Young San Francisco 49ers Poised to Break out in 2014
Expect 2014 to be a huge year for a number of the San Francisco 49ers' young crop of infused talent.
We know this team is already elite. There is no need to argue that.
But even elite teams are faced with the challenges of turning over rosters. Veterans get older and more expensive, challenging franchises to maintain space within the NFL salary cap. This forces every team to scout well, draft smart and develop young talent as best as possible.
Fortunately, the 49ers have put themselves in an excellent position to do this. Back-to-back draft classes have shown what this team is looking to do moving forward and provide excellent indication that San Francisco is poised to have one of the deepest, most complete rosters in recent memory.
A decent-sized chunk of this roster is going to be comprised of young players. While San Francisco's coaching staff will continue to rely heavily on its veterans during the upcoming season, a number of rookies and second-year players will also get their chance to provide a legitimate impact.
Some of these young players may even achieve levels greater than we initially thought.
So which 49ers rookies and second-year players can we expect to turn some heads in 2014?
The 6 breakout candidates for @49ers : Carlos Hyde, Bruce Ellington, Jimmie Ward, Nick Moody, Tank Carradine, and Corey Lemonier— Larry Krueger (@sportslarryknbr) July 23, 2014
In this slideshow, we break down five rookies/second-year pros who may garner plenty of attention this year. These guys are poised to break out and there are plenty of reasons why.
Worthy of Mention
It is feasible that a large number of young 49ers may have impactful seasons in 2014. Essentially, this is what every 49ers fan would want to see—the younger crop of San Francisco talent showcasing itself on the field and warranting attention from within the franchise and around the league.
Here are a few who should at least be discussed to a certain degree. They are listed in no particular order.
Eric Reid, Free Safety
Second-year pro Eric Reid doesn't make the list because no one at this point considers him a sleeper. He is a bona fide NFL talent—justified after his Pro Bowl rookie season.
He has already broken out.
After being selected by the 49ers in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Reid immediately took his talents to the field and started all 16 regular-season games for San Francisco.
There were some concerns, however. Most notably, some concussion issues, but we can bank upon Reid putting together an impressive year considering he has a full season of practical NFL experience under his belt.
Add on top of this the fact that San Francisco shook up its secondary during the offseason. Along with veteran free-agent acquisition Antoine Bethea and returning veteran corner Tramaine Brock, Reid should take a leadership role in the 49ers' secondary this season, as Al Sacco of SportsOutWest.com suggests.
I'd put plenty of faith in that.
Marcus Martin, Center
OK, so rookie centers do not typically garner plenty of attention when it comes to projecting a breakout candidate.
But USC's Marcus Martin may be the exception as the 2014 season approaches.
The 49ers had to fill the void along the offensive line left by veteran center Jonathan Goodwin when he departed via free agency this offseason. The team inked backup Daniel Kilgore to a three-year, $4.845 million contract extension, but this does not guarantee him the starting job.
Martin figures to battle with Kilgore during training camp and into the preseason—a battle he could very likely win, per Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com.
Adding to Martin's likability is the fact that he can also play guard. This flexibility gives Martin increased value in determining his role with the 49ers' O-line.
If he impresses enough to earn a starting role, San Francisco's offensive line—especially at center—should be just as venerable as it was a year ago.
Corey Lemonier, Outside Linebacker
Auburn pass-rushing specialist Corey Lemonier may see a bit of an increased role in 2014 after impressing the 49ers' coaching staff well enough during his rookie season a year ago.
Lemonier filled in amiably for fellow outside linebacker Aldon Smith when Smith was absent during a portion of the season while participating in a rehabilitation program. During this stretch, and throughout the season, Lemonier totaled 12 tackles, three assists, a safety and one sack.
Smith's off-the-field issues could again open the door for Lemonier in 2014. While we don't know just how long Smith could be suspended by the NFL this season, we should at least speculate that he will miss some time. This gives Lemonier an added chance.
It's hard to say that Lemonier will be a complete breakout candidate in 2014 based on what happens with Smith. Given Smith's talents, the 49ers would obviously like to have him on the field as much as possible.
But if San Francisco is considering life after Smith, Lemonier could get some additional looks this season.
We'll have to see how he responds.
Darryl Morris, Cornerback
Typically, undrafted free agents (UDFAs) don't wind up providing much of an impact at the NFL level, especially within their first couple of seasons.
