Where would the 49ers be without the rookies?

NinersDigest in September ran an analysis detailing how the 49ers' rookie class was virtually non-existent in San Francisco's season opener, and the team received next to nothing from the rookies during its 1-1 start. The Niners haven't lost since, with several rookies playing prominent roles in the team's recent rise. The 49ers, in fact, probably wouldn't be 5-1 today without their contributions.

Aldon Smith, the team's first-round draft pick, might have put it best earlier this week before the 49ers dispersed to different corners of the country for their bye week:

"I'm always going back to my first day of (training) camp, and we were going through some drills and I kind of just paused because everything went (so) fast," Smith started.

"But now everything's starting to slow down, and I'm getting the hang of it a little bit."

Smith is getting the hang of it, all right.

He leads all NFL rookies and ranks fifth in the league in sacks with 5.5 – all of them coming in San Francisco's last three games. Smith leads all NFL players in sacks over that recent three-game stretch, and after receiving the award again Friday, he has been named NFL Rookie of the Week two weeks in a row.

Smith isn't the only San Francisco rookie getting the hang of it. Third-round pick Chris Culliver and fourth-round selection Kendall Hunter also have been making significant impacts during the team's four-game winning streak, and seventh-round pick Bruce Miller has been the team's starting fullback since taking over for injured veteran Moran Norris in Week 3 at Cincinnati.

That game, in fact, is exactly when the team's rookie class began to emerge and make their contributions to San Francisco's best start since 1998.

Here's a look at what the top contributing rookies did during the team's 1-1 start, what they've done since, and a look at what their impact has meant to a 5-1 start that has lifted the Niners among the NFL's best teams and given them a 2½-game lead in the NFC West to enjoy during their in-season break.

OLB Aldon Smith

First two games: The No. 7 overall selection in the draft was on the field for San Francisco's third defensive play of the season as part of the team's nickel package, and he lined up exclusively at right defensive end when the 49ers went to a four-man line. His role was similar in Week 2 against the Cowboys. Smith knocked down a pass against the Seahawks in the opener, which was the only number to show up on the final statistics sheet in that game for Smith or any other 49ers rookie. Smith began his emergence that would become more evident in the month to follow with two quarterback hits and another pass defensed against the Cowboys.
Four-game winning streak: Smith has been a force on the right edge with 5.5 sacks in San Francisco's past three games, including two each in wins over the Buccaneers and Lions. He played a season-high 62 defensive snaps in last week's upset at Detroit, also forcing a fumble and recording the first safety of his career.
Impact: Smith is becoming a force as an edge pass rusher, something the 49ers likely wouldn't have on the right edge of their formidable front seven without him. Smith is quickly becoming an edge defender San Francisco opponents must game-plan for, and it's unlikely his 5.5 sacks would have been replaced by other players in his spot. Smith also is becoming a playmaker as his forced fumble and safety against the Lions can attest – both were huge plays that helped tilt the game in San Francisco's favor. Smith is on a pace for 14.5 sacks - which would tie the NFL record for rookies set in 1999 by Jevon Kearse - and already is being mentioned in some circles as a top candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Besides his team-leading sack total, Smith enters the bye week third on the team with 16 quarterback hits to go with 16 tackles – five of them for a loss – 11 QB pressures and three passes defensed.

QB Colin Kaepernick

First two games: The second-round draft pick did not play a snap in San Francisco's first two games as the team's backup quarterback.
Four-game winning streak: Kaepernick made his NFL debut in Week 3 against Philadelphia, but only played one snap during the first half. The next week against Tampa Bay, Kaepernick took over behind center in the fourth quarter and drove the 49ers 90 yards to their final touchdown in a 48-3 rout. Kaepernick completed all three of his passes for 35 yards in that game.
Impact: Kaepernick's contribution has been negligible so far, but we mention him here because the 49ers have brought the talented rookie along gradually and have found some spots to get him onto the field through the first stage of the season. Expect the 49ers to increasingly look for ways to get Kaepernick onto the field to the point that he can become an occasional wild-card weapon on offense that the Niners will get into the game to keep opponents wary and on their toes.

