Young 49ers enter important offseason as competition increases

Kyle Shanahan had a message for all of his young players as they entered the offseason. Tony Avelar/AP

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Aside from the shooting star that was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, nothing that happened late in the 2017 season inspired more hope and belief in the San Francisco 49ers than the production of that year's rookie class.

Linebacker Reuben Foster looked like an All-Pro in the making. Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas had his struggles but still offered plenty of promise. Free safety Adrian Colbert and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon looked capable of becoming quality starters for years to come. Assuming good future health, tight end George Kittle looked the part of a well-rounded future Pro Bowler. Receiver Trent Taylor looked like a dependable chains-mover from the slot. Quarterback C.J. Beathard and defensive tackle D.J. Jones offered solid backup potential, if not as someday starters. Even undrafted rookies such as running back Matt Breida and receiver Kendrick Bourne played well enough to factor into future plans.

That rookie class played more snaps than any in the league and, according to 538's approximate value chart, finished behind only the New Orleans Saints' rookies in terms of production.

Fast forward through the 2018 season and the shine that once emanated from the Niners' 2017 rookie class has dimmed considerably. Be it for off-the-field issues (Foster), injuries (Colbert, Taylor), personal tragedy (Thomas) or other myriad reasons, the 49ers didn't get the expected step forward from coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch's first rookie class. Save for Kittle and, to a lesser extent, Breida and Bourne, the 2017 rookie class now comes with more question marks than answers.

It's why, at the final team gathering of the season, Shanahan's message was all about avoiding complacency.

"I kind of talked to them a lot about, you know, the rookie slump, or the second-year slump guys have," Shanahan said. "I've seen it a lot throughout my career. ... I just tried to echo to the guys what is important and what I believe in. You don't just show up four months from now and be like, 'All right, it's time to get better.' It's already too late. If you have that mindset, you're showing up to catch up. I always say, you're getting better or worse, and if that's the case, you're getting worse. I want all of our guys to really focus on these four months, how they are going to get better on their own, and we want to see it when they get back."

While Shanahan's message should resonate across the roster, it was particularly meaningful for the team's many young players. That's because the Niners will once again lean heavily on them in 2019. And, like last year, the 49ers saw plenty of promise in the 2018 rookie class.

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey and linebacker Fred Warner were day one starters who followed through with solid debuts. Second-round wideout Dante Pettis offered playmaking upside when he was healthy, and others, such as safety Marcell Harris, cornerback Tarvarius Moore and defensive lineman Jullian Taylor flashed potential in small samples.

Even those who didn't start the season on the roster ended up getting a chance. Injuries paved the way for all 10 players who began the year on the practice squad to end up on an active NFL roster, nine in San Francisco and one elsewhere. On the whole, this year's rookie class wasn't as productive as last year's, but Niners rookies still played the sixth-most snaps among 2018 rookie classes.

Of course, as the 2017 class can attest, that Year 1 production doesn't necessarily equate to longevity. Even for someone like McGlinchey, who seemed like a 10-year veteran from the day he arrived, Shanahan's message hit home.

"I'm not satisfied with the way I played this year," McGlinchey said. "I know everybody says 'Oh, it was a great rookie year.' I'm not playing to be a great rookie. I'm playing to be the best in the league, and hopefully in Year 2 I'll be able to take a huge step forward into accomplishing that goal, and I'm going to have a hell of an offseason getting ready to do it."

The best news for the 49ers? While the 2017 rookie class saw several players anointed as starters perhaps earlier than expected, there is now another class of rookies in place to keep them on their toes. The Niners took a leap of faith by believing so strongly in what they saw at the end of 2017, in part because they had to and in part because they might have believed too strongly in what they saw in a short period of time.

Whereas players like Colbert and Witherspoon had their moments, neither looked ready to solidify their spot in 2018. Given another season of evaluation (and to judge durability), the Niners should have a better idea of what they have and what they need. They also have the salary cap (estimated to be around $60 million) and draft capital (including the No. 2 overall pick) to further bolster the roster.

The result should be a more competitive training camp than in 2018. That camp had little in the way of position battles but this year's could feature competition at more than half of the starting defensive spots as well as at receiver and one of the guard spots on offense.

"I think there's more competition," Lynch said. "There will be this offseason, once we get healthy. I think we're poised to be able to add to that. I think the more we do of that and continue to add good players, the more we're able to allow guys to compete. I think we saw that at the end of this year. ... You could see the young guys push some of the veteran players, and it's another reminder, something we've always known, that competition brings the best out in everyone. That's the environment we want heading into this offseason."