Rookies give Niners next to nothing in opener
The most notable play – in fact, one of the only notable plays – by San Francisco's entire rookie class came late in the third quarter when first-round draft pick Aldon Smith got one of his long arms up in the air to knock down Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's pass at the line of scrimmage on a second-and-13 play from San Francisco's 20-yard line. The Seahawks had to settle for a field goal two plays later that brought them within 16-10.
Smith, however, was the highest-drafted rookie not to start the opener for his team.
And besides Smith's big play, San Francisco rookies were practically non-existent in the opener.
They contributed a total of four yards from scrimmage on offense. They made no tackles on defense or special teams.
That was hardly the case for rookie classes elsewhere in the NFL, the latest indication that first-year NFL players may not have been quite as impacted by the four-month lockout as many observers felt they would be.
While rookies were shut out of San Francisco's opening-day starting lineup, the average number of rookie starters per team – 1.4 – is above the norm for the past three seasons, which ranged roughly from 0.9-1.2. Unofficially, five of the rookies gained starts because of injuries.
As of last Wednesday, there were 61 undrafted rookies on NFL rosters – three of them 49ers – although that number decreased slightly during the week as clubs reconfigured their rosters in advance of the opening games.
Conventional wisdom had been that the number of undrafted college free agents would be down from previous years because of limited opportunities resulting from the lockout and the absence of minicamps and OTAs, but it actually increased nearly 20 percent.
For the opening weekend, youth was not only served, it was serviceable as well. Despite the lockout, teams showed little reluctance to employ rookie starters.
The 49ers, however, practically ignored their rookies. Only two of them saw the field on offense or defense.
Here's a breakdown of each San Francisco rookie in the opener:
OLB Aldon Smith: The No. 7 overall selection in the draft didn't start, but he was on the field for San Francisco's third defensive play of the game as part of the team's nickel package. He lined up exclusively at right defensive end when the 49ers went to a four-man line. Smith displayed great effort and agility when a Seattle lineman attempted to cut him, fending off the block and reaching into the air to knock down an attempted screen pass to receiver Golden Tate after Seattle had reached the San Francisco red zone. That pass defensed was the only number to show up on the final defensive statistics sheet for Smith or any other 49ers rookie.
QB Colin Kaepernick: San Francisco's second-round draft pick did not play in the game, serving as the team's No. 2 QB on the sideline.
CB Chris Culliver: The team's third-round draft pick played only on special teams and did not record any tackles on those units.
RB Kendall Hunter: The fourth-round draft pick played six snaps from scrimmage as starting running back Frank Gore's backup. His NFL debut came late in the first half when Hunter was stuffed for no gain on a third-and-1 play from the Seattle 14-yard line, forcing the 49ers to settle for a field goal. Hunter also had a nice blitz pickup on San Francisco's next offensive series, allowing quarterback Alex Smith to escape from the shotgun for an 11-yard gain. Hunter's only other carry came early in the fourth quarter – also in the red zone – when he displayed great effort to break a tackle attempt in the backfield then surge forward for a four-yard gain that gave the 49ers a second-and-goal situation at the 4. Hunter finished his NFL debut with four yards on two carries. He was the only other San Francisco running back to touch the ball besides Gore.
OG Daniel Kilgore: Listed No. 2 on San Francisco's depth chart at left guard, the fifth-round draft pick was inactive and did not dress for the game.
S Colin Jones: The sixth-round draft pick played only on special teams and recorded no tackles, but he did contribute by walling off two Seattle defenders to help Ted Ginn Jr. get around the corner and down the right sideline on his 102-yard kickoff return that effectively clinched San Francisco's victory. The 49ers then released Jones on Tuesday to clear a roster spot for the addition of new veteran tight end Justin Peelle.
FB Bruce Miller: The seventh-round draft pick played solely on special teams. The only time Miller's name appeared in the game's play-by-play was when he was flagged for holding on the opening kickoff of the second half, forcing San Francisco to begin that possession at its 7-yard line.
OT Mike Person: Listed No. 2 on San Francisco's depth chart at right tackle, the seventh-round draft pick was inactive and did not dress for the game.
QB Scott Tolzien, DT Demarcus Dobbs, DT Ian Williams: The three undrafted rookies to make San Francisco's opening-day roster all were inactive and did not dress for the game.
The volume of rookie starters elsewhere in the league, however, was surprising to some. Or not.
"You still play the best guys and the guys who give you a chance (to win)," said one NFC coach. "And you draft players (high), basically because you think they're better than the ones you've got, so why not play them ... lockout or no lockout?"
Not surprisingly, nearly half the rookie starters, 20 of the 45, were first-round picks. That included each of the first six prospects off the board in April and seven of the top 10.
Just one of the quarterbacks selected in the first round, top overall choice Cam Newton of Carolina, started the opener. The other rookie quarterback in a club's starting lineup, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, was a second-round pick.
Obviously, the much debated Newton was the week's rookie star, passing for 442 yards, the most ever for a rookie in his first NFL start. Newton also completed eight passes of 20 yards or more for a Carolina team that had only 20 such plays in 2010. There were other rookies, not only starters, who authored solid contributions, but no one made quite the splash that Newton did.
Still, it was an uneven rookie debut overall.
Said Dalton, who suffered a forearm injury in the Bengals' win over Cincinnati: "People talk about the speed of the game, and they're not kidding. It's so much different (than the preseason)."
Keeping with the emphasis of the past several seasons, there were 14 rookie starters on the offensive line, including five first-year tackles. San Francisco offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis both were opening-day starters for the 49ers as first-round picks last year, and both have started every game for the team since.
It was guard, though, that tied for the most positional starters, seven, joining the defensive end spot at the top of the list. Six of the seven guards were drafted after the first round, five of them in the third stanza or beyond.
Tailback (Mark Ingram of New Orleans) and cornerback (Arizona's Patrick Peterson), both first-rounders five months ago, were the lone rookie starters at their respective positions
The 49ers were one of five teams that did not start a single rookie, joining Baltimore, Detroit, Green Bay and Pittsburgh. There were also five franchises that each started more than two first-year players: Cincinnati and Cleveland (four each); and Carolina, Denver and Seattle (three apiece).
Beyond the 20 first-round players, the breakdown of rookie starters: nine in the second round, six in the third, four fourth-rounders, two each in the fifth and sixth, and one in the seventh. There was one undrafted free agent starter.
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