Jim Harbaugh has led the 49ers to a 9-1 start
The San Francisco 49ers are the surprise team in the NFL and are off to a 9-1 start. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has transformed this team from a doormat to winners. The key thing is the players believe in him and what the coaching staff is teaching.
As the 49ers head into the final six games of the season, there are several young players that can do a lot more. At some point, the 49ers will need these young players to step forward and become solid contributors for this team.
I will take a look at 10 of these young players, where the time is now for them to make a positive impact for the 49ers. My only criteria for this list is that the player must have no more than four years in the league.
Alex Boone could become a valuable asset for the 49ers
Alex Boone was not drafted out of college at Ohio State. He signed as a free agent in 2009 and has spent time on the practice squad and as a backup offensive tackle.
At 6' 8" and 312 pounds, Boone has the size and athleticism to be an excellent tackle. With the ankle injury to Anthony Davis this past Sunday, Boone may get a lot more playing time in the upcoming weeks.
Tramaine Brock has battled injury in 2011
Tramaine Brock came to the 49ers in 2010 as an undrafted free agent. He was expected to play quite a bit in the 49ers' nickel and dime packages. Unfortunately for Brock, an injury early in the season has limited his playing time.
Now, back on the field, Brock will have to work his way back into the rotation for more playing time. If this past Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals is any indication, Brock has a lot of work to do.
Brock was called for two dumb penalties on special teams and was flagged for pass interference in the defensive backfield. These kinds of mistakes must be avoided or Brock will continue to find himself on the bench.
Reggie Smith returns an interception
Reggie Smith was a third-round draft choice for the 49ers in 2008. He has held a starting job at times during his NFL career. Smith has been reduced to a reserve role in 2011 and has 14 tackles and one key interception that helped the 49ers defeat the Bengals in Week 3.
Smith has frequently been beaten in pass coverage this year and some of those times have resulted in long touchdowns. As a safety, Smith is often the last line of defense and he has been victimized far too many times this season.
As the first safety in to back up starters Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, Smith needs to step up his level of play.
Chilo Rachal lost his starting job in the third game of the year
Chilo Rachal was a second-round draft pick out of USC, in 2008. Now in his fourth season with the 49ers, Rachal should be a pillar of strength on the 49ers' offensive line.
Instead, Rachal has played poorly and lost his starting right guard spot to Adam Snyder. Rachal was replaced by Snyder in Week 3 of the season against the Bengals. Not coincidentally, it was at this time that the 49ers' offensive line began to gel and play a much better brand of football.
As a second-round selection, Rachal has been a colossal disappointment. He needs to improve his skills and consistency. If the center, Jonathan Goodwin, or either guard, Snyder or Mike Iupati go down with an injury, Rachal will be called on to step in.
Kendall Hunter has played well when given the chance
The San Francisco 49ers found a gem in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. Kendall Hunter had injury problems, so although he is a first or second-round talent, he slipped all the way to the fourth round.
Hunter is now healthy and has played very well for the 49ers. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has used Hunter effectively, both as a runner and a pass receiver out of the backfield. Hunter plays a key role in spelling Frank Gore, when he needs a rest or has been banged up.
Hunter has carried the ball 65 times this year gaining 284 yards, a 4.4 yards-per-carry average. He also has six catches for 93 yards, including a big 44-yard catch and run against the Eagles. He has excellent speed and quickness and is a threat to break off a big gain anytime he touches the ball.
At only 5'7" and 199 pounds, Hunter has done a good job blocking and on blitz pickup. Expect more of him as the season progresses and the 49ers try to keep Gore fresh for the playoffs.
Last Sunday, Kyle Williams had his best day as a pro
Last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Braylon Edwards was clearly struggling. In the first half alone, Edwards dropped three passes, including one that should have been a touchdown.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh had seen enough and inserted Kyle Williams into the game. Williams delivered with his best game as a pro.
Williams was selected in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL draft and spent most of that season hobbled by injuries. In 2011, Williams rarely saw action until this past Sunday. He caught five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.
With Josh Morgan lost for the year due to injury, Edwards still hampered by a knee injury and Ted Ginn just not being a very good receiver, Williams should begin seeing more playing time over the remainder of the season.