But second-year corner Darryl Morris may be an exception to that trend.
Morris' contributions during his 2013 rookie season were primarily on special teams, but he did get on the field for 13 games and the 49ers liked what he saw in coverage roles. His combination of speed and smarts makes up for his lack of size (5'10" and 188 pounds).
As one of the fastest guys on the team, Morris is hoping for more than just a special teams role.
Entering training camp, Morris is looking to compete for the open position of nickel corner, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Morris will compete for this job alongside fellow special teamer Perrish Cox and 2014 first-rounder Jimmie Ward.
But Morris does bring a lot to the table and the 49ers have been excited about him for some time now. It will be interesting to watch how this develops.
He isn't necessarily guaranteed a roster spot, which keeps him out of consideration for the top five, but Morris has plenty of upside that fans will want to see.
Nick Moody, Outside Linebacker
Outside linebacker Nick Moody was picked up in Round 6 of the 2013 NFL draft and managed to see four games during his rookie season.
Had All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman not suffered a gruesome knee injury during the NFC Championship last season, Moody's role with the team in 2014 would likely be as a backup and special teams contributor.
Yet Bowman is injured and figures to miss a sizable chunk of the regular season.
This opens the door for a number of backups. Michael Wilhoite is the favorite to fill in for Bowman, but will be challenged by rookie Chris Borland and Moody, per Barrows.
What Moody brings to the table is this—he is a hard-hitting, athletic linebacker, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
Moody will likely be utilized on special teams, but if he gets significant looks during training camp and during the preseason and subsequently impresses, don't be surprised if we see him on the field alongside fellow linebacker Patrick Willis from time to time.
Quinton Patton, Wide Receiver
Second-year wideout Quinton Patton will look to rebound after an injury-plagued rookie season a year ago.
What we do know is this—Patton developed a nice chemistry with quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the preseason. Go look at some of his highlights for an example. Patton also netted some excellent grabs down the stretch after he returned in Week 15.
Now the 49ers added plenty of receiving help this offseason. Added to the mix are wideouts like Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington. We should also expect a lot from veterans Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
One might speculate that this means Patton receives fewer touches in 2014. That person could be correct.
But Patton still offers plenty of upside and the fact that he has already established a rapport with Kaepernick goes in his favor.
We should see some nice numbers put up by Patton this season.
Marcus Lattimore, Running Back
Marcus Lattimore, Running Back
The 49ers may have one of the deepest and most talented backfields in the NFL today.
Despite the fact that No. 1 running back Frank Gore is slowing down, San Francisco can take comfort in knowing they have two experienced backups—Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James—along with two promising young talents in Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore.
49ers fans know well the story behind Lattimore.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, Lattimore was still recovering from the horrendous knee injuries that ended his collegiate career at South Carolina. He ended up missing the entire season, essentially being redshirted his rookie year.
Lattimore's return to the football field has not been without setback.
A year ago, we might have assumed that Lattimore was the heir apparent to Gore when the 49ers drafted him. But San Francisco also added Hyde during the 2014 draft, potentially pushing Lattimore down the depth chart, perhaps with concern over his recovery.
Baalke on Hyde: Wouldn’t read anything into Lattimore’s recovery. Drafted clearly highest rated player on board at the time.— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) May 13, 2014
Further setting back Lattimore is the recent news that he will start training camp on San Francisco's nonfootball injury (NFI) list, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
This is obviously bad news for Lattimore, but it doesn't necessarily mean it is a major setback.
Per David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Lattimore's 2014 impact will be directly related to how well he recovers from his injuries. Practicing is one thing, but donning pads and taking hits from NFL players is an entirely different matter.
For a moment, however, let us assume that the 49ers get Lattimore on the field when he is 100 percent ready to contribute.
This may be sooner than later, according to BaySportsNet.com's Turron Davenport.
Just to follow up my comments on Marcus Lattimore on Niner Talk Central earlier. He's on NFI list but he'll be practicing soon.— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_PPI) July 23, 2014
So let us project what Lattimore's impact will be if his recovery is strong enough in 2014.
Lattimore will obviously lose carries to Hunter and Hyde behind Gore, but it is a worthwhile assumption that the 49ers begin to employ a "two-headed monster" out of the backfield with Hyde and Lattimore at various points during the season.
