Ahead of their time
The 49ers must have done a fine piece of work when they went about assembling a fresh collection of talents and personalities as their draft class of 2006. They must have, because they're getting congratulated for that undertaking by those very rookies themselves. "Coach Nolan and Dr. York and the rest of the staff, in selecting this rookie class, they did a great job of getting the rookies they wanted," said first-round selection Manny Lawson, one of three rookies who've been regular starters since the beginning of the season. "They got guys that wanted to come here and make a change, guys that are competitive who wanted to come here and win." Said Melvin Oliver, a sixth-round surprise who also has started from Day 1: "We had a very good class that we brought in. They did a real good job of scouting talent and mature guys that could come in and learn the system and contribute right away." Young, precocious rookies tend to talk like that. But San Francisco's 2006 draft class also has played like that this season, making instrumental contributions in the 49ers' gradual climb to respectability. And you don't have to just take their word for it. "They've added depth, they've added a bright future, and a little bit of impact on this year," coach Mike Nolan said in accurately summarizing what the rookies have brought this year to a rebuilding team in transition. "In a perfect world, I'd say boy, they've had a huge impact this year on the team," Nolan continued. "They have from a playing standpoint, if you look at all of them as far as playing. But as far as making a difference … They're going to be good. Right now, they're just pups out there doing some things." And for the most part, doing them well. As the 49ers head into the final two games of their season, their rookie class has played its part in lifting the team to respectability and keeping it on the edge of playoff contention in the NFC West. Lawson and Oliver both have played key roles in San Francisco's defensive turnaround from a unit that ranked last in the NFL in 2005. Vernon Davis - the team's prized top pick as the No. 6 overall selection in the draft - also has come on strong and exhibited his impact potential at tight end in December after missing six games with a broken leg. Davis, in particular, has provided the 49ers with a physical talent who possesses phenomenal potential. Already supremely confident in his ability, and feeling it's his destiny to become an impact player, Davis - who had a different celebration at the ready after each of his first three touchdown catches this year, including one that drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty - says the rookie class of which he's the self-appointed ringleader also brings a certain attitude to the team. "It's brought some energy and swagger and things like that," Davis said. "I like the way everyone carries themselves. We've got some good character and good people, man. That we do have here." While Davis already exudes the assured, brazen personality of a superstar in the making, it belies the maturity that he brings in several areas. That's a characteristic shared by several of the rookies, who act and play more like veterans that have been around for a while rather than novices feeling their way around the NFL for the first time. "We've just got a lot of mature guys in this draft class," Oliver said. "In talking to other players on other teams, we're a lot more mature than a lot of guys coming in. As a rookie class as a whole, we want to learn and do the right things and we're dedicated to what we're trying to do. I think we've done a good job of coming in and being dedicated to the system and what coach Nolan is trying to do." Said fourth-rounder Michael Robinson, "We're all pretty different as far as individual personalities, but at the same time, I think we're a little bit more mature than usual rookies. I think that really helps this team a lot, because that enables them to do a lot more things with us. We've all had big roles in college and big-time situations. It's just one of those things they happened to get some guys who have performed well under pressure before, and it's carrying over to the NFL." Robinson has carved his niche as a special teams standout while giving the 49ers a powerful short-yardage rusher as tailback Frank Gore's backup. The player picked ahead of Robinson, third-rounder Brandon Williams, has given the 49ers a sure set of hands as a kick returner who started breaking some returns near the end of the season. All nine 2006 draft picks made the 49ers' final roster. Fifth-rounder Paryls Haralson was challenging for a starting position at linebacker before injuries derailed his rookie season and placed him on injured reserve. Sixth-rounder Delanie Walker also has been set back by injuries but has shown explosive potential at tight end. Sixth-rounder Marcus Hudson has been a special teams standout whom the 49ers are grooming for a possible starting role in the secondary. The team's final pick - seventh-rounder Vickiel Vaughn - missed the season with a hand injury but will get another look at safety next season. "Vernon got hurt, but obviously, he's a guy that's got a great future," Nolan said. "He's going to be a really good player. Manny is going to be a very good player. I think Manny has contributed a little more than any of them, from a playing standpoint. Brandon Williams is going to be a good return guy. Michael Robinson is going to be a very solid player. "Parys Haralson, Marcus Hudson, Melvin Oliver … All of those guys, if nothing else, in the group, I feel comfortable to say that two of them will be above average NFL players throughout their careers. They'll just keep getting better. I think the others will all be solid guys. That says a lot, because if you can get solid guys on the second day (of the draft), like a Parys Haralson, Melvin Oliver, Marcus Hudson and Michael Robinson, and those guys stick with you, that's a pretty damn good class." Which is what the Draft Class of 2006 already is starting to look like before its first NFL season is even over. "I think we bring a lot of competitiveness to the 49ers organization," Lawson said. "From all of us coming in and playing as much as we've been playing, being able to do what we're able to do now, guys starting on offense and defense and playing special teams, we're already getting experience that most rookies won't have next year. So if you want to look at next year, we're already way ahead of the game."
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