San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers had several rookies last season. GM John Lynch may have been their best one

The 49ers went 6-10 in John Lynch’s first season as general manager, but the team closed the season on a positive note.
The 49ers went 6-10 in John Lynch’s first season as general manager, but the team closed the season on a positive note. Sacramento Bee file

The 49ers’ most recent season ended with two starters – left tackle Joe Staley and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner – in roughly the same spot they were in in Week 17 of the previous season.

Which is to say, general manager John Lynch was busy in Year 1 of his 49ers tenure.

Lynch, the team’s out-of-left-field hire one year ago Monday, had never spent a second in an NFL front office. But he, first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers personnel staff weren’t shy about aiming a leaf blower at the roster they inherited and flipping the switch to full blast.

Of the 89 players who spent time in San Francisco during the 2016 regular season – either on the 53-man roster or the 10-man practice squad – only 23 were with the 49ers in some capacity when the 2017 season ended. Of the team’s top passer, receiver, rusher and tackler in 2016, only the rusher, tailback Carlos Hyde, remained on the roster.

The quarterback group? Refurbished. The receivers? Practically wiped clean. The linebacking corps? Overhauled.

No other NFL squad went through the sea change the 49ers did. And no other team relied as heavily on rookies and young players. From Week 4 onward, at least 10 rookies – and as many as 14 – appeared in each game for San Francisco.

That approach seemed dubious when the 49ers began the season 0-9, the worst start in franchise history. But it appears brilliant after they won six of their final seven contests. The 49ers head into the 2018 season with momentum and with a young – but experienced – roster.

Lynch excelled as the face and voice of the franchise, which was expected considering his likeable demeanor and the fact that he spent 15 seasons as a media-savvy strong safety and nine years as a national broadcaster.

His roster building skills were even better. Lynch’s predecessor, Trent Baalke, fancied himself as a no-frills talent evaluator. Baalke, however, too often tried to hit grand slams with his middle-round picks, opting for injured players (Marcus Lattimore, Brandon Thomas and a host of other ACL-tear patients) or players with character concerns (Aaron Lynch, Rashard Robinson).

The vast majority of those at-bats ended in strikeouts. As a result, the 49ers largely were missing rank-and-file members by the end of Baalke’s regime. They had some potential young stars in Buckner and some plucky bottom-of-the-roster players. But they lacked a middle.

That area seems much more promising under Lynch. Two fifth-rounders, receiver Trent Taylor and tight end George Kittle, were productive as rookies, especially with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round pick, seemed to grow stronger with every game. Seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert may have been the most pleasant surprise of the season.

Lynch’s first season wasn’t perfect.

His initial draft pick, Solomon Thomas, didn’t make an impact commensurate with his No. 3 overall draft position. His second pick, Reuben Foster, was arrested this month. During the draft the 49ers traded a third-round pick to the Saints, who used it on running back Alvin Kamara, who won seven rookie-of-the-week award in 2017 and who would have fit very nicely in San Francisco’s offense. The running back the 49ers drafted a round later, Joe Williams, is the only one of the team’s 10 picks who didn’t play this past season.

Those items, however, shouldn’t take away from Lynch’s big-ticket accomplishments in 2017, which include revamping the roster, acquiring a franchise quarterback and helping to bring stability to what had recently been the NFC’s most rickety organization.

A year ago, the 49ers and their neophyte general manager were at Step 1 in what seemed like a long, painful rebuild. Today the task doesn’t seem nearly as daunting.

Not bad for a rookie.

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

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