carry edmondson/usa today sportsMichael Crabtree caught two passes for 68 yards in his season debut Sunday.

carry edmondson/usa today sportsMichael Crabtree caught two passes for 68 yards in his season debut Sunday.

49ers rookie class already showing signs of promise

A.J. Jenkins skipped town before he could earn a nickname to pack with him to Kansas City. In hindsight, we could call him “Big Drop,” “Wasted Pick” or maybe just “The Mistake.”

Admittedly, these would be harsh labels to throw at a 23-year-old kid struggling to stay afloat in a league that tosses out young talent like yesterday's paper, which is why I'm directing them at the Harbaugh-Baalke brain trust, in jest.

At this point, we can call Jenkins “The Mistake” and joke about it because he's the only draft-day pass the 49ers have dropped since Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke teamed up in 2011. What's more, they redeemed themselves in April by hauling in a draft class that's showing tremendous promise this summer.

While the races at backup quarterback and wide receiver are grabbing most of the preseason headlines, the best story heading into tonight's preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers is the emergence of several rookies who should be key contributors for years to come.

If the 49ers whiffed on Jenkins, they hit at least a ground-rule double by moving up 13 spots to snag safety Eric Reid with the 18th overall pick.

Reid will start against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 and he should be a mainstay in the secondary for years to come with his size, awareness and ability to cover tight ends.

The rookie will be tested early on, especially with Aaron Rodgers under center, and he's susceptible to growing pains just like any other human being. But his performance this summer suggests he's a fast learner capable of holding the rope for a Super Bowl contender.

In less than three quarters, fourth-round pick Quinton Patton eclipsed Jenkins' production in red and gold, catching four balls for 35 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.

Patton is already turning heads with his work ethic and Harbaugh-like enthusiasm for football. He could be the guy who steps up in Michael Crabtree's absence, cementing his place in the starting lineup.

Vance McDonald is another name you'll continue to hear once the regular season kicks off. McDonald is stepping into the Delanie Walker role as the team's second tight end and, so far, he's showing the poise and toughness that Harbaugh promised when he compared him to Mike Ditka in the offseason.

In addition to Reid, Patton and McDonald, seventh-round pick B.J. Daniels looked like a baby Colin Kaepernick leading the 49ers to touchdowns in back-to-back games with his tremendous arm strength and mind-boggling athleticism. Eventually, Daniels will replace Colt McCoy as the team's backup quarterback, whether it's this year or further down the road.

Despite the performances of these rookies, the pick with the most potential is the kid who's yet to strap on the pads. Marcus Lattimore is “red-shirting” this season as he recovers from an ACL injury and he could be the most explosive running back of the entire draft class.

The 49ers landed the biggest steal of the draft by plucking Lattimore in the fourth round. Barring further injury, he'll eventually replace Frank Gore as the horse in Harbaugh's backfield.

Jenkins might be remembered as the “Big Drop,” but looking back at the 2013 draft, we'll marvel at how Harbaugh and Baalke managed to tune up a Super Bowl contender, revving the engine into the future.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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