Want to feel even better about the 49ers’ strong finish? No team relied as heavily this past season on rookies. At least 10 played in every game from Week 4 onward. Four rookies started in Sunday’s finale on a defense that got better as the season wore on and finished ranked 24th. Here’s a full accounting of the team’s 2017 rookie class. The number of offensive or defense snaps, followed by special-teams snaps, is in parenthesis.
1. DL Solomon Thomas. (655, 55). Thomas certainly wasn’t flashy in his first season. Instead he was merely solid, especially toward the end. He finished second behind DeForest Buckner among 49ers defensive linemen in tackles (41), tied with Buckner for second place in sacks (three) and had the fourth-most number of defensive snaps of all San Francisco defensive players. Thomas played several positions as a rookie. With the team looking to add a piece at “Leo” rusher and with starter Tank Carradine heading to free agency, you have to wonder if Thomas’ 2018 role will be at Carradine’s former “big end” spot on base downs as well as rushing inside next to Buckner on nickel downs.
2. LB Reuben Foster. (497, 11). Foster played in only 10 games and nearly finished with the team’s tackle lead. That title instead went to cornerback Dontae Johnson, who started all 16 contests and finished with 77 tackles. Foster had 72. His energy and ferocity is contagious and perhaps what attracted the 49ers to him the most. But he must learn to better harness it. He went to the blue medical tent at least once in each of the last four games. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh doesn’t want him leaving his feet and hurling his body when he makes tackles. Perhaps most important, Foster’s surgically repaired right shoulder held up through the season, something the 49ers – but not every team – were confident about during the draft.
3A. CB Ahkello Witherspoon. (597, 101). Among 49ers rookies, only Thomas had more combined snaps (including special teams) than Witherspoon, which is notable because he was inactive the first four games. Witherspoon is perhaps the most surprising rookie because everyone thought he would be a bit of a project in the NFL. He grew better, and noticeably more confident, with every game to the point that he was baiting quarterbacks into making bad throws. The 2017 NFL draft eventually may be known for its cornerbacks; Witherspoon promises to be one of them. His two interceptions tied him for the team lead with safety Eric Reid. Witherspoon is a late bloomer. He was 98 pounds as a high school freshman, weighed 198 in the run-up to the draft and still is adding weight. He may top out around 210 pounds.
3B. QB C.J. Beathard. (390, 0). Beathard started five games as a rookie, winning one of them. He earned the respect of the coaches and locker room by absorbing a beating in those games – officially, he took 43 hits – but that’s also his shortcoming. Working with the same cast, veteran Jimmy Garoppolo was able to avoid a lot of hits and his completion percentage was far superior to Beathard’s (67.4 to 54.9). Both passers have quick releases and Garoppolo seems like an ideal model for Beathard in coming years. Beathard said he would train with fellow rookies Trent Taylor and George Kittle this offseason in Nashville.
4. RB Joe Williams. (0, 0). Williams was placed on injured reserve before the season with an ankle injury that he said happened in college. He said Monday the ankle “feels great” now but that it was only recently that he felt it was truly healed. “Lateral movement and everything seems back to where it was,” he said. Williams presumably will compete with Matt Breida, Jeremy McNichols and anyone else the 49ers bring in or retain at the position. Williams said he was around 215 pounds now and that his goal might be 205-208 pounds when next season begins in earnest. He is the only draft pick who didn’t play at all as a rookie.
5A. TE George Kittle. (555, 4). Kittle battled an array of small injuries from the second week of training camp on that muted his effectiveness. He was at his healthiest during the last two weeks and, perhaps signaling what is to come, caught seven passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in those games. Before the season, we said that Falcons tight end Austin Hooper’s rookie numbers in 2016 might be a good measure for Kittle. (Hooper, a former third-round pick, played under Kyle Shanahan that year). He finished that regular season with 19 catches, 271 yards and three touchdowns. Kittle’s numbers: 43 catches, 515 yards and two touchdowns.
