A year ago, the San Francisco 49ers were reaping huge rewards from their 2011 draft class.
Top pick Aldon Smith was an immediate impact player as a pass rusher, running back Kendall Hunter became Frank Gore’s primary backup, cornerback Chris Culliver got significant playing time, Bruce Miller won the starting fullback job and guard Daniel Kilgore played some snaps.
And, though Colin Kaepernick threw just five passes the entire season, the second-round pick was viewed as valuable to the team’s future as a quarterback-in-waiting.
Now, in 2012, this year’s draft class is nowhere to be seen.
And, with the 5-2 49ers rolling along with good depth at positions where the rookies were taken, it’s uncertain when – or if – the first-year players will get much playing time at all this season. Certainly they’re unlikely to make an appearance Monday night in the Niners’ next game, against 4-3 Arizona.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, the team’s first-round pick from Illinois, was activated for the season’s first game but didn’t get on the field and has been listed as inactive ever since. Running back LaMichael James of Oregon, a second-round pick, hasn’t played a down. Fourth-round pick Joe Looney, a guard from Wake Forest, was injured in training camp and didn’t get a chance to battle for a job. Sixth-round pick Trenton Robinson, a safety, has played briefly on special teams.
Jenkins and James, in particular, were heralded by the 49ers as potential impact players when they were drafted in April, but both have been limited to sideline duty so far.
Jenkins is far down on the depth chart behind wideouts Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn, Jr., and James is behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs (though he has yet to play).
Mike Sando, who covers the NFC West for ESPN.com, reports that the Niners are the only team in the NFL that has not had a single player from its latest draft class play an offensive or defensive snap this season.
Much of the reason, of course, is that the 49ers – coming off a 13-3 regular season – were a talented playoff team that drafted low. There simply have been few openings for rookies.
Jenkins and James this week told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch that they just have to be patient, keep working and await their chances.
“It’s humbling,” said Jenkins, who caught 90 passes last season for Illinois. “It’s a humbling experience. You’re drafted in the first round and people tell you how great you are and all the other stuff. But when reality hits you, hey, right now it’s not my time to play, you kind of put things in perspective. I’m humble right now.”
The team wants Jenkins, at just 6 feet tall and 192 pounds, to get stronger, so he told Branch he’s spending a lot of extra time lifting weights this season.
“It’s just a matter of me getting stronger, getting bigger, getting faster,” Jenkins said.
James says he’s had to learn how to “be a pro,” and master all the intricacies of his job.
“I think I can play with anybody out there,” said James, whose combination of speed, quickness and power helped him rush for more than 5,000 yards in his Oregon career. “I really do believe that. But at the same time, I do need to learn. That’s big. Learn the NFL game. I think that’s a huge step for me just to get that down pat first before I could go out there and try to make a fool of myself.”