Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


The 3 Most Important Rookies For the San Francisco 49ers in 2020

Jun 2, 2020 at 8:00 AM1


With a limited amount of cap space heading into free agency, the San Francisco 49ers were forced to be sellers rather than buyers on the open market. This required general manager John Lynch to make some tough decisions, most notably trading DeForest Buckner and letting Emmanuel Sanders walk. The organization was able to find successors through the NFL Draft, but that also means the team will be counting on a handful of young players to be successful in year one.

With a few newcomers set to play significant roles, it begs the question of which ones are the most important?

Of course, every player on the roster is important and this isn't to say that the others are insignificant, but some rookies will bear more weight on their shoulders than others. Here is a look at who I think the 49ers' three most important rookies will be this season, ranked in order.

Brandon Aiyuk


Sanders' departure leaves a giant hole in San Francisco's offense. He instantly became the team's top wideout, racking up 36 receptions for 503 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games for the Red and Gold, while simultaneously taking a lot of pressure off Deebo Samuel. Before the veteran's arrival, the rookie averaged 3 catches and about 34 yards per game. Those figures shot up to 4.2 and 63 after the acquisition of the former Bronco.

With a limited amount of cap space, Lynch had little to no choice but to let Sanders walk and turn to the NFL Draft to find another wide receiver. The general manager traded up to the 25th overall selection to replace the 10-year vet with Brandon Aiyuk.

It comes with the territory of being a first-round pick, but there will be a lot of pressure on Aiyuk to succeed in year one. He'll need to perform right away to one, replace some of Sanders' production and two, help open things up for Samuel, especially with the 49ers' lack of depth at the position. Kendrick Bourne is a solid role player but has yet to prove that he can be a consistent receiving threat, and while Jalen Hurd is set to return from injury, he's still an unproven commodity who only spent one season in college as a full-time wide receiver.

It might be asking a lot of Aiyuk to step into such a big role as a rookie, but it's something the team desperately needs. Luckily, the predecessor shares a similar skill set to his successor, now it's just a matter of how quickly the Arizona State product can make the transition to the next level.

Javon Kinlaw


I've said it a bunch of times this offseason and it's probably the most obvious statement anyone can make, but replacing Buckner will be a very difficult task for the Red and Gold. The 2019 second-team All-Pro selection is widely considered one of the best defensive tackles in the league, as he's racked up 28.5 sacks, 74 QB hits, and 38 tackles for loss in four seasons. Players like him don't grow on trees but as the old cliché goes, "it's a business" and it would have been nearly impossible for Lynch to keep the core of the roster intact with Buckner serving as a $20 million cap hit for the next five years.

Luckily, San Francisco was able to salvage some value for the defensive lineman by trading him to Indianapolis for a first-round pick. The organization wasted no time in finding Buckner's replacement, after taking Javon Kinlaw with the 14th overall selection of the draft.

While it's unrealistic to expect Kinlaw to play at an All-Pro level in year one, he'll still need to become a formidable starter right out of the gate. After three disappointing seasons, it's safe to say that Solomon Thomas cannot be relied upon to be a productive player, let alone replace Buckner. This means if the team's defensive line is going to be anywhere near as dominant in 2020 as it was in 2019, the rookie needs to pick up a significant portion of the slack.

As for why I have Aiyuk listed as slightly more important than Kinlaw, I do think San Francisco has a couple of other options to explore along its defensive line if the latter struggles to make the transition to the next level. While he's best on the edge, Arik Armstead has shown some versatility to slide inside and be productive, which gives the 49ers the flexibility to put him at defensive tackle and expand Dee Ford's role on the outside. Granted, Ford's health is a big factor in that equation but I think the team will still have a decent plan B or C if the pass rusher can't stay out of the training room.

Both Jullian Taylor and D.J. Jones have shown flashes of good play, posting PFF grades of 67.9 and 67.8 last season, respectively. In a pinch, the Red and Gold could rely on either or both of them to be serviceable starters and still have an imposing defensive line with Armstead and Nick Bosa on the outside. However, I don't have the same level of confidence in the team's receiving corps if Aiyuk can't get the job done.

Colton McKivitz


Admittedly, with 128 picks between the team's second and third selections in the draft, and with a roster that has very few holes, it was difficult to find/project a third rookie who will play a significant role in the upcoming season. However, last year San Francisco learned first-hand how important depth along the offensive line is. Starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey combined to miss 13 games, which forced first-year players Daniel Brunskill and Justin Skule into action.

While Brunskill throve, allowing a mere nine pressures in 10 games while recording a PFF Pass Blocking grade of 80.9, Skule struggled with a grade of 45.0 and 23 pressures allowed. The latter's performance last season leaves the door open for Colton McKivitz to not only make the roster but also have a significant role in year one.

Despite playing in a very pass-happy offense, the rookie never allowed more than 19 pressures during a single season in college, which makes me think he can beat out Skule for one of the backup tackle spots. As for Brunskill, he will likely serve as the offensive line's "sixth man," meaning he'll be the first one off the bench if any of the starters go down. The San Diego State product also filled in at guard in 2019, so if he has to step in for someone on the interior, McKivitz could be the next man up on the outside.

Given that Trent Williams has only played a full 16-game schedule twice in his nine-year career, the former Mountaineer could easily be thrust into action in 2020. The rookie also has some position flexibility as he spent some time at guard in college, so he could be very crucial if the injury bug hits San Francisco's offense line hard like it did last season. In a division that projects to be very competitive this season, even if McKivitz only plays in one game, his performance could be a significant factor in the 49ers' playoff positioning.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • NinerTy
    Relying on 1 rookie to keep this team afloat is football suicide let alone 3!!! It pains me to think this is what the future this year is what our team is facing. The probability of needing 1 rookie to 3 rookies goes up exponentionally and for myself is not the formula for return to the Super Bowl. But, stranger things have happened and my hope is that the Niners have chosen wisely and to see them take #6!!!
    Jun 2, 2020 at 8:41 AM
    0

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