This is important to consider when factoring in Gore's age and San Francisco's likely desire to keep him fresh for a playoff run. Hunter is in the final year of his current contract and perhaps the 49ers consider moving him before the season to open up some more playing time for their younger talent.
If this is the case—and if Lattimore's knees are fully healthy—we could very well see the special runner who earned so many accolades at South Carolina.
Bruce Ellington, Wide Receiver
Bruce Ellington, Wide Receiver
If there was one thing the 49ers needed to help out their receiving corps in the upcoming season, it was speed.
San Francisco solved this by drafting South Carolina wideout Bruce Ellington in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft.
At 5'9" and 196 pounds, Ellington may not be the biggest guy on the field, but he does offer breakneck speed and the ability to stretch the field, thus opening up plays underneath for San Francisco's veteran receivers like Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
Plus, we have seen other small receivers in Ellington's mold make huge impacts at the NFL level—think T.Y. Hilton and Steve Smith.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee describes just how Ellington will be able to overcome his size and use speed to his advantage:
Ellington believes he'll continue improving in the pros. At 5-foot-9, Ellington is tied for the shortest receiver on the 49ers' roster. But Ellington's got a relentless nature for finding open space and holding onto almost everything thrown his way, said his former high school coach Jerry Brown.
The 49ers are hoping that Ellington is able to transfer this ability over to the NFL and contribute in a way that will make San Francisco's pass offense more dynamic and potent.
The team has reasons to believe that Ellington could emerge as a potential breakout as early as this season.
More people are calling 49ers rookie Bruce Ellington a sleeper http://t.co/dfwokeI4ME— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) July 16, 2014
Here is what Rang had to say:
Patience can be a virtue and Ellington is a good bet to prove just that for the 49ers. He has terrific agility, very good hands and a compact 197 pounds packed onto his 5-foot-9 frame that makes him much stronger after the catch than his height might indicate—traits which could make him a very good slot receiver. He ran well at the NFL Combine (clocking at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash) but is even faster on the field because he accelerates so suddenly. The bigger corners of the NFC West may struggle changing directions as fluidly as Ellington—a theory that Seattle and St. Louis are also experimenting with given the huge investments made in Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin, respectively.
Granted, Ellington has to be able to match his physique and physicality up against top competition at the NFL level—an element that is easier said than done. There are no guarantees that he will live up to some of the accolades given to him.
Additionally, the 49ers have not typically used undersized offensive players much in recent years. Players like LaMichael James and former 49ers wideout A.J. Jenkins are two such examples.
But Ellington could prove to be vastly different than either of these two.
Let's look for that to start happening in 2014.
Carlos Hyde, Running Back
Carlos Hyde, Running Back
We have already discussed the nature of San Francisco's running game after evaluating the impact of second-year pro Marcus Lattimore.
Now we can shift our focus to the 49ers' second-round pick, Carlos Hyde.
At 6'0" and 242 pounds, Hyde is a beast of a runner and has the physical traits and running ability that could challenge Frank Gore for the starting job, as stated in the above video.
But before we start projecting just how great Hyde will be, let's get a few obstacles out of the way.
As mentioned, San Francisco's backfield is deep, which means it is also crowded. There are only so many carries to be had during an NFL season. Fortunately, the 49ers are—and should continue to be—a power-run team. This plays into Hyde's hands along with the rest of the backs.
More important, however, is how well Hyde can adjust to blocking schemes, which is often difficult for rookies and second-year running backs to develop. Gore is among the best. Hyde will have to learn how to be.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area points out that just because Hyde is talented, it does not necessarily mean he will become the heir apparent to Gore, at least in his rookie season. Maiocco reminds us that San Francisco knows what backups like Hunter give to the team.
In short, the 49ers trust him above Hyde and the rest of the cast of running backs behind Gore.
But Hunter could be traded as we hinted previously. This would open the door for Hyde to get more carries and, potentially, have a major role on the 49ers offense—a possibility emphasized by Jack Jorgensen of Fansided.com.
Here is the scenario this author envisions: Gore will obviously start the season as San Francisco's No. 1 back. Behind him, Hunter, Hyde and Lattimore will split carries. As the season progresses, Gore is given rest en route to a playoff push and Hyde will garner much of the attention with some carries going to Hunter and Lattimore.
2) One rookie to watch -- 49ers RB Carlos Hyde. Based on spring, is on his way to playing a role in the fall. Could ease burden on Gore.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) July 24, 2014
If this is indeed the case, Hyde should turn plenty of heads this upcoming season and ensure San Francisco's running game remains strong for years to come.
