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Taking a look at a group of young 49ers to watch as the season turns into a rebuilding year

Considering where the season is going, we're making the case for young players to get their shot with an eye toward the future.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Good luck finding anyone at 49ers' headquarters willing to admit it might be time to start giving young players more playing time with the playoffs getting further and further out of reach.

At 1-4, San Francisco is dangerously close to reaching the point of 2015 officially turning into a "rebuilding" year, rather than a "reload situation" as general manager Trent Baalke termed it after the team parted with Jim Harbaugh last December.

NFL people are simply too competitive. They live to win on Sundays. The idea of anything different brings unimaginable pain and agony, or something like that.

"I don’t know when that would come," head coach Jim Tomsula said after Week 4's 17-3 loss to the Packers. "It’s not there now. I know that we have 12 games to play and we need to play them. So, I’m not thinking in that direction at all, sir."

'Rebuilding' is normally only a trope for outsiders. But it's a term that will start theming the rest of the 49ers' season should they continue to stack the L's.

After a winnable game Sunday at home against the 1-4 Ravens, San Francisco hosts the Seahawks (2-3), travels to play the Rams (2-3), host the Falcons (5-1), travels to Seattle and hosts the Cardinals (4-1).

There's a good chance the 49ers come out of that five-game stretch with three or more losses, which would go a long way toward sticking the dagger into any postseason hopes, if they haven't been killed already.

That means it might be time to start playing a number of key young player sooner, rather than later. It's best to know what young players are capable of now in order to prepare for the future.

The more information the team has about its current players going into the 2016 draft, when the 49ers could have as many as 12 picks, will help them build for the long term - and/or insulate Baalke from facing peril surrounding his job status beyond next season (the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch went into Baalke's recent draft struggles here).

Here are a few players who should benefit from more playing time with an eye toward the future:

DL Arik Armstead

The 49ers' defense has nine sacks on the season, with outside linebacker Aaron Lynch as the only player with more than one. The base defense features linemen that have played predominately at nose tackle the last two seasons, in Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams. The third starting lineman, Quinton Dial, played nose last season after Williams sustained his ankle injury midway through the year. 

The point being: nose tackles aren't typically good pass rushers, and the 49ers have three along their starting defensive line. Armstead, the team's most recent first-round pick, has been the defense's most productive pass rusher outside of Lynch. According to Pro Football Focus, Armstead ranks second among all 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush efficiency, despite playing in a reserve role.

Armstead is going to be a key player along the defensive front for at least the next three seasons. Getting more playing time would be the best way to speed up his development, and it might help the team's 20th-ranked pass rush.

CB Dontae Johnson

Johnson was a surprise last season as the former fourth-round pick contributed to San Francisco's fifth-ranked passing defense after cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox missed time due to injuries. Johnson appeared in all 16 games and made three starts as a rookie, showing promise with good athleticism, size and length.

This year, Johnson played 19 snaps in the opener, 17 against Pittsburgh and 20 in Arizona. But over the last two weeks, Johnson didn't see the field against Green Bay and the Giants.

To be sure, coordinator Eric Mangini appears to assign playing time based on match ups, and the 49ers haven't gone against any bigger receivers in the last two games. But given his experience and production, it's somewhat of a surprise second-year players Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser surpassed Johnson on the depth chart this year.

San Francisco has the league's 30th-ranked pass defense, so trying some new things might not hurt.

WR Bruce Ellington

Ellington has only played seven offensive snaps all season, which has been surprising considering the struggles of the offense through five games.

Ellington has a unique skill set. He can line up both in the back field and excels in the slot, much like Green Bay's Randall Cobb. He can provide a dynamic the offense doesn't have, which could potentially help out quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a big way, particularly if those plays that take a long time to develop aren't there. Ellington can be a quick outlet and create mismatches against defenses that load up the box to stop the running game.

So why hasn't Ellington played more?

His health has been his biggest foe. In the offseason, Ellington dealt with hamstring injuries that cut out a bulk of his work, bleeding into training camp. And once the season started, he had an ankle injury that kept him out of Weeks 2 and 3. His injuries have prevented him from being a consistent enough contributor in practice to play in games like perhaps he should.

But Ellington is healthy now, and the fact he didn't play a single down in Sunday's loss after taking two catches for 39 yards remains a head-scratcher.

OG Andrew Tiller

There's a chance Tiller could start Sunday against the Ravens over incumbent right guard Jordan Devey after Tiller's strong performance splitting time Sunday against the Giants.

The struggles of the 49ers' offensive line have been well documented, and one way to turn the tide could be giving Tiller the starting job and see how things go. As a run blocker, Tiller represents a significant upgrade along the right side of the offensive line.

When the 49ers moved Alex Boone to left guard, they put their two best offensive linemen on the left side, creating an imbalance.

If Tiller's ability to run block balances out that front five, he's worth having in there.

RB Jarryd Hayne

Hayne is averaging 3.1 yards per carry, but nearly scored in Sunday's game against New York after Reggie Bush aggravated his calf injury.

The argument is along the same line as getting Ellington more involved. The 49ers' offense lacks playmakers, and Hayne might be one of the best playmakers on the roster. For now, no one knows how Hayne would handle an increased work load. Why not find out? Find a way to isolate him against a linebacker and let him use his quick feet.

Carlos Hyde missed practice this week with a foot injury, but appears likely to play Sunday against Baltimore. But with Bush doubtful to play, perhaps Hayne should be the first option to spell Hyde and not Mike Davis.

Give Hayne a series to try to develop a rhythm and see what happens. The worst-case scenario: ratings in Australia explode.


Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.

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