelly covets.

11. CB Prince Charles Iworah, Round 7, No. 249: He’s been on the practice squad for all seven weeks this season. The 49ers list him at 5-11 but he’s actually 5-9 7/8. That’s not ideal for an outside cornerback, and Iworah ultimately might be best utilized as a nickel cornerback.

San Francisco 49ers defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are reunited from their college days with the Oregon Ducks. And they're having a blast.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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