Editor’s note: The 49ers break for the bye week with a 2-8 record. This is part of a series that recaps the first 10 games with an eye to the future. In this installment, we look at the progress of the team's second-year players.
When last season came to an end, the 49ers had a dashing new quarterback and plenty of optimism about the direction of the organization.
A lot of the hope surrounding the 2018 team was attached to the confidence in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But the promise of the 49ers’ rookie class of 2017 also had a lot to do with the expectations of a playoff run.
But after 10 games, things have not gone as smooth as the 49ers had envisioned.
The 49ers have seen a little bit of everything from their 12 second-year players in the team's 2-8 start. Some have made tremendous improvements, while important defensive players have taken steps backward. Yet others have emerged out of nowhere to show promise for the future.
Here is a status report on the first group of draft picks and undrafted players to come to the team in the first year of the coach Kyle Shanahan-general manager John Lynch regime:
DT Solomon Thomas
Lynch says he'll often try to put himself in Thomas’ position to imagine the struggle he faces each day as he attempts to cope with his sister’s death by suicide.
“Solomon is very aware that the struggle is real, that it’s something he deals with every day,” Lynch said. “But also that he needs to find a way to come and be the best he can be at his job. I’m still a big believer in Solomon Thomas.”
Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in the ’17 draft, has started eight of the 49ers’ 10 games at defensive end. He has not earned a regular spot as an inside pass-rusher in nickel situations, which has been a disappointment. After recording three sacks as a rookie, Thomas has been credited with only one sack entering the final six games.
“Now, what we need to see from Solomon is he needs to continue to earn the opportunity, earn the right to be out there in more situations,” Lynch said. “And in this second half of this Year 2 for him, he’s got to really start being the player we all know he can be. Some of that is opportunity, and putting him in situations where we think he can thrive, and I think we’ll see that in the second half of this year.”
LB Reuben Foster
The 49ers took a gamble on Foster when they traded back into the first round to select him with the No. 31 overall selection. There were questions about his character and his shoulder.
Foster spent most of the offseason away from the 49ers’ program to deal with criminal charges of domestic violence. Ultimately, a judge ruled there was not sufficient evidence, and the case was dropped. But Foster still was suspended for two games at the start of the season for violations of the NFL’s policies on substances of abuse and personal conduct.
“He didn’t really get a chance to experience an offseason, and that’s where the growth for so many players happens from Year 1 to Year 2,” Lynch said. “He didn’t have that offseason because of what he was going through off the field.”
On the field, Foster has been bothered by nagging shoulder issues and appeared in just six games. His 12 missed tackles rank as worst on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. Foster should be ready to return to action in Week 12 after he missed the past two games with a hamstring injury.
Lynch sees a lot of reason for hope.
“We’re really proud of some of the steps Reuben is making, just as far as growing up,” Lynch said. “His diligence to his rehab has been extraordinary. I’m excited to see him come and play. He’s watching film. He’s doing all the things that pros do, and he’s really growing in that respect.”
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Witherspoon, a third-round pick, generally played well as a rookie after taking Rashard Robinson’s job. But he did not find any consistency early this season and lost his starting role. Witherspoon heads into the final six games of the season with four consecutive starts.
“It’s a work in progress,” Lynch said. “He’s a talented football player. He’s got to put it all together. The onus is on him. It’s on his coaches to continue to develop him. We feel he has all the qualities that make a big-time corner in this league, but you got to start putting it to work on the field. That’s the challenge for Ahkello Witherspoon.”
QB C.J. Beathard
Beathard, a third-round pick, took over as the starting quarterback after Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury. Beathard showed flashes, but he appeared to lose some confidence and regressed. He completed 60.4 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions for an 81.8 passer rating in five starts.
Beathard held onto the ball too long, as he was sacked 18 times while attempting 169 passes. He left the lineup because of a wrist injury, which might have given him a much-needed break to regroup.
TE George Kittle
Kittle, a fifth-round pick, has emerged as the best player from the 49ers’ 2017 draft class. He's also taking steps to establish himself as one of the NFL's top tight ends.
Kittle is a strong in-line blocker, and he is a big-play threat in the passing game. He has been one of the true bright spots in an otherwise forgettable first 10 games of the season with 50 receptions for 775 yards and three TDs.
WR Trent Taylor
Taylor, a fifth-round pick, has struggled since the offseason. He underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his back, and he just hasn't looked the same in his second season.
Taylor has 19 catches for 150 yards and one touchdown. He no longer is the team’s primary punt returner. He had returned just four punts for 11 yards.
DT D.J. Jones
The 49ers have good depth at defensive tackle, which has made it difficult for Jones to get much of an opportunity. Jones, a sixth-round pick, reported back to training camp in better shape, and appears to figure into the team’s future as a defender on base downs.
Safety Adrian Colbert
Colbert, a seventh-round pick, won the starting job at free safety based on his performance as a rookie while making six starts. But things did not go as planned. He struggled this season in six starts before going on season-ending injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
RB Matt Breida
Remember Joe Williams? The 49ers selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 draft.
That pick was wasted, but Breida, an undrafted player from Georgia Southern, has done more than enough to compensate for that swing-and-miss.
Breida has battled injuries, but he has not missed a game. He has set himself up to remain a major contributor, even if Jerick McKinnon returns from a knee injury to be the player Shanahan envisioned.
Breida entered Week 11 as the NFL’s seventh-leading rusher with 632 yards and an impressive 5.6-yard average.
QB Nick Mullens
Mullens, who signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent from Southern Miss, is listed as a first-year player because he spent all of his rookie season on the team’s practice squad. He was promoted from the practice squad in Week 4 this season after Garoppolo’s injury.
After five weeks as the backup, Mullens made a name for himself with an outstanding debut in a Week 9 start against the Raiders. He'll remain the starter over Beathard when the 49ers return to action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.
WR Kendrick Bourne
He made the team out of camp as an undrafted rookie from Eastern Washington. Bourne still has a lot to learn, but he has taken strides in his second season.
After catching just 16 passes as a rookie, Bourne has 23 receptions for 230 yards and three touchdowns through 10 games.
G/C Erik Magnuson
He appeared in four games last season before going on injured reserve with a foot injury. He won a roster spot as an undrafted rookie from Michigan.
Magnuson is a versatile backup who already has seen action at tackle, guard and center. He saw action in four games this season with two starts. However, since struggling at center in Week 8 against Arizona, Magnuson has not been active.