5B. WR Trent Taylor. (541, 65). Taylor’s quickness seemed to mesh well with Garoppolo’s snappy delivery. He finished tied for third (with roommate Kittle) on the team with 43 catches, 17 of which came in Garoppolo’s five starts. None of Taylor’s catches was bigger than his 33-yard, third-down grab that helped set up Robbie Gould’s game winner in Chicago. Taylor also happened to be violently ill the night and early morning before the game. According to Pro Football Focus, 27 of Taylor’s 43 catches (62.8 percent) were on third down while 37 of his 59 targets (62.7 percent) were on third down.
6A. DT D.J. Jones. (147, 43). Jones was the backup nose tackle in the first eight games of the season but appeared in only one contest after that. He had four tackles in the defense’s worst outing, a 40-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers don’t have any other true nose tackles aside from Jones and starter Earl Mitchell. However, the team favored Sheldon Day in the rotation after he was acquired in November.
6B. DE/OLB Pita Taumoepenu. (0, 28). The 49ers drafted Taumoepenu with the idea that his relentlessness would be well-used at “Leo” rusher in the third-down role Elvis Dumervil had this year. However, Saleh said last week that Taumoepenu’s best spot next year may be at strong-side linebacker where he would compete for time with Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson. Taumoepenu is faster and more athletic that those two but is not nearly as big. Taumoepenu said that dropping into coverage would be his biggest challenge at that spot.
7. DB Adrian Colbert. (471, 162). He won the highest team honor given to rookies, the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award. Perhaps no rookie wants to succeed as badly as Colbert. He began the year as a cornerback but was switched to safety in the summer when injuries bit into the position. He ended up starting six games and looked like a natural at the free-safety spot where he showed toughness and tenacity as a tackler and the speed to reach the boundaries in coverage. Colbert broke his thumb late in the year but missed only one game, a show of resolve that caught the eye of long-time safety John Lynch.
Best of the rest
RB Matt Breida. (290, 162). He looked better and more motivated than fellow rookie runner Williams from the start. Breida finished with 105 carries for 465 yards and his 4.4-yard average was better than starter Carlos Hyde’s 3.9 yards per carry. Breida also showed he could catch the ball out of the backfield, something he wasn’t asked to do at Georgia Southern. He had 21 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown. According to PFF, Hyde had the most dropped passes of any running back in the NFL with nine. Breida was tied for second with six. Of the team’s 2017 running backs, Breida stands the best chance to be in the picture in 2018.
OL Erik Magnuson. (186, 11) The former Michigan Wolverine started two games at right tackle, though he probably will compete at guard and center when spring practices begin.
WR Kendrick Bourne. (265, 30). Bourne has size (6-1, 203) and is an excellent leaper, two things the 49ers lack in their receiving corps. He will get a chance to compete for a spot next year after finishing with 16 catches for 257 yards as a rookie.
TE Cole Hikutini. (32, 38) He went on injured reserve in November with a knee injury that will not affect him for 2018. Hikutini had two catches for 15 yards when he was healthy and will compete for a spot at “move” tight end next season.
WR Victor Bolden Jr. (27, 122). The preseason star’s role was restricted to special teams before he went on injured reserve. He did not have any catches in the regular season.
LB Elijah Lee. (11, 265) He paid the 49ers a pre-draft visit, then the team pounced by signing him off the Vikings’ practice squad in September. Lee played behind Foster this season at weakside linebacker, which gave him a smattering of plays at season’s end. The bulk of his work came on special teams; he was a regular on coverage units in the second half of the season.
CB Greg Mabin. (35, 66). He was poised to have a prominent role in Week 15 but suffered a calf injury that kept him out of the game. The 49ers have so few outside cornerbacks signed for next season, it seems likely Mabin will get a chance to earn a spot on the team.
OT Darrell Williams Jr. (1, 28). He played the final snap of the season – a kneel-down – Sunday against the Rams. He would have been the team’s swing tackle the last three weeks if anything had happened to Joe Staley or Zane Beadles.
RB Jeremy McNichols (0, 26). He was elevated from the practice squad last month but did not get any carries on offense.