How Will the San Francisco 49ers Use Their Rookies in 2014?

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How Will the San Francisco 49ers Use Their Rookies in 2014?
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After what seemed like an eternity of mock drafts and predictions, the 2014 NFL draft has finally come and gone with the San Francisco 49ers adding 12 new players into the fold.

General manager Trent Baalke once again came through with a flurry of trades throughout the draft, filling needs for 2014 and beyond in his own tactical fashion. Several high-potential rookies will enter the roster on both sides of the ball, but who will make the biggest impact in their first pro season?

While many players will see the field this year, others seem destined for "redshirt" status with injuries from college ball. As the 49ers prepare for another season with high expectations, however, big contributions will be needed from at least a few of these fresh faces. 

That task now falls on coach Jim Harbaugh, who will aim to find the perfect role for each new weapon on the field. 

 

Offense

While the trade for former Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson was the 49ers' biggest splash of the 2014 draft, four of the first six draft picks will also be looking to crack the offensive rotation. 

That trend started in the second round with the selection of Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, a bruising runner built in the San Francisco mold. The running back depth chart is crowded behind everlasting incumbent Frank Gore, but Hyde is built for a needed role in 2014. 

After powering his way to 31 touchdowns over his final two college seasons, Hyde's potential as a goal-line back was noted in his Combine Scouting profile

Outstanding size, explosive power and run strength... Punishes linebackers running downhill and almost always falls forward. Superb contact balance and finishing strength -- does not go down easily and can barrel through arm tackles. Extremely powerful short-yardage/goal-line runner.

With the slight build of veteran Kendall Hunter and injury uncertainty of Marcus Lattimore, this skill set should be utilized early and often. 

South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington, a fourth-round pick, also brings a unique package to the 49ers offense. While relatively undersized at 5'9" and 197 pounds, the former Gamecock brings the welcomed speed of a 4.45-second 40-yard dash, according NFLDraftScout.com (via CBS Sports).

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Bruce Ellington's speed provides a new weapon to the 49ers receiving corps.

While Ellington will compete with wide receiver Quinton Patton to see the field, his shifty style undoubtedly brings something new to this offense. Even if mostly used as a situational player, an assortment of specialized targets could do wonders to open the field for quarterback Colin Kaepernick

Finally, the offensive line received a boost in depth with two selections on the second day, hauling in USC center Marcus Martin and Clemson guard Brandon Thomas.

Martin will provide immediate competition for projected starting center Daniel Kilgore, who has not yet started a game in three NFL seasons. As the last player selected from the green room at this year's draft, Martin certainly has the raw talent to contribute right away, as noted by Bill Williamson of ESPN.com:

On the other hand, Thomas will likely have to wait his turn after tearing his ACL in April, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN.com. With guard Mike Iupati's contract status up in the air after 2014, however, the 49ers continued a trend of redshirt gambles, as noted by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News:

 

Defense

For the second consecutive season, the 49ers bolstered their defensive backfield with their first pick of the draft in Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward. 

While relatively small at 5'11" and 193 pounds, Ward brings critical versatility to a depleted unit. Following the departure of cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, ESPN's Trent Dilfer believes in Ward's ability to fill the void:

According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Baalke estimates the 49ers' use of nickel personnel at more than 60 percent of defensive snaps. With Ward in this role, an immediate contribution is all but a lock for the first-round rookie. 

Ward was mostly used as a safety in college, but Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com sees little reason to doubt his transition in San Francisco (via CBS Sports):

Remarkably fluid athlete with quick feet, smooth change-of-direction agility and easy acceleration. Dropped down to cover slot receivers with solid man-to-man skills to handle a similar role in the NFL. 

Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland also could see the field as a third-round pick, as All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is still working his way back from a gruesome knee injury

Bleacher Report's Peter Panacy analyzed the Borland pick as a sound insurance move for Bowman's health, and it's hard to disagree. As the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Borland's selection also caught the eyes of Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke:

Later picks brought in a trio of cornerbacks, including Dontae Johnson of North Carolina State (Round 4) and Kenneth Acker of SMU (Round 6). Florida Atlantic's Keith Reaser, a fifth-round pick, will not play in 2014 after an ACL tear last season, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee

The best performers in camp will earn a depth spot that has led to starting opportunities for cornerbacks Tramaine Brock, undrafted, and Brown, a former fifth-round pick. 

 

Special Teams

Ellington's speed also provides a boost to the return game, where he fielded 43 kicks and three punts at South Carolina. This versatility will give the young deep threat ample opportunities to make an impact in his early career. 

Trade rumors continued to swirl around current returner LaMichael James throughout the draft, and Ellington's selection could be seen as a changing of the guard:

Christian Gin of Examiner.com also sees many opportunities for other rookies on special teams, including Borland, Acker and seventh-round pick Trey Millard, a fullback from Oklahoma. The 49ers have enjoyed strong special teams play over the past few seasons, tying up the loose ends on a dominant team. 

Overall, this draft class has the makings of a brilliant group, contributing on all phases of the ball to complement the current roster. What remains to be seen is which players make the final cut in what promises to be a brutal set of camp competitions. 

Baalke and Harbaugh have assembled an ample amount of talent. Now it's up to the players to make their mark when opportunity calls.

 

All statistics according to sports-reference.com, unless otherwise noted. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @smeaton49

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