As the 49ers get ready for their 2012 Divisional Round contest this weekend against the New Orleans Saints, it is worth noting how important rookies have been to the team's success this season. Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller and Colin Jones have all played significant roles this season and will need to bring big performances on Saturday.
In the meantime, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has put together his re-grade of the 2011 NFL Draft. He provides grades immediately after the draft and then a re-grade after the close of the regular season. At the time of the draft he gave the 49ers a C+ in part because he saw a lot of projects on the team. Suffice to say, some of those projects worked out a lot sooner than expected.
I said then that Aldon Smith wasn't as much of a reach at No. 7 as some thought because he had so much momentum going into the draft, but, my goodness, I don't think anybody thought he'd be this good this early. I saw him as a bit of a project -- which sounds like a shot, but I meant something closer to Jason Pierre-Paul, a major talent who could see his production pick up later in his rookie year as he learned the craft. Then he'd become a great player in his second year. Well, it's safe to say Smith's overall ability has outweighed technique questions ... Chris Culliver will become a steady starter in the secondary and is a great value in the third round. Kendall Hunter was good spelling Frank Gore and could become the No. 1 back as soon as next season. Daniel Kilgore made the roster as guard depth. Colin Kaepernick is obviously a wild card here, but, if Alex Smith re-signs for a number of years, Kaepernick's development becomes more of a moot point. And, after the run on quarterbacks early, at least the Niners didn't target one early only to have him sit behind Smith. Their strategy paid off.
It is interesting that he makes no mention of seventh round pick Bruce Miller. After Aldon Smith, the argument for the second best pick in year one would have to include Bruce Miller. Chris Culliver and Kendall Hunter are also firmly in the argument, but Miller is as well given his excellent work as a fullback. Considering his move from defense to offense, it is pretty impressive.