San Francisco 49ers

On the 49ers: 2014 will be remembered as ‘Year of the Rookies’

On the 49ers

Matt Barrows

mbarrows@sacbee.com

Center Marcus Martin, blocking against the Rams on Nov. 2 , showed poise on Sunday.
Center Marcus Martin, blocking against the Rams on Nov. 2 , showed poise on Sunday. The Associated Press

The Louisiana Superdome crowd was punishingly loud last Sunday, bombarding the 49ers with decibels before every third-down snap and somehow ratcheting the volume a few ticks higher when the game went to overtime.

“Was that the noisiest venue you’ve ever experienced?” Marcus Martin was asked this week.

Reclined at his locker, the 20-year-old center out of USC looked as if he was trying to suppress a yawn. Not really, he said after briefly pondering the question. College games in Eugene, Ore., were just as loud. It got pretty rowdy when the Trojans went to Notre Dame, too.

The rookie, it seems, is hard to rattle.

After all, there were no bad snaps or false starts for the offensive line last Sunday in New Orleans. The only pre-snap penalty when the 49ers had the ball was committed by the Saints’ defensive line, which was trying to jump a silent snap count run to perfection by Martin, right guard Alex Boone and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“They do a lot of exotic stuff on defense as far as alignments,” fullback Bruce Miller said of the Saints. “And (Martin) was dead-on the whole time. He played a great game.”

The guy anchoring the 49ers’ offensive line won’t be able to legally sip an Anchor Steam until later this month. But Martin’s playing time is not unusual in a season that, because of several injuries and one suspension, is turning into the “Year of the Rookies” in Santa Clara.

This year’s class doesn’t have the flash of its 2011 counterpart. Led by Aldon Smith, nine 49ers rookies that year combined for 2,441 regular-season snaps.

Still, the current class is on pace to surpass that number this month. Through nine games, 10 rookies have combined for 1,960 snaps.

Smith was a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, and the combination of him and veteran Justin Smith helped the 49ers beat the Saints in the divisional round and nearly topple the Giants in the conference championship game.

Smith, however, was a pass-rush specialist who never started a game that season. Neither did cornerback Chris Culliver or running back Kendall Hunter. Kaepernick took only a handful of snaps at the end of blowouts as a rookie.

The only rookie in a starting role that year was Miller, who started eight contests and played a rookie-high 568 snaps, including special teams.

By contrast, three rookies started Sunday’s game in New Orleans:

▪ Inside linebacker Chris Borland, 315 snaps. Borland has 35 tackles in his past two starts, the highest two-game total for a 49er since Patrick Willis had 36 in back-to-back weeks as a rookie in 2007. Borland’s responsibility this season? Oh, merely replace Willis, who has been to the last seven Pro Bowls.

▪ Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, 384 snaps. With Dan Skuta injured and Aldon Smith still suspended last week, Lynch started and likely will do so again Sunday against the Giants. Lynch played all 81 defensive snaps against the Saints, and he and Smith could be the team’s third-down pass rushers in the second half of the season.

▪ Martin, 145 snaps. Like Lynch, Martin played all of his unit’s snaps against the Saints. He ranks seventh among 49ers rookies in playing time but, if he stays healthy, will be at the top when the season is over.

Meanwhile, first-round pick Jimmie Ward, a safety, has played 341 snaps through nine games while second-round pick Carlos Hyde, a running back, has been on the field for 212 snaps. Fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson, a cornerback, has played 248 snaps and likely will be on the field for more than half of the 49ers’ defensive plays against the Giants.

All of which is to say the 49ers’ season pivots on their rookies more than any in recent memory. Longtime veterans like Frank Gore and Justin Smith hope to make another, perhaps final, push through the playoffs. To do that, they’ll have to rely on teammates who were in grade school when their careers began.

Martin, for example, was 8 years old when Justin Smith took his first NFL snap.

“We do not age-discriminate,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “If you can play, you can play for us.”

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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