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Paths to the Roster for All 8 Picks of the 49ers Draft Class

Apr 29, 2024 at 4:07 PM

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There was some conventional wisdom heading into the NFL Draft that the 49ers would potentially package some of their ten picks to move up at various times, given that lots of positions on the roster seem relatively set, and that the team is unlikely to rely on rookies while continuing to work through their championship window. In the end, though, this didn't prove to be the case, as the 49ers ended up selecting eight rookies across the seven rounds of the draft. Where might they fit on a crowded roster, and what are their best paths to playing time? Let's take a look.

WR Ricky Pearsall (Round 1, Pick 32)

This is an easy one, because barring an absolute catastrophe or an injury, Ricky Pearsall is going to be on the roster. Heck, even AJ Jenkins made the roster in his rookie season, and he couldn't have produced less. While the 49ers will definitely hope for more than Jenkins' output from Pearsall, the question with him is less whether he makes the roster, but how he competes for more playing time in his rookie year.

The likeliest path to playing time for Pearsall in his first year is, firstly, in the slot role currently occupied by Jauan Jennings. Jennings is a fantastic player and, on a personal level, one of my favorite 49ers, but he's in the last year of his deal, via an RFA tender, and will need to be replaced sooner rather than later, absent a long-term deal. Assuming Pearsall can match his tenacity in run blocking, and maybe come up with a few clutch catches like Jennings himself, Pearsall could supplant him before the end of the season.

The other possibility is for Pearsall to get time as players are nicked up with injuries. This isn't as unlikely as it should be, given Deebo Samuel's high-impact playing style and injury history. The 49ers offense has seen notable fall-offs when Samuel has been hurt, largely due to no one being able to replicate his style and what he brings to the offense in terms of options when playcalling. Pearsall, though, has a history of being useful on jet sweep plays, scoring three rushing touchdowns in his two seasons at Florida. It may be, therefore, that if Samuel misses time, Pearsall becomes a more like-for-like replacement for him, and takes playing time as a result.

CB Renardo Green (Round 2, pick 64)

Again, it's hard not to see Green cracking the roster, given the investment made in him, but he does join a crowded corner group, comprised of, among others, Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, and highly-rated free-agent signee Isaac Yiadom. However, no one has quite nailed down the #2 corner spot opposite Ward, with it cycling between Lenoir, Ambry Thomas, and several others over the last few seasons. Given that the 49ers have openly said that they would prefer to see Lenoir in his natural slot position, one would expect an open competition for the #2 spot throughout the offseason. If Green can impress, his path to playing time may be quicker than previously thought.

One other thing to note is that even if Green doesn't immediately win a starting job, the 49ers presumptive top three corners (Ward, Lenoir, and Yiadom) are all scheduled to hit free agency after the 2024 season. It's easy to imagine Green having a slow start, but working his way into the lineup more as the season goes on. It's also possible that, if he is unable to break through at the spot opposite Ward, he spends some time at the nickel slot while Lenoir works the boundary.

G Dominick Puni (Round 3, pick 86)

As an addition to a 49er offensive line group that really needed some young, talented, depth, Puni looks relatively easy to project as not just a roster member, but potentially a top backup, given the 49ers' statement that he could be useful at all five spots in the trenches. If I were Puni, though, I would be zeroing in on the guard spot. Aaron Banks is entering a contract year, while the right guard spot is in a state of flux, to say the least, with veteran Jon Feliciano likely in the last season of his career (amid middling returns throughout his playing time), whereas youngster Spencer Burford has failed to develop into a full-time starter over his time with the team. While it's hard to imagine Puni as a Day 1 starter at this point, he could easily work his way into the rotation by mid-season, given the offensive line's often-uneven performances. If he projects well to tackle as some have suggested, he might even put pressure on Colton McKivitz, who has a great deal of work to do to convince the Faithful about his long-term starting potential.

