By Jerrell Richardson
The fact that the 49ers have already gotten major contributions from their most recent draft class is no real shock. ESPN's draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., gave the 49ers an "A," which was a grade only given to one other team this year. However, not even the great Mel Kiper Jr. saw this one coming. In fact, the player who the team drafted first, Jimmie Ward, is not even close to being the team’s biggest on field contributor. This is not a knock on Ward, though, who played well before an injury prematurely ended his season. The reason that Ward is not the headliner is that most of his fellow draft mates have had a direct hand in the team's 6 victories this season.
Pick 1 and 2
After Ward, San Francisco drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round. It was thought that Hyde would spell Gore and duke it out with Marcus Lattimore for the backup spot once Lattimore was healthy. Hyde has done just this and more. His 3.8 per rush average is nothing to write home about, but Gore is averaging 4.1, so he is posting comparable numbers and actually leads the team in rushing touchdowns. Hyde's best game was the overtime win over the Saints when he took over in the extra period, helping shift the field position which set up the winning field goal. With the recent news of Lattimore retiring, Hyde's role figures to only become bigger and he could be the team’s running back of the future.
Marcus Martin was drafted to give the team depth at the center position. However, when starter Daniel Kilgore went down with an injury, the rookie was asked to fill in at a very important position. While it has not been a completely smooth transition, Martin has improved with experience, and gave the team a reasonable option after Kilgore’s injury. Without him, San Francisco would have been forced to scour the list of unworthy, available candidates and pick one by default. While he has not played exceptionally well, Martin will gain valuable experience, and who knows, might play himself into a starting fulltime role.
With the 77th overall pick the 49ers grabbed the steal of the draft in Chris Borland. The former Wisconsin linebacker was another player not thought to get much playing time when seleceted. In fact, it took injuries to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis for Borland to get his shot. However, since then he has flourished, and at season's end could be a serious contender for rookie of the year. He leads the team in tackles, which is even more impressive when considering that he was not a full time starter until week 7. He has improved week by week, and outside of his first start, at Denver has jumped off the screen with his play.
In the team's defensive struggle with the Giants last week, Borland made play after play in both the pass and run game, including two interceptions and 13 tackles. He has registered double digit tackles the past 3 games, which are numbers that not even Willis was putting up earlier this season. With Willis and Bowman question marks for the rest of the season, Borland might be the most important defensive player the 49ers have period.
Picks 5 and 6
The 49ers next two picks have not made a splash, but they are both to be expected. Offensive Guard Brandon Thomas is getting over an injury and simply put, is not needed. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington was up against a tough task from the start: to ask a rookie to make an impact in the return game is hard, and to ask him to crack the starting receiver lineup, when considering the proven 1000-yard receivers in front of him, is not realistic. Like Thomas, Ellington's talents are not needed at this time, so the team can instead continue to bring him along and see if he has the ability to eventually step into a bigger role in either the return or passing game.
Dontae Johnson was the team's next selection, and he too has been asked to be the next man up. The 49er secondary has been dealing with injuries all year, and it was Johnson in the game a week ago, on the goal line with the ball headed towards the man he was guarding. Johnson deflected the pass that Borland was able to intercept and obviously proved big in a one possession victory.
The last 49er to help this year's team out was their 150th overall pick, Aaron Lynch. Once able to show in game his talents, the team has had a hard time taking him out. It took Aldon Smith's suspension, the ineffective play of Corey Lemonier, and an injury to Dan Skuta for Lynch to get his shot, which the first year player has seized. He has been a terror rushing the quarterback the past two weeks, and his pressure on Eli Manning helped cause the quick and bad decisions that helped cause the 5 interceptions the defense forced.
Until recently, the 49ers had no pass rush, and now, with the return of Aldon Smith, have two players who are going to be a problem to block. While this might not sit well with Ahmad Brooks, the fact remains that a team that seemed ill-equipped to rush the passer a few weeks ago is now one that offensive lines might start to fear.
Saved By The Newbies
Injuries are a part of football, but without the play of their rookies, it's hard to imagine the 49ers still in the playoff hunt. Most of the newest members of the team have been asked, or required, to fill big roles for one reason or the other, and most of them have excelled. The only real problem the team will have is when everyone returns from injuries...what to do with the extra bodies.
All this really means though is depth and possible trade options for a team that has to be happy with the immediate return on their draft picks, and pleasantly surprised, despite the high praise given to them post draft. Consider this, out of the team's first 8 picks, all but Brandon Thomas and Bruce Ellington have not only hit the playing field, but have been relied on to help secure a win. Ward started several games before being injured, and without Carlos Hyde, Marcus Martin, Chris Borland, Dontae Johnson and Aaron Lynch this team is not 6-4 which means the rookies have kept the 49ers playoff hopes alive.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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