Shanahan’s corps: Best 49ers players 25 years old or younger

Rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have been moonlighting as excavators since arriving in San Francisco.

The duo has completely overhauled the roster, parting ways with more than half the 2016 players, and seeing starters like Colin Kaepernick, Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, Glenn Dorsey and Antoine Bethea leave in the process. Tramaine Brock even wrote his own ticket out of town.

However, Shanahan and Lynch didn’t inherit nothing. And they certainly didn’t waste their opportunity in the 2017 NFL Draft. As of now, there’s a fair amount of unrevealed talent on the roster, mostly on the defensive side. There could be All-Pros on this team, even. And the majority of the players that define this group are in their early-to-mid 20s – say 25 years or younger in this case.

So, let’s identify them in this call-out.

The following list will reflect the youngest, most gifted 49ers players with potential to be lynchpins in the roster and, perhaps one day, the corps a future contender. Players that made the cut here did it based on the team’s investment to first acquire said player and/or based on their performance to date; with trajectory in mind. It will have notable omissions, however. With the cut-off being at 25 years old, a player like Kyle Juszczyk, 26, will not be included. Non-first-round picks with little or no playing time will also be omitted. There will also be a section for wild cards.

Now, a look at Shanahan’s corps . . .

Rashard Robinson

Position: CB

Age: 21 years old

Robinson, a first-round talent the 49ers were able to grab in the fourth round out of LSU in 2016, outperformed expectations in his first year. He looked like a natural, only allowing a catch every 13.2 coverage snaps last seasons, which was the best among rookie cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. At 6-foot-1, 177 pounds, he’s got loads of ability and teased fans with the lure that he could evolve into a lockdown corner. In a passing league, it pays to have a franchise type of player in the secondary, and San Francisco may get an idea this year if they have one in Robinson.

Solomon Thomas

Position: DL

Age: 21 years old

Thomas was a calculated pick by the new regime—sinking the third overall pick, they certainly believe in the defensive menace from the farm at Stanford. The expectation is that he’ll slot in as a starter right away—and while he’s suited for the interior line, he’s likely to move all across the front. Thomas is going to instantly elevate this unit from a run-stopping perspective, as it’s bled terribly since the loss of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Vic Fangio. And athletic in the mold of Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald, Thomas will bring pressure in the A gaps, while also allowing his teammates to get free with his penchant for attracting double teams.

DeForest Buckner

Position: DL

Age: 23 years old

Coming off a very solid rookie year, Buckner looks like the player he was billed to be as the No. 7 overall pick out of Oregon. At 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, he’s a hulk on the field. And yet for his size it’s surprising how swiftly he can shoot gaps. Buckner said this offseason that he’s practicing at the “big end” spot or Michael Bennett’s traditional spot in the Seahawks 43 defense, which would put him over the face of the right tackle most of the time. Buckner could be ready to truly dominate as soon as this year.

Arik Armstead

Position: DL

Age: 23 years old

Armstead is just as tall as lifetime teammate Buckner, but he’s the leaner, smoother-moving of the two 6-foot-7 linemen. This physique and skill set has earned him a shot to be featured at the LEO position in the 49ers’ new scheme. By moving into that role, and increasing his opportunities to rush the quarterback, while drawing more 1-on-1s due to the presence of Thomas and Buckner, it’s quite possible Armstead emerges as a double-digit sack defender for the team.

Joshua Garnett

Position: G

Age: 23 years old

A well-built first-round pick out of Stanford, Garnett still looked far from the finished product during his rookie season. Physically, he was up to par, but his technique and play speed wasn’t quite there yet. But the mauling guard could round into form by his second or third year. Garnett is a very gifted player, both physically and intellectually. With the 49ers looking to heavily feature the running backs, his role could be integral.

Reuben Foster

Position: LB

Age: 23 years old

Foster is a tough player to leave off this list, even though he’s got a bum shoulder and hasn’t played a down of pro ball. But even if he has to miss his entire rookie season, which seems unlikely, he’d still be worth that 31st pick. We just saw the Cowboys accept that cost with linebacker Jaylon Smith, and it could provide them a shot in the arm in 2017. And this was always going to be a multi-year rebuild, so there’s no real need for a return on their investment this year. In Foster, the 49ers secured a special talent at the linebacker position, one who can be a leader for them for many years to come. Steaming from the ears, the 2016 Butkus Award winner and unanimous All-American captained a historically great defense at Alabama. And if he lives up to the hype in the NFL, namely his vicious omnipresence, Foster is going to make San Francisco a feared defense again.

