SANTA CLARA — Seattle Seahawks, meet Chris Borland and Carlos Hyde. Aaron Lynch and Marcus Martin.
Those are just a few of the new faces on the 49ers since Seattle last saw them in the NFC Championship Game in January, an impressive list of talented rookies called into action right away. Many have been by necessity, given the loss of star linebacker Patrick Willis and the long recovery of NaVorro Bowman since his devastating left knee injury in that six-point loss at Seattle.
There's Bruce Ellington and Dontae Johnson, too.
“I wouldn't consider any of our rookies rookies anymore at this point,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Running back Hyde has been quite a complement to Frank Gore. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll considers them a dynamic 1-2 punch that his team must contend with Thursday night in a key matchup of 7-4 NFC powers.
“It's definitely been exciting to see your fellow rookies also coming in and contributing right away and helping this team out in a huge way,” Hyde said. “I don't think too often you see that many rookies coming into a team and contributing right away. Especially a team like the San Francisco 49ers, a team that's already established in the league.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio figures these guys feed off each other. They're all proud of one another's accomplishments and contributions.
“I think any time a guy sees a guy that he can relate to go in and have success, why not me?” Fangio said.
Behind the scenes, they are a support network, too. The rookies meet as a group each Tuesday to discuss anything that comes to mind and receive guidance and support from football to life off the field, including the importance of making good decisions. It's part of “rookie success” that comes under the NFL Engagement program committed to “Prep. Life. Next.” and getting the total NFL experience with wellness in all aspects.
This draft class considers itself a close-knit unit, with those Tuesday sessions only adding to that bond.
“Their performance is definitely on them. They're just doing a phenomenal job for us,” said former 49ers linebacker Keena Turner, the team's vice president of football affairs who oversees the engagement program. “We have a very good locker room, and that's important.”
Borland understands the stakes the rest of the way, beginning with Thursday's Thanksgiving showdown at Levi's Stadium.
“It's very important for a chance to make the playoffs,” he said. “I haven't been a part of it, I haven't done anything or made any plays on the field against these guys but I do understand the magnitude of the rivalry and how good of a team Seattle is.”
Borland, who has started the last five games playing in place of the injured Willis, had 48 tackles in a recent three-game stretch and another eight in Sunday's 17-13 home win against the Redskins. The third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin intercepted two passes by Giants quarterback Eli Manning in a victory at New York on Nov. 16 and received NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors along with his second straight Defensive Rookie of the Week.
Hyde, a second-rounder from Ohio State, ran for a go-ahead 4-yard touchdown with 2:59 remaining Sunday in San Francisco's third straight win.
“We have a number of guys who had to step in right away, get tossed in the fire,” veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. “You look at a guy like Borland, 'You gotta go,' there's no, 'We'll wait and get him ready.' It's, 'You have to go now.' All those guys who have been in that position have stepped up to the challenge, played extremely well.”
For Fangio, seeing so many first-year players in big roles is still an adjustment from what he has long known.
“You've got to remember when you're talking to me you're going back to 1986,” Fangio said. “Rookies usually had to wait their time.”
Carroll is preparing for the new additions to what has emerged as a heated rivalry. He knows a little bit about new center Martin, a third-round draft pick out of Carroll's former school, USC.
“They've really shown that they fit. Chris has done a great job fitting in when they really needed somebody to come through,” Carroll said. “He's been very versatile and he's tough as nails. That's a lot to do in a short amount of time. We thought Carlos was really a big-time player, not surprised at all that he's been so effective.”