Jimmie Ward, Defensive Back
Jimmie Ward, Defensive Back
Not so long ago, there was a legitimate concern that rookie safety and defensive back Jimmie Ward would not be ready to take on the challenges associated with the NFL.
He’s going to be behind. And it’s going to be important for him—and for us as coaches—to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early. You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a players improves is: meet, go practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice … He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.
This is obviously a tough thing for rookie defensive backs to deal with. Rookies commonly struggle when it comes to translating their skills from the collegiate level over to the NFL, and the secondary is an area where this lack of experience tends to show.
When drafted by San Francisco in Round 1, Ward was thought to be the favorite to take over the nickel cornerback role—a void created by the free-agent departure of Carlos Rogers.
Ward's injury could have put this projection in doubt.
But Fangio insisted that the team would give Ward every chance to earn the starting job, per 49ers.com, and the team has cleared him for practice upon entering training camp.
So how did Ward fare in his first full day of training camp?
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area puts it simply, "It did not take long for first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward to make his mark on the 49ers’ practice field."
Ward intercepted a deflected pass from Colin Kaepernick, sprawling out to make an incredible grab per Maiocco.
Other analysts, including Taylor Price of 49ers.com, have also noted Ward's impressive camp debut.
All of this is a great thing to consider when factoring in the general struggles rookie defensive backs endure at the NFL level. It is additionally impressive when considering the surgery he had only a few months ago.
Of course Ward will have to translate this hot start over to the NFL, which will be a difficult task unto itself.
But from early indications, there are few reasons to believe that Ward will not live up to expectation.
Tank Carradine, Defensive End
Tank Carradine, Defensive End
Call it a hunch, but this author predicts that second-year defensive end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine will have perhaps the greatest breakout season of any young 49ers players in 2014.
I know I'm not alone in this thought. Carradine might have been a first-round pick in 2013 if it were not for the collegiate injury that ended up sidelining him for all his rookie season. As it went, the 49ers were fortunate to be able to grab him in Round 2 and redshirt him that year.
Now, Carradine will make his much anticipated debut, albeit not in a starting role.
Carradine will compete as the immediate backup to incumbent veterans Justin Smith and Ray McDonald on the outside of the defensive line.
49ers fans know the story well—Smith and McDonald log almost the entirety of snaps on defense. They play a lot.
Smith is perhaps the biggest factor in generating the pressure from Vic Fangio's four-man rush. While not necessarily a sack specialist, Smith does often draw multiple defenders, which, in turn, opens up lanes for San Francisco's other pass-rushers.
But Smith will turn 35 years old in September and there a lot of miles logged on his body. The need to keep him fresh will be paramount for the 49ers.
Carradine totaled 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss in two years at Florida State. His immense physique—6'4" and 276 pounds—combined with his pass-rushing prowess suggest that he could become the next star in the 49ers' vaunted defense.
#49ers Justin Smith on DT Tank Carradine: “He’s an explosive dude. Really strong hands and upper body.”— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) July 23, 2014
We should expect Carradine to be a backup, at least to start the season, but we can take comfort in knowing that he provides incredible depth and a bright future for the D-line.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation elaborates further:
Defensive tackle will be an interesting one to track as the 49ers find more snaps for reserves behind Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. The addition of Tank Carradine to the mix is a huge deal for this group. Justin Smith is signed through 2015, and Ray McDonald is signed through 2016 ... The 49ers are getting older this year, but the chance to rotate in reserves, and replace some starters with younger players puts them in a position to get younger quicker.
Let us envision how Carradine will impact the 49ers defense.
As stated, Fangio likes to rush four guys up front, leaving the rest to handle coverage duties. Previously, Smith had been the anchor of this scheme, drawing multiple members of opposing O-lines in protection.
But the 49ers have not been able to keep Smith rested as much as they would like in recent seasons.
With Carradine, Smith will not only get rest, but the 49ers defense may even gain a little bit in the process.
Perhaps it gains a lot as teams are forced to reckon with the traits and attributes Carradine brings to the table.
We all should be excited for Carradine's impact in 2014. There is a strong possibility that he becomes a household name by the end of this season and we would take comfort in knowing that San Francisco's D-line would be strong for many, many years with Carradine as an anchor.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' news, insight and analysis.
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