Carlos Hyde

Position: RB

Age: 25 years old

Hyde’s Pro Football Reference page mostly makes a case against him. His game film, and understanding how hard it was to run behind a rotation of an offensive line including the likes of Jordan Devey, Erik Pears and Zane Beadles, makes the case for him. It’s also worth noting that injuries have impacted his stats, as he was limited to 20 of 32 possible starts over the 2015-16 seasons. But when healthy, Hyde looked like one of the better runners in the league today. He’s in-your-face physical, but with ankle-breaking agility, which is very trademark Ohio State. He bears an intimidating style and his blend of moves make him unpredictable. If it turns out Hyde isn’t “injury-prone,” the 49ers may have their franchise running back.

Eric Reid

Position: SS

Age: 25 years old

Reid was descending in the eyes of the league as a free safety, having given up big plays in the passing game and failing to record a takeaway for a near two-year stretch. Miscommunications in poorly run defensive schemes and injuries have also not helped him find success on the field. But in this new Cover 3 defense, Reid will have an opportunity to play to his real strengths, which is as a bruising hitter with DB athleticism. The staff confirmed he’d be a “box safety” for the team, playing a more downhill role. This could result in a big year for Reid and perhaps an extension. Though, he’ll have to be sharp with Adrian Colbert, Lorenzo Jerome and Jaquiski Tartt on the roster.

Wild Cards

Akhello Witherspoon

Position: CB

Age: 22 years old

At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds with freakish athleticism and an attacking mentality, Witherspoon has the makeup of a great cover corner. Whether or not he becomes that or anything close to that is a mystery. But the rookie third-round pick out of Colorado tested well at the combine, produced for the Buffs (19 PBU, 1 INT in 2016), matched up well with an array of Pac-12 receivers and really knows how to use his length. He also had the second-best grade for a corner in his final season, according to Pro Football Focus. If he becomes a more aggressive hitter, Witherspoon could have a nice career and form a fierce tandem with Rashard Robinson.

Aaron Lynch

Position: LB/DL

Age: 24 years old

Like Carradine, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Lynch will benefit from the 49ers not investing in an athletic defensive end type to rush the passer. The key LEO role in Robert Saleh’s defense remains vacant, and Lynch best fits the profile. However, he’s struggled to stay in shape, reportedly calling his place with the team into question in what could be a competitive camp for the 49ers. If Lynch can buy in, the talented edge rusher can still get his pro career off the ground.

Blake Bell

Position: TE

Age: 25 years old

Shanahan has had a tight end by committee for most of his years as an offensive coordinator. And Bell, who hasn't really gotten a shot yet, is a 6-foot-6, 252-pound one with a 4.80 40-time. That time was good enough for fifth-best at the 2015 combine, and just .01 seconds behind Clive Walford and .02 seconds behind Maxx Williams, the first and second tight ends off the board that year. He's got agility and body control as well, as the Oklahoma product was also a top performer in the 20-yard shuttle (4.32) and the 60-yard shuttle (11.81). So, he can certainly move. And with soft hands and well-documented trucking ability, Bell is not to be counted out, especially if Lynch parts with Vance McDonald.

Jimmie Ward

Position: DB

Age: 25 years old

Lynch and the 49ers picked up Ward’s fifth-year option and are going to try him out at free safety. But it seems as if his next contract will be entirely based on his performance this upcoming season. In all likelihood, he secures the starting deep safety role in the Cover 3—because the team did not invest high in anyone else—but how it pans out is anyone’s guess. At this point, Ward can be counted on as nothing more than a wild card with intriguing upside. Could a return to his natural position in a make-or-break year trigger a breakout? It's possible. Ward rarely looked comfortable as a cover corner, and may excel in a position with different responsibilities.

Others Wild Cards

Joe Williams, RB, 23

Trent Taylor, WR, 23

George Kittle, TE, 23

C.J. Beathard, QB, 23

Ronald Blair, DL, 24

Trent Brown, OL, 24

Dontae Johnson, DB, 25

Bruce Ellington, WR, 25

Keith Reaser, CB, 25

Jaquiski Tartt, DB, 25

#nfl #49ers #sanfrancisco49ers #rashardrobinson #akhellowitherspoon #reubenfoster #solomonthomas #arikarmstead #deforestbuckner #carloshyde #ericreid #kyleshanahan #johnlynch


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