Questions about 49ers rookies need answers

Nov 21, 2017 - 3:13 AM SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The oddity of the San Francisco 49ers' six-week limp to the finish line is that while much of the attention will be paid to evaluating a strong rookie class, the most easily identifiable first-year player no longer matters.

The 49ers may or may not give Jimmy Garoppolo his first start Sunday at quarterback against the Seattle Seahawks. It doesn't matter.

Either he will be the 49ers' starter in the next game that matters (the 2018 opener) or it will be the next quarterback of the future -- the guy the club chooses at or near the top of the April draft.

By that point, C.J. Beathard ideally will have become the next Tom Owen -- the serviceable (for a rookie) "Remember him?" bridge from John Brodie to, eventually, Joe Montana.

Beathard almost surely won't be the starter next September. But that definitely isn't the plan for at least two rookies and as many as four others from the 10-man draft class.

These six guys, as much as any other player other than Garoppolo, will be under the microscope the final six weeks of the season.

In each case, there's a key question that remains unanswered:

--Solomon Thomas, Round 1, defensive lineman. Question: Where is he the best fit?

When Thomas was drafted, he was seen as the perfect complement to previous first-round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner because he was versatile enough to play inside or out. But Thomas got off to a slow start this summer, and now has missed the last three games with a sprained knee.

Meanwhile, Buckner has been disappointingly unproductive and Armstead has gotten hurt again (season-ending broken hand), so the 49ers could find themselves right back at Square 1 in their chess game next training camp if Thomas doesn't at least figure out how to coexist with Buckner down the stretch.

--Reuben Foster, Round 1, linebacker. Question: Are the 49ers better served playing him in the middle or on the outside? In some ways, Foster's season has mirrored that of Thomas. He looked great for about 15 minutes playing the outside. Then he got hurt (ankle). Then he looked great in the middle for about another 15 minutes. Then he got hurt again (ribs).

Now he's back on the outside because he's less likely to get hurt there. Heck, maybe it's where he should have been all along. The 49ers need to find out, because they will likely need to spend from the overflowing stash of money on a proven middle linebacker in the offseason if they determine Foster's future is on the outside.

--Ahkello Witherspoon, Round 3, cornerback. Question: Just how good is he?

Among the 49ers' chief needs moving forward is a shutdown corner. Ideally, that guy would line up on one side, with Witherspoon on the other. Now that the physically imposing rookie has earned a starting spot, he'll get an opportunity to demonstrate he deserves that role ahead of Dontae Johnson, who in 10 games has shown he can hold his own on an island.

The 49ers would like to believe a third-round pick is capable of doing more than holding his own. Witherspoon is six good games away from going into the offseason as a piece to the big puzzle.

--Joe Williams, Round 4, running back. Question: Is he really better than Matt Breida?

Williams won't play this season because of an ankle injury, and that's too bad because a door opened at the running back position that few recognized was even ajar. Carlos Hyde has been only slightly north of adequate this season, prompting new head coach Kyle Shanahan to go out of his way to try to carve out a niche for the undrafted Breida.

You have to wonder what kind of opportunity the talented Williams might have gotten if he'd been healthy. Suffice it to say, the more Breida cuts into Hyde's playing time the rest of the way, the greater the opportunity there figures to be for Williams to wrestle away the starting position next season.

--George Kittle, Round 5, tight end. Question: Are his better-than-expected first-year numbers a reflection on his previous relationship with the quarterback?

Kittle got thrust into the limelight when former Iowa teammate Beathard, in his first NFL opportunity, connected with him on key passes late in the 49ers' comeback at Washington. And he had nine targets in consecutive starts with Beathard calling the shots against Philadelphia and Arizona.

But he missed a golden opportunity to shine against the New York Giants because of an ankle injury (Garrett Celek caught a touchdown pass given that opportunity), and now probably will have to gain Garoppolo's trust. He'd be wise to try to make the most of that new relationship with a starting spot next season very much on the line.

--Adrian Colbert, Round 7, safety. Question: What do the 49ers want to do with the mess at the safety positions?

