A year ago, the 49ers were getting very little benefit from the 2012 draft.
No. 1 pick A.J. Jenkins, a speedy wide receiver, was supposed to help open up San Francisco’s deep passing game, but he couldn’t even get on the field. Running back LaMichael James was lost on the depth chart. Offensive lineman Joe Looney was hurt, as were several others.
As the 49ers made their way to the Super Bowl, they did it largely without contributions from their rookie class (although James, when he finally got a chance to play, performed well).
This season, it’s a much different story.
With the 49ers halfway through their schedule with a 6-2 record, San Francisco has gotten huge contributions from a flock of rookies. Much like general manager Trent Baalke’s draft class of 2011 – that included Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Kendall Hunter and Chris Culliver – this class of 2013 is getting an A grade.
“They drafted a great group of guys,” said first-year linebacker Corey Lemonier, a third-round pick from Auburn. “We’re coming in and showing the older guys we’re ready to play week in and week out. We’re doing a great job.”
Lemonier, drafted for his potential as a pass rusher, has played very well, sharing snaps with veteran Dan Skuta at right outside linebacker in the absence of Aldon Smith. He’s forced a fumble, recorded a safety on a sack and has 11 tackles in a part-time role over the past five games, all 49ers victories.
But Lemonier is just one of many contributors. As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com wrote on his 49ers blog Friday, “This class is deep and has long-term potential. This is one of the deepest rosters in football, yet there are several rookies who are figuring in prominently on a 6-2 team.”
First-round pick Eric Reid has stepped in for departed safety Dashon Goldson and been an impact player as a starter. Second-rounder Vance McDonald has been a solid backup tight end and extra blocker. Lemonier has flashed his potential at linebacker. Wide receiver Quinton Patton had earned a starting spot when he was sidelined by injury. Rookie defensive linemen Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine, who haven’t played all season because of injures, are now on the roster and expected to contribute. Running back Marcus Lattimore is waiting in the wings as the running back of the future. And undrafted free-agent cornerback Darryl Morris and long snapper Kevin McDermott have been very good.
The biggest and most impressive first-year contributor, however, has been Reid.
The 49ers traded up in the draft to get him and he’s been excellent. He’s an impact player against the run and his coverage and instincts against the pass have been even better than expected.
In eight games, Reid has 39 tackles, a fumble recovery, three interceptions and six passes defensed.
“He’s blessed with a lot of ability,” head coach Jim Harbaugh recently said of Reid. “He’s very sharp. He learns well. He doesn’t repeat mistakes. He’s not an error-repeater. Once he does something (wrong), he gets coached on it and you don’t see that same mistake again.”