The 49ers saw enough promise in evaluating wide receiver Kendrick Bourne before last year’s draft to sign him as a free agent and patiently wait for him to join the team’s offseason program.
Due to rules governing when rookies are allowed to report full time to their new NFL teams, Bourne could not participate in most of the 49ers’ offseason program last spring due to the late conclusion of classes at Eastern Washington.
Once he arrived in Santa Clara on a full-time basis, the 49ers stuck with Bourne through a couple bumps in the road.
“He was late to a couple of things and I rode him pretty hard,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said this week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Florida. “I didn't think he was quite ready to make an NFL roster, but he was too talented for us to lose. We did believe in him, but he needed to grow up a little bit.”
The 49ers received more snaps last season from their rookie class than any team in the NFL. Many of those players have already established themselves as starters or front-line backups, such as Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, C.J. Beathard, George Kittle, Trent Taylor, Adrian Colbert and Matt Breida.
But there are plenty of other under-the-radar second-year players who could work themselves into significant roles with the organization. Bourne tops the list.
Former teammate and current Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp overshadowed Bourne during their time together at Eastern Washington. Kupp averaged 107 receptions, 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns per season over four years.
Bourne piled up nearly 70 catches per season for 1,000 yards and eight TDs over the final three years of his career. Despite all the time he missed in the offseason, Bourne flashed enough to open the season on San Francisco's 53-man roster.
“He took a huge step last year,” Shanahan said. “I know he wasn't totally ready at the beginning of the year, but he was a guy that we thought had too much talent to put on the practice squad. We were scared that we’d lose him.
“I think he was a little overwhelmed at first, but he kept battling through it. Even when we would ride him he didn't go into a shell. He kept working. He and our receiving coach, Mike LaFleur, put in a lot of time together in learning the stuff.”
Bourne (6-foot-1, 203 pounds) appeared in 11 games and played 282 snaps as a rookie. He caught 16 passes for 257 yards but is far from a finished product.
“He better not be relaxing right now, just sitting back and enjoying that, though,” Shanahan said. “He’s got to come and prove himself again this year.”
And the same goes for these other six under-the-radar second-year players:
RB JOE WILLIAMS
There were questions about Williams' commitment coming out for the draft after he took a leave from the Utah football team during his final year of college. General manager John Lynch admits he removed Williams from the team’s draft board. But Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner fell in love with the film, and Lynch placed Williams' name back on the board just before he was selected in the fourth round.
Said Shanahan, “When he had a lane, he had the ability to score, the ability to make the one guy left miss. . . The burst, the leg strength to run through tackles and hit it and be gone.”
Despite Shanahan comparing him to Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman, Williams has a lot to prove just to make the team. He faces an uphill battle for a roster spot after a less-than-impressive offseason and training camp last year. Williams was stashed away on injured reserve with a minor foot injury for his rookie season.
“I expect him to turn up his urgency level this year,” Shanahan said. “I’ve talked to him about that. He said he has. Looking forward to seeing it.”
DE/LB PITA TAUMOEPENU
A sixth-round draft pick last year, Taumoepenu spent 14 games of his rookie season as one of the team’s seven inactive players on game days. He has potential as a pass-rush specialist that the club will want to see this season. The 49ers declined the option on veteran Elvis Dumervil, in part because they want to open the door for some younger players, such as Taumoepenu, who also adds value on special teams.
OL ERIK MAGNUSON
Although it appears unlikely he can play his way into the starting lineup, Magnuson has the versatility required for a backup job. He can play any of the interior positions, including center, as well as right tackle. That ability to fill in at any position could make him valuable as one of two backup offensive linemen to suit up for games.
CB GREG MABIN
The 49ers do not have much depth at cornerback, so more players will certainly be coming to the team via the draft and its immediate aftermath. Mabin bounced around as a rookie. Tampa Bay and Buffalo waived him before he landed on the 49ers’ practice squad. He ended up playing 44 snaps of defense. His size (6-2, 200) is ideal for the 49ers’ scheme. The 49ers have a high opinion of Mabin, who should pull up a chair to Richard Sherman's locker and learn as much as possible from the prototype cornerback for this scheme.
S CHANCELLER JAMES
Before going down with a torn ACL, James looked the part in training camp and was in position to win a spot on the 53-man roster. The 49ers have no intention at this point of re-signing Eric Reid to a backup position. (And, for Reid, there's no reason for him to accept a one-year, low-money contract at this point in the offseason.) The 49ers could add a safety in the draft, but James will still have a solid chance to make his mark this season.
OT DARRELL WILLIAMS
Williams showed enough to earn a spot on the practice squad before his promotion to the 53-man roster for the final eight games. The 49ers must look to the future at offensive tackle. Trent Brown enters the final year of his contract. Brown has to prove his commitment to all facets of the job before the 49ers will even consider offering a lucrative contract extension. Joe Staley enters his 12th season, so it’s uncertain how much longer he can play at a high level. Williams must take a significant step forward this year to prove he is part of the future.