San Francisco 49ers: Roles for the Rookie Class of 2014

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San Francisco 49ers: Roles for the Rookie Class of 2014
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers added 13 players to their roster during the three days of the draft: 12 draft picks and wide receiver Stevie Johnson.  That’s a huge talent influx to a team that already was loaded with talent at nearly every position.

How many of the new 13 will we see on the field in 2014?  What roles will they be used in in their first seasons in the red and gold?  Let’s go through the list and figure out who might be starting Week 1, who will be coming off the bench with regularity and who will spend a year learning the system.

 

Starter: C Marcus Martin

Marcus Martin will only be 20 years old when the 2014 season kicks off.  That would have made him the youngest starter in the league in 2013.  The last time someone as young as Martin had a regular starting job was 2011, when 20-year-old Tyron Smith started 16 games for the Dallas Cowboys.  It would not be a surprise at all if Martin plays as a reserve for a year, simply due to his age.

On a sheer talent and experience level, however, I expect Martin would win the starting center job over Daniel Kilgore.  Martin started 33 games in college at guard and center, cracking the lineup as a true freshman.  Compare his scouting report to Kilgore’s coming out of college (subscription required), and you can see that Martin enters the NFL with more prototypical size and equivalent or better grades in all aspects.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Martin will start sooner rather than later.

Of course, Kilgore isn’t a rookie fresh from Appalachian State anymore.  The 49ers just re-upped his contract, extending him through the 2017 season as the 20th highest-paid center.  He only saw the field for 86 plays last season, but he was a good run-blocker.  He’ll likely open training camp with the starting spot, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start for a year while Martin grows into his frame.

However, I think in the long run, Martin’s the better player and will take over the starting role sooner rather than later.  The last time the 49ers started a rookie at center for the majority of the season was 1978 and Fred Quillan, but Martin has all the tools needed to take over the job from day one.

 

Regular Contributors: WR Stevie Johnson, S Jimmie Ward

I don’t see Johnson bumping either Michael Crabtree or Anquan Boldin out of the first two wide receiver slots.  Nor do I see Jimmie Ward supplanting Antoine Bethea, who was just signed in free agency.  Therefore, I can’t quite list them as starters.

I do, however, fully expect them to play key roles in the 2014 season as the third receiver and nickelback, respectively.  In today’s NFL, those are essentially starting roles.  In 2013, the 49ers used three wide receivers only about 20 percent of the time, but they’ve been an outlier—the trend has been moving to multireceiver sets for nearly a decade now.  That makes your slot receiver and third cornerback essentially starters.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Johnson ran 71.3 percent of his routes in the slot in 2013 (per Pro Football Focus, subscription required), with 41 receptions for 461 yards.  Considering the 49ers' third receiver option at the nadir of last season was Jonathan Baldwin, Johnson represents a massive upgrade at the position.

Meanwhile, Ward may be a safety, but he played plenty of slot cornerback in college, covering the slot more than 50 percent of the time at Northern Illinois.  While his long-term role seems to replace Bethea, for 2014, the 49ers will try to use him to replace the departed Carlos Rogers.  Both should see the field plenty in 2014.

 

Key Reserves: RB Carlos Hyde, ILB Chris Borland

Now we’re getting to players who won’t see as many snaps, but still will have a significant role to play in the 2014 season.

At running back, Frank Gore isn’t getting any younger—he’ll be turning 31 on May 14.  While he’s still effective, it’s likely time to start decreasing his number of carries, allowing him to get more rest and continue to play as well as he can.

Earlier this offseason, I estimated Gore’s carries would fall off to about the 210 to 220 range, down from the 270 to 280 carries he’s been given the past few seasons.  That leaves something like 180 carries for the backup running backs to fight over.  Carlos Hyde will be in a battle with Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore for those carries.

That’s a loaded backfield, and it’s not even getting into the presence of LaMichael James or Jewel Hampton.  I would not be surprised at all to see James and Hunter dealt before the season starts.  I think Hyde will end up with the most carries of the second group of running backs, but it will be a dogfight all the way.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Meanwhile, NaVorro Bowman will miss a decent chunk of the 2014 season due to his injury in the NFC Championship Game.  That opens up a slot at inside linebacker, and Chris Borland figures to be right in the mix.

He’ll be battling Nick Moody and Michael Wilhoite for snaps there, and I think Borland’s college production has shown he has the motor to get the call.  He might be an opening-day starter, albeit simply as an injury replacement.

 

Depth: WR Bruce Ellington, DB Dontae Johnson, OLB Aaron Lynch

These players probably won’t see much time on offense or defense.  They could see expanded roles on special teams but will mostly provide depth this season.

Bruce Ellington will be battling Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd and Baldwin for the fourth receiver role, which on the San Francisco 49ers very rarely sees the field.  His big hope for seeing productive minutes probably comes as a returner.  He might beat James outright there, or he could take over the role by default if James is moved.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Dontae Johnson’s pinnacle this season would likely be as a dime cornerback spot, but he’s got a fight on his hands to earn that position.  Chris Cook, Perrish Cox and Eric Wright will also be looking for snaps there.  I think Johnson makes the team without too much issue, but he’ll probably find himself buried at the bottom of the depth chart.

Aaron Lynch is in a similar situation as he moves to outside linebacker.  Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta showed a lot of promise in reserve roles last season, and you can’t count out Darius Fleming, either.  I don’t expect Lynch to see the field much at all as he moves to the NFL level.

 

Non-Football Injury List: FB Trey Millard, G Brandon Thomas, CB Keith Reaser

These three players won’t end up making the 53-man roster, but the 49ers will be able to retain their rights and allow them to work with the team in the classroom as they recover from injuries.

Trey Millard is recovering from an ACL tear suffered against Texas Tech in October.  Brandon Thomas tore his ACL while working out for the Saints in April.  Keith Reaser tore his ACL twice in the past year.  They’ll spend 2014 concentrating on their rehabs, rather than competing for roles on the field.

It’s possible Millard could recover in time to contribute in 2014, but with Bruce Miller already locking down the fullback position, it might be better for him to spend the entire year not counting against the 53-man roster.

 

Practice Squad: DE Kaleb Ramsey, CB Kenneth Acker

Finally, we have the players the 49ers will try to store down on their practice squad, attempting to slip them past other interested teams so they can develop under the watchful eye of the 49ers organization.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With the team as deep as it is, it’s hard to believe Kaleb Ramsey would find a spot on the defensive line.  Does he bump off Demarcus Dobbs or Tony Jerod-Eddie?  It’s hard to see that happening.  Better to keep him in camp and at practice, but he’s not game-ready for 2014.

Similarly, we’ve already talked about the depth the 49ers have at cornerback, so it seems hard to believe that Kenneth Acker beats out any of the four players battling for dime cornerback slots.  Maybe he could outlast Darryl Morris, an undrafted free agent from last season, but for developmental purposes, it might be better to stash him down on the practice squad.

 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.

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