If that doesn't happen immediately, it's not hard to envision Puni in a Daniel Brunskill-type role, covering multiple backup slots on the offensive line, given his versatility. I would suggest this might be the best spot for him in Year 1, as Chris Foerster works to mold him into a fit for the Shanahan scheme.

S Malik Mustapha (Round 4, pick 124)

The safety position certainly looks a little thin in San Francisco right now. Outside of special-teamer George Odum, the spot consists of two players with relatively little NFL experience in Ji'Ayir Brown and Talanoa Hufanga. In a further complication, Hufanga is coming off an ACL tear sustained against the Minnesota Vikings, and may only just make it back for training camp. San Francisco has not added to the position in free agency either, despite some visits being held with the likes of Julian Blackmon.

All of this points to Malik Mustapha having a good route to the roster. Barring any late veteran additions (such as a reunion with Tashaun Gipson), there's probably only Tayler Hawkins who will rival him for training camp snaps and playing time in the summer, given Hufanga's injury, so there should be plenty of opportunity to impress and potentially find the field at the spot opposite Brown. If he does well enough, he may even win a starting job, given his similarity in playing style to Hufanga and the fact he will, after signing, be under team control for four years, unlike his counterpart who was rumored to be in line for a lucrative extension before his injury.

While decisions will be made prioritizing on-field talent above all, don't underestimate the salary cap considerations that may come into play as young, cost-controlled talent arrives on the team.

Similarly, what could be another key spot for Mustapha, as with many rookies, is special teams. Were he to impress on special teams coverage units, particularly if he was to play at a similar level to veteran George Odum, it could cement his spot on the roster come cutdown time.

RB Isaac Guerendo (Round 4, pick 129)

Guerendo might have one of the easiest paths to the roster, particularly as Kyle Shanahan is known for liking to keep a lot of running back depth behind all-world phenom Christian McCaffrey. The key for Guerendo will be to prove his skills in the preseason, particularly in relation to the other running backs like Jordan Mason and Elijah Mitchell. It's hard to see a scenario where Guerendo doesn't make the team, particularly since his size and skillset are very different from the other two players he's likely to be up against. The only real competition is likely to come from veteran free agent Patrick Taylor, a similarly big back with good special teams experience.

While I have little doubt about Guerendo's ability to see the field as a runner, it's likely to be that old classic, special teams, that determines his immediate fit on the roster. We've already seen backs like Joe Williams, Tyrion Davis-Price, and Trey Sermon hold a tenuous grip on roster spots due to their inability to feature on coverage teams, so in order to make an impact, Guerendo must first focus on getting noticed by Brian Schneider. What should help him here is his kick and punt return ability, particularly given the void there since Ray-Ray McCloud's departure in free agency.

In terms of snaps at running back, his first job would be to muscle some carries, limited though they often are, from the likes of Mason and Mitchell. If he can bring his blazing speed to pads and Shanahan's outside-zone scheme, he might get more touches than previously envisaged, not unlike Raheem Mostert in 2019. Given Mitchell's injury-proneness, the opportunity may be bigger here than the depth chart would initially suggest.

WR Jacob Cowing (Round 4, pick 135)

Cowing joins a busy receiver room, and his path to the roster largely depends on two factors: one, the amount of receivers the 49ers keep on the roster, and two, whether his unique skillset can truly translate to the NFL, given his lack of ideal size.

The 49ers have traditionally kept five to six receivers on the final active roster, and should they do the same again, Cowing is battling for the 5th and 6th spots with the likes of coaching staff favorite and erstwhile special teamer Chris Conley, last year's seventh-rounder Ronnie Bell, who has flashed at times, and former third-rounder Danny Gray. Six spots being retained definitely makes Cowing's spot less tenuous, as he's likely already in front of the disappointing Gray on the depth chart, meaning he would likely only need to edge Conley or Bell for a spot. At five, though, it's going to be a tough one for him, unless he can flash the ability that's interested the 49ers to begin with.

