Initial grades last spring for the 49ers draft class were mixed. The team’s first pick, No. 2 overall, was defensive end Nick Bosa. He got a thumb’s up from everyone.
But analysts questioned the rest of the class. A converted running back who played just one season at wide receiver, in Round 3? A punter in Round 4? No defensive backs until Round 7?
An analysis by NFL.com in early May, for instance, ranked the 49ers 28th overall, and the team received a grade of C+.
Eight months later, the 49ers’ draft class is getting much better reviews.
In fact, several rookies played key roles as the 49ers skyrocketed from 4-12 in 2018 to 13-3 in 2019 to win the NFC West and earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers earned a bye this weekend and will open the playoffs on Jan. 11 against a team to be determined.
The 49ers wouldn’t be where they are without the draft picks made by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Bosa lived up to his billing at defensive end. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel (Round 2) was a starter and major contributor. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky was consistent and reliable, finishing No. 12 in the league in net average (41.6 yards). Linebacker Dre Greenlaw earned a starting role, then saved a victory over the Seahawks in the final game of the regular season that secured the division title. And sixth-round pick Justin Skule, an offensive tackle, played well when injuries took down starters.
Bosa, Samuel and Greenlaw made the All-Rookie team of the analytic website Pro Football Focus. And, Michael Renner of PFF this week ranked San Francisco’s draft group No. 2 in the league for 2019, only behind the Tennessee Titans.
Renner noted Bosa “is on another level” for performance and potential, while Samuel started slow and came on fast at the end of the schedule, becoming a go-to target for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Wrote Renner: “Over his last eight games, the rookie wideout hauled in 35 catches for 575 yards and broke 12 tackles in the process. On only 57 catches on the year, Samuel would finish tied for the NFL lead with 18 broken tackles. That type of YAC (yards after catch) ability will be deadly in Kyle Shanahan’s offense for years to come.”
The rookie corps might have been even better if Jalen Hurd, the wide receiver from Baylor taken in Round 3, hadn’t been injured before the season and placed on injured reserve. Hurd is athletic and strong, and should get plenty of opportunities to play in 2020.