The end to the NFL lockout is in sight, or at least that's what everybody seems to be hoping. At the very least, there's some pretty heavy false hope floating around, and that means it's worth taking another look at the San Francisco 49ers rookie class and what can be expected of them going into training camp. There's a lot of skepticism in regards to their 2011 NFL Draft haul, and it's understandable given most of the concerns. Guys with injury concerns, guys who underachieved, guys who were perceived reaches and multiple guys either learning a new position or stuck in between two of them.
In short, it's a really unpredictable and almost volatile draft class. It's not necessarily boom-or-bust, rather a whole layer of intrigue and ambivalence.
At the seventh overall pick, the 49ers took Aldon Smith, the defensive end and soon-to-be outside linebacker. His battle for playing time was something we have previously looked at, but a quick recap on that front if you don't want to click a link. Smith will be expected to play from day one, but a starter he probably is not. Eventually he will be one of the most important players in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense, but from the onset, he should be expected to play on third downs, as a pass-rusher.
That's contributing, and when you're picking in the top ten, that's what you want. But he's making a transition, coming from a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end position to a stand-up outside linebacker position. Short of being a prodigy, he's either going to be a situational player or a starter who is only starting for lack of a better option. Throughout the rest of the draft, are there any guys who can contribute on that level?
There sure are. While Colin Kaepernick out of the second round will only contribute if Alex Smith or any other outside candidate doesn't perform well, there are some other guys who have a real shot. Chris Culliver out of the third round could see the field early and often if the 49ers don't bring in starting-caliber talent at the cornerback position in free agency. Offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore and Michael Person can possibly compete, perhaps at the shaky right guard position currently manned by either Chilo Rachal or perhaps Adam Snyder.
Ronald Johnson is a guy to keep your eyes on. Aside from the somewhat disturbing pieces published of late about him and his obsession with his football, Johnson is set to compete with guys like Kevin Jurovich and Kyle Williams to get playing time from the slot. That's a position of great importance to Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and more specifically, any iteration of the west coast offense.
Lastly, Kendall Hunter is a guy who may see the field with something approaching regularity. Short of an injury to Frank Gore, at this point a very real possibility, Hunter will likely be the primary backup. He's out of the fourth round and most definitely is a talent above that level. Gore isn't the most durable back, and the offense will most definitely go through a power rushing attack. Hunter has the ability and potential to contribute early and often.
There's not a single starter here from day one, but a couple guys could find themselves in increased roles early on. One thing seriously working against them is the way this offseason has progressed thus far: with the lockout. Harbaugh, Roman and Fangio will be focusing on getting the guys who have learned NFL playbooks up to speed first. Learning this stuff fast is the key, and that's what gives players like Kyle Williams, Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and even Anthony Dixon an edge.