SANTA CLARA — The 49ers entered the season with one of the youngest rosters in the league, and injuries at several key positions thrusted several rookies into regular playing time. According to Pro Football Focus, first-year players have taken more snaps for the 49ers than any other team in the NFL.
That is part of the reason why the team has maintained a positive outlook despite a 2-10 record. But recent results — like winning two of their last three — indicate the arrow is pointing up. It took some growing pains to get to that point, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan, but he likes the resolve he’s seen.
“As a coach, you want them to play great right away, but then you’ve also got to realize that you put them in some roles that they weren’t fully ready for,” he said. “What’s been cool about all those guys is sometimes when you put someone in a role they aren’t 100-percent ready for, they get a little bit overwhelmed and they take a few steps back. I feel like all those guys have mentally been the right way and they’ve gotten better as the year’s gone.”
Trent Taylor caught all six passes that came toward him on Sunday despite playing with the flu. The fifth-round pick woke up at 4 a.m. and vomited the rest of the morning before a pregame IV nursed him back to health.
He isn’t the only member of John Lynch’s first draft class to make an impact. George Kittle ranks fourth among rookie tight ends for yards. Matt Breida has proven himself an effective backup running back.
On the defensive side of the ball, there’s even more promise. Reuben Foster is shaping into the team’s likely candidate to make the Pro Bowl. He ranks fifth overall among linebackers, according to PFF data.
Adrian Colbert (picked in the seventh-round) and Ahkello Witherspoon (third-round) ensure the 49ers have young depth at every level. Solomon Thomas has been the target of criticism. But he’s been solid against the run and has shown flashes.
It’s finally fair to say that the youth movement the Niners braintrust has been promising all season is finally taking hold. And having Jimmy Garoppolo, 26, under center and illustrating a hopeful path for the future, certainly doesn’t hurt.
Second-year defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said the quarterback-of-the-future had a huge positive impact on both sides of the ball in Sunday’s 15-14 win.
“We only had 36 snaps on D, so it got us a lot of rest. We honestly felt like we were spectators at the game, just watching and stuff,” the former first-round pick said. “It’s really motivating, seeing the offense drive the length of the field, getting us the rest that we need to perform at a high level.”
As things come together in Santa Clara, Lynch deserves a great deal of credit for nailing his first draft. It was clear he and Shanahan were intent on overhauling the roster Trent Baalke left them with. And they’ve kept the pieces that work — like Buckner — while getting their picks seasoning to see if there is an emerging core to build from.
The revival of the 49ers will come because of the young players it adds.
“We have certain injuries, key guys missing on defense and young guys are stepping up and performing at a high level,” Buckner said. “It’s encouraging.”
For the first time in a long time, that word is being used in earnest in the South Bay.