Do the 49ers Have the Best Young Core in the NFL?

It’s hard to accumulate young talent in the NFL. It’s not as easy as drafting in the top five every year and selecting elite prospects. Even at the top of the draft, there’s no guarantee the players selected will perform at a high level in the NFL. It takes expert scouting, especially in the later rounds, to build a team capable of competing for a championship. Some teams, like the Rams, build through free agency and trades. That method has proven to be very effective for the reigning Super Bowl champions, successful enough that teams like the Raiders, Chargers, and Dolphins have followed suit this offseason in typical copycat fashion. Building through the draft is harder, but it can be done. No one has done it better than the 49ers over the last few years.

Last season, the 49ers had a player rank in the top five in…

  • Rushing yards per game
  • Receiving yards per game (among WRs)
  • Receiving yards per game (among TEs)
  • Sacks

Not only were the 49ers the only team to have a player rank inside the top five of each of those categories, but no other team in the NFL can even say they had players in the top 15 of each of those categories.

The youngest of those players, Elijah Mitchell, was sidelined due to various injuries (shoulder, finger, and concussion) for six games during his rookie campaign. When he was on the field, he was one of the best running backs in the NFL. It certainly helped to be running behind a stellar offensive line that featured decorated veterans like Trent Williams and Alex Mack. Even still, Mitchell’s contributions as a rookie are rare and a big reason why 49ers fans don’t have to worry about the departure of Raheem Mostert.

Mitchell is the first rookie running back in 49ers team history to rush for an average of 87.5 yards per game and only the 7th rookie running back to his that number in the NFL since 2000. While San Francisco has often utilized a “running back by committee” approach under head coach Kyle Shanahan, Mitchell offers them the opportunity to have a feature back capable of rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2022.

Not much more has to be said about everything that Deebo Samuel brings to the 49ers. The All-Pro joined Jerry Rice and Roger Craig as the only players in 49ers’ history with at least 1,700 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns in a single season. In doing so, he solidified himself as one of the best and most versatile skill position players in the league. Whether it’s at receiver or running back, Deebo can do it all.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” Samuel said when asked about his multi-faceted workload. “I’m a team-first player, so whatever Kyle [Shanahan] asks me to do, I’m gonna do it.”

As for tight end, there’s George Kittle. While calling Kittle “young” when compared to the other 49ers being mentioned may seem like a miscategorization, he is younger than the majority of his peers who find themselves near the top of the league in yards per game at his position.

Top Tight Ends in yards per game in 2021 (and age):

  1. Mark Andrews (26) – 80.1 Y/G
  2. Travis Kelce (32) – 70.3 Y/G
  3. Rob Gronkowski (32) – 66.9 Y/G
  4. George Kittle (28) – 65.0 Y/G
  5. Darren Waller (29) – 60.5 Y/G

Kittle should have an opportunity to age somewhat gracefully and have success at an older age like many of his peers. Tight end has been a position that has allowed for that over the years. Players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates found great success later in their respective careers. Kittle may be older than some of his stellar teammates, but he still has plenty of time left to be an elite tight end in the league.

As for Nick Bosa, this is just the beginning. In his two full seasons in the NFL that weren’t cut short by injury, he’s been spectacular. Both campaigns featured Bosa being named a Pro Bowler and helping lead the team to at least the NFC Championship Game. He is everything the 49ers hoped he would be and more when they drafted him out of Ohio State. With him coming off the edge, everything is made easier for the 49ers’ defense.

“I don’t think people appreciate how good Bosa is,” Head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I’ve heard people talk about him for comeback player of the year and every time they say that I can’t believe he hasn’t been mentioned in defensive player of the year.”

Bosa was one of two players with at least 15 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss last season. The other was the eventual Defensive Player of the Year winner, Pittsburgh Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt.

Those four 49ers stuffed the stat sheet last season, but other young players on the roster bear mentioning. Fred Warner didn’t repeat as an All-Pro in 2021, but the 25-year-old linebacker is undoubtedly one of the best at his position in the league. He finished 2021 with a career-high 137 tackles, good for 11th in the league. Warner, Mitchell, and Kittle serve as great examples of the 49ers consistently finding elite talent later in the draft.

Trey Lance was only used sparingly in 2021 but showcased his elite athleticism and arm strength in limited action. Former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel knows how special Lance can be when given the opportunity.

“My time with him, it was exciting,” McDaniel said. “You talk about a dude that was willing and able and wanting to be great, that he himself knew there was a lot of stuff to work on. …  if the 49ers choose to have him as their starting quarterback, I’m confident that’s with good reason, knowing Kyle and John Lynch.”

NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks compiled an extensive ranking of the most important positions in football. All six positions of the players mentioned above were featured in the top 10. All six were drafted and developed as homegrown talents with the Niners. It’s rare enough to have six players of that caliber to begin with but to have drafted all of them is unheard of. A truly special collection of players has been put together in San Francisco. One that will strike fear into opponents for years to come.

Photo: (Tony Avelar – AP Photo)

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