Let's review: You have an established star in Eric Reid, a player the coaches want to turn into more of a hybrid linebacker. Then there's Jimmie Ward, who can't stay healthy. And there's Jaquiski Tartt, who seems perfectly suited for the hybrid position the club has created, but has been forced to fill in out of position in Ward's spot. Nowhere in there does it say: Dependable free safety.

With Ward and Tartt both out for the season, Colbert will have a chance to earn that label. It's a heck of an opportunity for a guy who entered the summer as a seventh-round cornerback. That said, Colbert still has one obstacle to clear: He has a broken thumb that he can't afford to use as an excuse at this point.

--Tackle Joe Staley surprised even the coaching staff when he rushed back from an eye injury to play against the New York Giants in Week 10 after missing just one game.

The 49ers have been much more conservative with several injuries that they were hoping the bye week would help cure.

We're about to find out.

Defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and Tank Carradine, tight end George Kittle and defensive end Aaron Lynch all hope to be fulltime participants on the practice field this week leading into Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Carradine would like to return from a seven-game absence, Lynch four games, Thomas two and Kittle one for the home game against arguably the 49ers' biggest NFC rival.

The 49ers also could find themselves debuting a new defensive lineman Sunday. They claimed tackle Sheldon Day off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday.

Day, a former fourth-round pick, played 22 games over the past two seasons for the Jaguars.

--"We know what we like about Jimmy Garoppolo. And that's only been strengthened by the time that he's been here. We're just going to let these things play out. That's in Kyle's hands." -- 49ers general manager John Lynch, on whether he believes Garoppolo should start Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

NOTES: TE George Kittle (sprained ankle) is expected to return to practice this week and might return for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks. Kittle missed the Week 10 win over the New York Giants. ... DT Sheldon Day was acquired off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday. Day played 22 games for the Jaguars after being a fourth-round pick in 2016. ... DL Solomon Thomas (sprained knee) is expected to return to practice this week and might play Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Thomas has missed the last two games. ... DL Tank Carradine (sprained ankle) hopes to be a fulltime participant at practice this week so that he can be on the active roster for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks. Carradine has not played since suffering the injury in Week 3. ... OLB Aaron Lynch (strained calf) is expected to practice at full speed this week in hopes of returning to game action Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Lynch has missed the last four games.


--PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus -- Kyle Shanahan hand-picked Brian Hoyer to run his high-powered offense this season, and obviously it was a mistake. The 49ers switched over to unheralded rookie C.J. Beathard within six weeks, with the production only marginally improving. The team has had trouble finding the end zone (just eight touchdown passes) despite deep threat Marquise Goodwin developing into a trustworthy target.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The 49ers rank lower in the NFL in rushing yards (21st) than passing yards (16th), but that doesn't make the run game a bigger failure. The Shanahan offense revolves around the pass, and when it has struggled, which it has most of the season, then the run game has struggled as well. Carlos Hyde, 11th in the league in rushing with 592 yards, isn't having a half-bad season.

--PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- What the 49ers' pass defense needs is to match up with the 49ers' pass offense. Heck, as a division rival, let's do it twice. The high-priced defensive line could use a pick-me-up against the 49ers' porous offensive line. The defensive front has been disappointing, and therein lies the biggest problem with the pass defense. A lack of pressure on the quarterback has resulted in just six interceptions all season.

--RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The 49ers have given up more rushing yards than all but one team. It wasn't so bad while NaVorro Bowman was manning the middle. But ever since the 49ers decided they didn't need him anymore, opponents have given the unit a weekly reminder just how valuable he was. It was considered a good day when the 49ers "held" Giants RB Orleans Darkwa to 70 yards in their last outing.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- They make makable field goals. They punt relatively short but high. And they rarely give up much return yardage. For a team with as little depth as anyone in the NFL, the 49ers sure have found a way to compete on special teams. The next step: finding someone who can excite the crowd with more than a successful fair catch.

--COACHING: C -- The 49ers gave head coach Kyle Shanahan a major stamp of approval when rising up and dominating the New York Giants after an 0-9 start. Pride was more important than draft position, and that's not something every franchise believes. Most 49ers are actually looking forward to the final six games of the regular season, which also says something about the coach. Unfortunately, so does this: 1-9.

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