CB Chris Culliver

First two games: The team's third-round draft pick played only on special teams and did not record any tackles on those units.
Four-game winning streak: Culliver began to make more of an impact on special teams heading into October while playing regularly on those units, then got an opportunity to step in as the team's nickel cornerback against Tampa Bay in Week 5, performing admirably in that role. He recorded his first career interception and finished with three passes defensed against the Buccaneers, then excelled as the No. 3 cornerback the next week at Detroit, finishing with three tackles and knocking down another pass.
Impact: With veterans Shawntae Spencer and Tramaine Brock both battling injuries, the 49ers needed somebody to step up as the nickel cornerback, and Culliver has performed very well in the role and has perhaps won that job going forward. His blend of size, speed and athleticism provides a dimension the 49ers don't have elsewhere at the cornerback position, and Culliver was able to put those assets on display last week against the Lions while locked in single coverage several times with star receiver Calvin Johnson. The 49ers effectively contained one of the NFL's most explosive passing games in that contest, and Culliver was a big factor in making that happen. Culliver has seven tackles on defense and ranks fifth on the team with four passes defensed. He also has been a top contributor on special teams.

RB Kendall Hunter

First two games: The fourth-round draft pick played six snaps on offense in the opener, finishing with four yards rushing on two carries. He did not touch the football from scrimmage in Week 2, but did return one kickoff 43 yards.
Four-game winning streak: Hunter began making his presence felt in Week 3 at Cincinnati, and the 49ers may not have rallied to win that game without his standout play down the stretch after taking over as the team's lead back in the second half for a gimpy Frank Gore. Hunter had several key runs during San Francisco's fourth-quarter comeback, and he scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter on a 7-yard burst over the left side on a day when yards on the ground were extremely difficult to come by. The 49ers made Hunter a regular part of their offense after that game, and he had at least eight carries in each of the next three weeks. Hunter had 100 yards rushing and receiving to help key the Week 4 upset at Philadelphia, then had a career-high 65 yards rushing the next week against Tampa Bay. He complemented Gore with 33 yards rushing at Detroit.
Impact: Hunter's emergence has not only invigorated the offense, but it also has invigorated Gore by keeping him fresh and also pushing the veteran to be at his best. Hunter is a weapon both as a rusher and receiver and figures to be a regular part of San Francisco's offensive arsenal moving forward. Hunter's impact so far cannot be minimized, because he has provided another dimension in the backfield so that teams can no longer gang up on Gore and focus their defense on stopping San Francisco's Pro Bowl star. For the season, Hunter has 166 yards rushing on 37 carries, a 4.5 average, and he is a major reason the 49ers have climbed to fifth in the NFL in rushing offense. He also has four receptions for 74 yards.

FB Bruce Miller

First two games: The seventh-round draft pick played solely on special teams in the opener, and the only time his name appeared in the game's play-by-play was when he was flagged for holding on the opening kickoff of the second half. Miller began seeing time at fullback in Week 2, the game in which Norris broke his leg. Miller did not touch the ball on offense, but he did record his first special teams tackle of the season.
Four-game winning streak: Miller moved in as the team's starting fullback in Week 3 and has made his impact felt on offense both as a blocker in the run game and as an occasional receiver out of the backfield. He had four receptions for 25 yards and also had his first NFL carry at Cincinnati but has been used mostly as a blocker in the three games since.
Impact: Miller, a converted college defensive end, has played well at fullback and gives the team a different dimension at the position than Norris. The 49ers are certain to use his versatility at the position going forward and make Miller a regular part of what they are doing at fullback, and he also will continue to make his presence felt on special teams. Miller has rushed three times for five yards this season and has five receptions for 40 yards as the only fullback to touch the ball for the Niners so far this season. He also has two special teams tackles and ranks fourth on the team in a points system used to determine San Francisco's top contributors on those units.

S Colin Jones

First two games: The sixth-round draft pick played only on special teams and recorded no tackles in the opener, but he did contribute by walling off two Seattle defenders to help Ted Ginn Jr. get around the corner and down the right sideline for his 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jones then was waived two days later so that the 49ers could sign veteran tight end Justin Peelle to the 53-man roster. Jones was signed back to San Francisco's practice squad on Sept. 14.
Four-game winning streak: Jones was elevated back to the 53-man roster on Oct. 4 and played on special teams in the past two games. He made a big stop in kickoff coverage to plant Tampa Bay's returner at the 8-yard line.
Impact: Jones has impressed the 49ers with his ability on special teams, and he often is one of the first players down the field on San Francisco's coverage teams. Despite his limited role, Jones may have earned himself a permanent spot on the 53-man roster for the remainder of the season, and he will continue to dress and play on game days because of his contributions and value on special teams.

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