Cowing's calling card is his uniqueness on the 49ers roster - a small, elusive, jitterbug-type receiver is not something the 49ers have traditionally scouted out at the position. However, since the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs, it's possible that Kyle Shanahan is looking for more man-coverage beaters on the roster, and Cowing certainly fits the bill. He's likely to initially compete with Pearsall for snaps in the slot in lieu of Jauan Jennings, and he'll need to impress there when called upon in training camp and preseason to ensure his spot is as safe as he'd like it to be.

And yes, once again, special teams may be his ticket to the roster - he has some punt-return experience, and there's going to be a crowded competition there this summer, with him, Guerendo, and Trent Taylor amongst others trying to carve out a role for themselves on the team. There's also the added wrinkle of the new kick return rules, and how they may affect roster decisions moving forward.

Ultimately, Cowing must turn his productive college career into a similar one in the pros - he needs to embrace his uniqueness, and if he can give Brock Purdy a weapon he doesn't currently have, he'll hang on to a spot.

G Jarrett Kingston (Round 6, pick 215)

Like Dominick Puni, Kingston joins an offensive line in need of an infusion of young talent, and has the advantage of being a natural at the arguably weakest position in that group, being a fleet-footed guard. He looks a little raw in his game and may spend his first season on the practice squad, with an eye on returning next year when Aaron Banks and Jon Feliciano may have departed the team.

For him to make the team this year, he simply has to become one of the 49ers best 9 or 10 linemen. This may mean beating out the likes of Spencer Burford or Nick Zakelj, both of whom were prior shots at fortifying the trenches in the draft. Still, he may also be able to help his cause by taking some snaps and impressing at center behind Jake Brendel, who doesn't appear to have a natural backup on the roster at present.

For Kingston, it's likely down to how quickly he can absorb coaching and look like a fit in the NFL. It wouldn't be unusual for an unheralded or low-drafted lineman to succeed in the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme. If he can take to it well, the opportunity is there, particularly since no one currently on the roster has particularly nailed down either a backup or even starting spot at guard, outside of the aforementioned Banks. Training camp and preseason are likely to be massive for him as he seeks to make the 53.

LB Tatum Bethune (Round 7, pick 251)

I wouldn't envy anyone coming into this 49er linebacking group. Fred Warner is one of the best players in the league, while Dre Greenlaw next to him has been a consistent, solid starter at a near-Pro Bowl level almost since the day he stepped foot onto the field. Couple that with two ascending rookies from last season in Jalen Graham and Dee Winters, tenured veterans like Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, as well as veteran additions like De'Vondre Campbell, and this spot's a tough nut to crack.

All isn't lost for Behtune, however - he's a solid hitter with decent coverage skills, and he does join a group with some uncertainty around it, given that Greenlaw will likely be missing until midseason. I'd still make Bethune a long shot, but there is a path for him, and it's largely following that of Greenlaw's. He must initially outplay the two younger players at that spot in Graham and Winters, or possibly even challenge the veteran Flannigan-Fowles, as these are likely the only spots up for grabs, given that Campbell is likely to be the veteran fill-in for Greenlaw.

How does Bethune do this? Say it with me again - special teams. Graham and Winters both saw time there last season, and it's by far the easiest way to get noticed as a seventh-round draft pick. If he can outplay one, both, or all three of Graham, Winters, and Flannigan-Fowles, his chances of holding on to a spot greatly increase, particularly given the relative lack of investment in the two younger players and Flannigan-Fowles carrying a decent cap number at age 28. I imagine the 49ers would like one of the two younger players to push Flannigan-Fowles down the depth chart this year, at which point Bethune would need to step up and be the final push off the roster. It's an uphill battle, but looking at his hard-nosed playing style, not one I'd rule him out of.

Some of the upcoming training camp and preseason battles might even make the exhibition games interesting this season!

Let me know how you think the 49ers rookies will fare in cracking the roster and depth chart.
  • Written by:
    UK Niner and writer, following scores since 1998, watching games since 2005. Two visits to SF (2015 and 2017) and counting. Claim to fame: saw Blaine Gabbert win a game as a starting quarterback.
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