49ers roster: 5 sleepers to watch as breakout stars in 2021

Jeff Wilson #30 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Jeff Wilson #30 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /
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Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) runs by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Jordan Willis (78) Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers should be hoping these five less-known players can break out in a major way in 2021, giving the roster some notable boosts.

Taking a short break from the San Francisco 49ers‘ never-ending grind and analysis heading up to the 2021 NFL Draft in a matter of days, why not shift some focus and look at some on-roster players who could wind up making a bigger name for themselves this upcoming season?

Specifically, let’s evaluate some under-the-radar players who could end up breaking out in 2021.

Last year provided something of an example for this. Case in point, journeyman defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, now with the Seattle Seahawks after signing in free agency, was on the roster bubble heading towards Week 1 yet ended up leading the Niners with 8.5 sacks. Few likely predicted that happening, yet it was a good story for Hyder and his career, culminating with him cashing in with the Seahawks during the offseason.

There are some other players, too, who could have a similar breakout-type campaign this year, provided the context is correct and those players take whatever steps necessary to make an impact bigger than what might have been initially anticipated.

Here are five to keep an eye on this season.

49ers Sleeper No. 5: EDGE Jordan Willis

Hyder managed to set a career-high for himself in sack production largely because of the injury attrition San Francisco suffered along its defensive line last year.

But another minor beneficiary was EDGE Jordan Willis, who was acquired from the New York Jets in the middle of 2020.

Willis, the Cincinnati Bengals’ third-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft, had the measurables to be a quality pass-rusher at the NFL level — a 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame with a 4.53 40-yard time at his NFL Scouting Combine — but never put it all together with Cincy, registering just two sacks in two years there before heading to New York off waivers.

So it’s not bad at all he managed 2.5 sacks over just 183 defensive snaps with the 49ers in seven games played.

Even with Willis in tow for the latter half of last season, the Niners D-line was still awfully slow. This offseason, which included retaining Willis, San Francisco has emphasized speed in an attempt to get the overall sack totals back up closer to the whopping 48 it enjoyed in 2019.

Willis has that attribute to his name.

True, he won’t be a featured pass-rusher. At least not with EDGE Nick Bosa back from an ACL tear and fellow pass-rusher Samson Ebukam in the fray. But some quality reps as a depth piece over a full year could mean the soon-to-be 26-year-old Willis could have himself a career-best year as a key rotational piece.