The Rookie Review
VERNON DAVIS (first round, sixth player selected overall): After his workout numbers at the NFL Combine, which were some of the best ever recorded for a tight end prospect, Davis came into the NFL with a lot of hype, and he certainly hasn't disappointed anyone. In fact, he has been a much more complete player than anybody expected at this stage, contributing to San Francisco's offense as much as a blocker as a receiver before showing some of his all-world ability in the latter category over the past few weeks. That happened after Davis came back strong from a broken leg that forced him to miss six games in October and early November and perhaps prevented him from being a big contributor to the offense over the course of the entire season. Davis has made an impact from the beginning - he finished San Francisco's first offensive possession of the season in the opener at Arizona by catching a short pass from quarterback Alex Smith in the left flat, breaking a tackle near the line of scrimmage, then bursting down the sideline to out-run defenders and complete a 31-yard jaunt into the end zone with the first reception of his NFL career. Davis' second touchdown reception three months later was another tackle-breaking extravaganza during which he showed off his after-burners at the finish of a 52-yard scoring play against Green Bay in Week 14. Davis added another touchdown reception in Week 15 as the rookie has started becoming a force in the passing lanes on a weekly basis in December. Davis was a force as a run blocker from the beginning of the season, a surprising development to many who thought that was a weakness in his game before he entered the NFL. Davis has shown the work ethic and commitment needed to take his gifted ability to the next level, and the only real disappointment of his rookie season was the broken right fibula Davis suffered in Week 3 against Philadelphia. The 49ers brought him back slowly from that injury, but by the start of December, Davis was back in the flow playing virtually every offensive snap and asserting himself as one of San Francisco's top young players. He enters this week's game against the Arizona Cardinals fifth on the team with 13 receptions for 158 yards, and his three touchdown catches are tied for the team lead with wideouts Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant. MANNY LAWSON (first round, 22nd overall): It has been an interesting debut NFL season for Lawson, who has made a sometimes difficult but ultimately successful transition to outside linebacker after playing defensive end at North Carolina State, where he established himself as one of the nation's premier pass rushers. Many expected Lawson to immediately become one of San Francisco's top edge rushers, but the 49ers have opted to use him in other ways as the season progressed, occasionally giving him a rest on third downs to keep him fresh during base defensive downs. After recording two sacks in Week 2 and earning NFL Rookie of the Week honors after that performance, Lawson didn't record another sack until Week 15 - a sackless drought of almost three months. But he has made an impact in several other areas, and the 49ers say Lawson still will become a premier edge rusher as he continues to develop that aspect of his game at the NFL level. Lawson has been good in pursuit while chasing down tackles from sideline to sideline, working best in open space where he can put his superior speed to optimum use. Lawson gave a vivid example of his athleticism and versatility when he dropped into pass coverage and made a leaping interception along the sideline against St. Louis in Week 12. He also has been around the football in other ways, leading the team with two fumble recoveries and getting into the passing lanes for three passes defensed. Last but not least, Lawson also has made his presence felt on special teams, where he used his wide wingspan to block a punt in Week 5 against Oakland, a play that turned that game in San Francisco's favor. Lawson is tied for third on the team in sacks and is eighth with 58 tackles. "He's a playmaker," coach Mike Nolan said. "You want him running to the ball - just get to the backside and run to the ball." BRANDON WILLIAMS (third round, 84th overall): The diminutive receiver/return specialist has provided the sure hands in the return game that the 49ers expected when they took the Wisconsin product with their third pick. That's the best thing that Williams has brought to the 49ers as a rookie, shoring up an area that was a weakness in 2005. Williams has not yet provided an explosive threat bringing back kickoffs or punts, but he has shown signs of moving in that direction toward the end of the season as he became more comfortable in the role. Williams had a 25-yard punt return and a 44-yard kickoff return in Week 14 against Green Bay as he began to come into his own as a returner. The all-time leading receiver in Wisconsin history, the 49ers also see Williams becoming an effective slot receiver in the future, though he seldom has been used in that role this season. Williams has a 7.2 average on his 17 punt returns this season (with 11 fair catches), and a 23.8 average on 16 kickoff returns. MICHAEL ROBINSON (fourth round, 100th overall): Robinson was impressive running the football in the preseason, showing power between the tackles and an ability to run over defenders to earn a backup role behind Frank Gore at tailback entering the season. When Gore experienced fumbling problems in the early going, Robinson was handed a role as San Francisco's short-yardage back, and he had two one-yard power-drives into the end zone in Week 3 against Philadelphia, one of which left Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins dazed with a concussion. Robinson also has displayed fine ability as a receiver out of the backfield. He quickly asserted himself as a mainstay on special teams, where he has been one of the leading tacklers on San Francisco's coverage units all season and also contributed a 33-yard run on a fake punt in Week 15 at Seattle, a play that helped spark the 49ers to an