SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Whether by choice, by injury or some combination of the two, the San Francisco 49ers’ rookie class has had no shortage of opportunity in 2017.
In fact, their rookie class has combined to play more offensive and defensive snaps through the first 11 weeks than any other team’s group in the league with 2,635. That averages out of 240 snaps per game played by a whopping total of 15 rookies. New Orleans ranks second in the league with 2,355, but that’s split among just nine rookies.
Some of that is the product of a decision by coach Kyle Shanahan to start a rookie from day one, such as the case for tight end George Kittle or linebacker Reuben Foster. Some of it was caused by injury, such as the chances created for free safety Adrian Colbert or receiver Kendrick Bourne.
Whatever the reason, the 1-9 49ers have shown no fear when it comes to putting first-year players into high-leverage situations.
Rookie George Kittle has 27 catches for 277 yards and touchdown this season. Sergio Estrada/USA TODAY Sports
“My first decision is what gives us the best chance to win every Sunday and that will always be the most important thing to me at the time,” Shanahan said recently. “More rookies are playing. I think we’re also getting, we’ve had more injuries. I think more rookies have had time to practice more so they have gotten better. But I’m not … there’s not really a situation on our team where we’re just saying, ‘Hey, play the young guy because he’s younger while we have a better player sitting right there on the bench.’ So, we take all that into account. Yeah, we do have a lot of rookies out there, but it’s not just because we’re deciding based off age who should play.”
For a rebuilding team, going with a youth movement isn’t all that much of a surprise. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have made it clear from the start that they won’t shy away from change. That’s why they released slot receiver Jeremy Kerley in favor of rookie Trent Taylor, didn’t hesitate to trade Rashard Robinson to create a starting job for Ahkello Witherspoon or part ways with NaVorro Bowman in part to expedite Foster’s ascent.
Here’s a look at each of the rookies who have contributed this season, how many snaps they’ve played and what their roles could be moving forward:
TE Kittle (404 snaps) — Kittle earned the starting job from the start of the season and has had some good moments in that role. Nagging injuries have plagued him but there’s no doubt that the 49ers see him as a big part of their future.
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DE Solomon Thomas (394 snaps) — After getting a late start because of the NFL’s rules on college graduation, Thomas didn’t start from Day 1 but he might as well have given his workload. A knee injury slowed him recently but he’s been a strong run defender. The 49ers are still finding his best fit in the defense, but he’s going to be a mainstay for a long time.
QB C.J. Beathard (314 snaps) — Beathard took the starting job from Brian Hoyer in Week 7 and has held it since, getting valuable repetitions. The acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo means Beathard isn’t likely to be a long-term starter in San Francisco, but his toughness and intelligence has earned positive reviews and should make him at least a solid backup in the years to come.
WR Taylor (295 snaps) — A recent rib injury put Taylor on the sideline but he’s been a solid pass-catcher from the slot and handled punt return duties along the way.
CB Witherspoon (275 snaps) — A rough training camp eventually gave way to improvement from Witherspoon, who is now starting. He’s had some ups and downs since stepping into the lineup, but every week is a big chance for him to prove he could be a long-term starter. That would be a welcome sight for a defense that has a serious need at his position.
FS Colbert (199 snaps) — Looking for perhaps the biggest steal of this rookie class? Look no further than this seventh-round pick. Colbert immediately was a strong contributor on special teams, but he’s recently flashed big-time ability at free safety and could hold the starting job there the rest of the season if he can heal quickly from thumb surgery.
Reuben Foster has struggled with injuries, but has been impressive when he’s been on the field. Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
LB Foster (195 snaps) — This snap count would be much, much higher if Foster had been able to avoid ankle and rib injuries. Alas, he has only made it through two complete games. That small sample size has been enough for the 49ers to believe Foster will be a focal point of the defense for many years to come if he can stay healthy.
RB Matt Breida (176 snaps) — The undrafted rookie has been a nice change of pace to Carlos Hyde and looks to have a future as a solid complementary piece in the backfield.
DT D.J. Jones (141 snaps) — Working in a rotation in the middle, Jones has some upside as a run stuffer and makes for a solid backup behind veteran Earl Mitchell.
WR Bourne (113 snaps) — Bourne has only recently entered the mix after some injuries ahead of him. His best performance came in the win against the New York Giants with three catches all going for first downs. His size is something the 49ers don’t have at receiver and makes him a worthwhile developmental prospect.
OL Erik Magnuson (113 snaps) — Injuries forced Magnuson into action at tackle despite spending his time on the interior before that, but he held up OK on the edge despite lack of experience there. Magnuson should have a chance to compete for a starting job next offseason.
S Lorenzo Jerome (68 snaps) — No longer with the 49ers.
TE Cole Hikutini (31 snaps) — On injured reserve.
WR Victor Bolden Jr. (27 snaps) — Bolden has been the primary kick returner and showed some home-run ability there.
LB Elijah Lee (3 snaps) — Also more noticeable on special teams but the 49ers are intrigued by his athletic ability.