It will be up to Williams to stay healthy and continue producing. His game against Arizona was an excellent step in the right direction and undoubtedly gives Alex Smith a lot more confidence throwing the ball to him.
Ricky Jean-Francois is the first defensive line sub to see action
Ricky Jean-Francois is in his third year with the 49ers. He has played both nose tackle and defensive end and is really the first defensive lineman off the bench in case of injury.
Jean-Francois has played in all 10 games and has only nine tackles and no sacks. When given the chance this season, he has been average, but not much more.
The 49ers have a strong trio of starting defensive linemen in Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald. The trouble comes when one of these three is hurt or needs to come out of the game for any reason. There is a noticeable drop-off in productivity without the three starters in there.
Jean-Francois, as the primary backup, needs to step up his level of play.
Chris Culliver has been a pleasant surprise
Chris Culliver was selected in the third round of this past year's draft. I was surprised the 49ers picked him that high, as most draft boards projected him being selected around the fifth or sixth round.
When the 49ers drafted Culliver, they expected him to play mostly special teams this year and work in practice on improving his coverage skills. Culliver played safety in his first couple years of college and did not switch to the corner until his junior season.
With the injuries to Shawntae Spencer and Tramaine Brock, Culliver has seen a lot of playing time as the nickel defensive back. I don't think GM Trent Baalke expected Culliver to see this much action in his first year, but the rookie has played fairly well, for the most part.
He has impressed me with solid tackling ability, but does make mistakes in pass coverage. He has a tendency to lay off the receiver too far and allow catches underneath too easily. Culliver has also been beaten deep on occasion, resulting in scores for the opposition.
It appears as though head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio do not plan to play Shawntae Spencer, last year's starter, much at all. Spencer is back from his early season injuries, but he still rarely sees the field.
This means Culliver is likely to retain his nickel back spot and if that's the case, he will need to improve on his pass coverage.
Anthony Davis was a first round draft pick in 2010
Anthony Davis was one of my least favorite players over the first year-and-a-half of his career. He was routinely beaten on the pass rush by opposing defensive ends. He committed far too many penalties and just was not doing the job.
Davis also came into the abbreviated training camp somewhat overweight and out of shape, which further stalled his progress. He was selected in the 11th spot in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Based on his play and questionable work ethic, he was in danger of being called a bust.
However, to Davis' credit, he has improved his play over the past few weeks. Davis is a strong run blocker, but it was in pass protection where he was victimized repeatedly. Three early season tripping penalties are a testament to that.
Davis has improved and at only 22 years of age, the 6'5", 323-pound tackle has a big upside. He will need to continue to get better if the 49ers hope to do well in the playoffs.
Michael Crabtree was drafted to be the number one receiver in SF
The San Francisco 49ers selected Michael Crabtree with the 10th pick in the 2009 draft. In his first three seasons, Crabtree held out to begin his career, battled foot problems, missed every preseason game and got into a training camp fight with Vernon Davis.
Crabtree under-produced in 2010, after a promising rookie season. This year, Crabtree battled the foot problems that still hinder him at times.
The other issue was his attitude. Crabtree often acted and played like a diva, prancing around in a "look at me" style, whenever he made even the simplest of catches.
I give head coach Jim Harbaugh credit for getting Crabtree to tone down that prima-donna attitude. Perhaps Crabtree is also maturing as a player and teammate, also.
Crabtree played his best game of the season last Sunday, as he caught seven passes for 120 yards. This trend must continue for the 49ers' passing attack to improve and have success.
With Josh Morgan out and Braylon Edwards nowhere near 100 percent, it is incumbent upon Crabtree to produce. If he can continue to improve, it will bode well for the 49ers as they head towards the playoffs.
NaVorro Bowman is playing inspired football
The 49ers have turned the corner and the future is shining brightly for this once dominant franchise. They have some excellent young talent in Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Mike Iupati and Joe Staley, who are all 27 years old or less. Rookies Aldon Smith and Bruce Miller are already making strong contributions.
In addition, Alex Smith, also 27 years of age, has blossomed under the guidance of Jim Harbaugh. The improvement by Smith has been exceptional and it has been amazing to see what good coaching and a good plan have done for him.
The 49ers hold a five-game lead in the NFC West and are a lock for the playoffs. With the continued strong play of their core stars, plus improvement from the players listed in this report, they have a chance to make some noise in the postseason.