upset victory over the defending NFC champions. Robinson is third on the team in rushing behind Gore and quarterback Alex Smith with 116 yards on 38 carries, and he also has seven receptions for 28 yards. The rookie ranks third on the team in special teams tackles with 14 stops on those units. PARYS HARALSON (fifth round, 140th overall): There was a time during training camp in August when Haralson looked like San Francisco's most impressive rookie - bar none. He immediately challenged for a starting position at outside linebacker with his daily display of aggression, intensity and nonstop motor. Haralson was earning himself playing time and, at the very least, a contributing role in San Francisco's defense until a foot injury thwarted his progress early in the preseason and forced him to miss the first game of the regular season. Haralson slowly worked his way back into the lineup after that, and his playing time was increasing in a situational role before his season came to an abrupt halt in Week 9 against Minnesota, when he tore a pectoral muscle that required season-ending surgery. Haralson finished his rookie season with just five tackles, but the 49ers remain high on what he can bring to the team in the future. "I was very pleased with him," Nolan said. "He's got really good pass rush ability. I'm very excited about that. Whatever you do (as a 4-3 or 3-4 defense), he can be a third-down pass rusher. On first and second down, there's a place for that guy as well. Whatever it is, he's in our plans as far as the future goes. I think he could be a very good 3-4 outside linebacker. It's very disappointing he got injured, because he was just starting to get involved." DELANIE WALKER (sixth round, 175th overall): Walker was another young star of the summer, making an immediate impact in San Francisco's preseason opener against Chicago, when the receiver-turned-tight end had a 38-yard kickoff return, gained 16 yards on a reverse and caught five passes for 54 yards. He was ticketed for situational use as an offensive weapon the 49ers would try to get the ball to on occasion before he suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason finale that kept him out of the first four games and hampered his progress. Wearing a shoulder harness, Walker saw minimal playing time and was inactive for two November games before getting his first NFL start in Week 13 at New Orleans. He made his first two NFL receptions the next week against Green Bay, displaying his big-play potential with a 29-yard catch-and-run. He's a promising, exciting player the 49ers want to work into their offensive scheme as the team moves forward. Besides his two receptions this season, Walker had a make-them-miss 25-yard return of a short kickoff in Week 5 against Oakland. MARCUS HUDSON (sixth round, 192nd overall): The versatile rookie has gotten a look at both cornerback and safety, and the 49ers are excited about his potential to become a future starter in their secondary. Hudson has seen minimal time in a backup role at cornerback this season, but has been on the field enough to make a few plays and has three tackles, one pass defensed and one recovered fumble. He also has been one of San Francisco's top performers on special teams and appears to have good ball instincts, which he displayed during the preseason when he led the 49ers with two interceptions. Hudson is fifth on the team with 11 special teams tackles and also recovered an onside kick in the season opener. "He's done an outstanding job in practice," Nolan said. "He challenges people very well in practice, and I've been very pleased with that. I'm excited to see in the long run how far Marcus can go. In the long run, it wouldn't surprise me if he became a starting corner in the league at some point. I think that there's that possibility because he's got the mental makeup that you need, along with the physical tools, but you've got to get on the field and make it happen." MELVIN OLIVER (sixth round, 197th overall): When the 49ers saw this guy still available near the end of the sixth round, they traded two seventh-round draft picks to move up and grab him. It proved to be one of San Francisco's best moves of draft weekend, or perhaps one of the best moves of any team, for that matter. Oliver has been a force along the defensive line from the get-go - particularly against the run - and his emergence during the preseason persuaded the 49ers to switch from their preferred 3-4 defensive set to a 4-3 base scheme to get Oliver onto the field at defensive end. Oliver has played consistently well throughout the season and has come up with his share of big plays, including his stop of Seattle running back Shaun Alexander for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the San Francisco 27-yard line in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' December visit to Seattle. That stop allowed the 49ers to take control of the game in an upset victory. But the highlight of Oliver's rookie season came much earlier in Week 5, when he had the wits to pick up a backward lateral and return it 12 yards for a touchdown to spark a 34-20 comeback victory over Oakland. In the process, Oliver became the first rookie defensive lineman ever to score a touchdown for the 49ers. Oliver has 40 tackles - 29 of them solo - on tackle for a loss and two quarterback pressures on the season. VICKIEL VAUGHN (seventh round, 254th overall): Vaughn is the only player among San Francisco's nine draft picks who has not made a contribution to the 49ers this season, but he has a good excuse. After showing the 49ers some nice things during the summer, Vaughn suffered a hand injury at the end of the preseason that required surgery and placed him on the team's injured reserve list before the season began. Vaughn was in hot competition to win a roster berth in the secondary at the time of his injury, but instead he got another year to learn San Francisco's system and the intricacies of the NFL from a developmental vantage point, which should improve his chances of making the team in 2007.
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