Much has already been said of the San Francisco 49ers' 2012 draft picks: Jerry Rice taking A.J. Jenkins under his wings; LaMichael James as a dynamic playmaker on offense and special teams; Joe Looney in the mix to start at guard; and Cam Johnson being a potential late-round steal.
But it's the 2011 class that will have the biggest impact when the regular season kicks off—on Sept. 9, the 49ers travel to Green Bay to face the Packers.
Let's take a closer look at these second-year standouts.
What a rookie season for what appeared to be a draft-day "reach"—if you recall, Smith was the seventh-overall pick. The Missouri product wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, collecting 37 tackles, two forced fumbles and a rookie franchise-record 14 sacks, while mostly seeing the field on passing downs.
As the playing time increases—Smith is slated to start at outside linebacker—so will the numbers. He struggles at setting the edge in the run game and dropping back in coverage, but expect the young man to make strides in his sophomore campaign. He's much too athletically gifted and powerful to not.
Culliver, another "reach" turned steal, was solid in a limited role as a rookie, often flashing the skill set of a future shutdown corner. He has the size (6'0", 200 pounds), the speed (4.40 forty-yard dash) and the physicality to play in a variety of schemes.
The 49ers pitted him against taller receivers, but also in the slot to blanket quicker ones. He'll challenge to be the team's No. 2 corner and has the potential to contribute as a return man, as well.
Hunter's role on offense will be interesting to observe with the addition of James—the team's second-round pick in April—and veteran Brandon Jacobs. While he lacks James' elusiveness and Jacobs' strength, Hunter is an all-around back with the ability to grind out yards on the ground and in the passing game.
A firm grasp of the playbook will push him onto the field early, and his production will keep him there. Just imagine trying to defend the 49ers when both Hunter and James are on the field together. Mismatches galore.
The unknown commodity of this group, Kilgore sat the bench for the majority of last season—he played a total of one snap as an extra blocker. Remember, though, the 49ers moved up in the draft to get Kilgore in the fifth round.
They obviously see something in him, and fans want a chance to see it, too.
He's a bit of a project, but plays with tenacity and has the versatility to play anywhere on the line. With the departures of Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal in free agency, Kilgore sits in the driver seat to start at right guard.
The theme of last year's draft was Harbaugh and Baalke's ability to evaluate talent and see things most others missed. And Bruce Miller, the team's seventh-round selection, was the exclamation point.
An exceptional defensive end in college—two-time C-USA Defensive Player of the Year—Miller was converted to a fullback his rookie season, eventually took over the starting spot and never looked back. He plows running lanes and has the athleticism to beat linebackers in the passing game.
It's a lesson for the kids out there to do your homework; the 49ers did last year and reaped the rewards. Now they'll rely on these sophomores as they pursue another Lombardi Trophy.
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