The 2021 49ers don’t seem to be heading anywhere, so maybe it’s finally time to give the young players a chance to show what they can do on the field.
San Francisco 49ers fans don’t want to hear this just eight games into the season, but it’s become increasingly clear the 2021 season isn’t likely to be a successful one.
With nine games to go, including two against the high-flying Los Angeles Rams starting with this week on Monday Night Football, and three more cross-country road trips, two of which are 10 a.m. PT kickoffs, the odds don’t appear to be in San Francisco’s favor.
So, while the 49ers aren’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, there is little to suggest the remainder of the season will see a major uptick in wins for this iteration of the Niners.
With that in mind, it appears the time has come for head coach Kyle Shanahan to “bite the bullet” and start to give his young guys, especially those from the 2021 NFL Draft class, more chances to show what they can do. While Shanahan has been clear that playing guys simply for experience should only be done once the team has been eliminated, waiting is only going to prolong the maturation process into the next season.
That all starts, of course, with rookie quarterback Trey Lance, the presumed quarterback of the future and projected starter for 2022 once the clearly broken Jimmy Garoppolo experiment ends by no later than Jan. 10, 2022, when San Francisco’s 2021 campaign will officially come to an end.
Is there a chance Lance will benefit from not being thrown into the fire and playing immediately, given his limited experience as a starter in college along with the level he played at while leading the North Dakota State Bison football team?
But one look at Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love during his team’s Week 9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday will tell you that sitting doesn’t necessarily equate to learning.
Other NFL rookies are showing why 49ers must play Trey Lance
The flip side to Love’s situation is the current starting quarterbacks with the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New England Patriots: namely, rookies Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, and Mac Jones, respectively. While it hasn’t been all coming up roses for these first-year signal-callers, it’s easy to say each has shown flashes of what their respective franchises expected of them coming into the league.
Fields’ case is especially interesting in regards to Lance since Fields also didn’t begin the season as the Bears’ starter but has since taken over the job and is growing more and more into the role as he plays and gains experience.
Lance is eventually going to be the 49ers quarterback, so it stands to reason that the further apart this season falls, the better it’ll be for the rookie to take his lumps and use the reps to mature and grow as a player.
Yet Lance isn’t the only rookie who could use the field time.
49ers should extend playing time beyond just Trey Lance
It’s beyond safe to say the Niners’ experiment of signing veteran cornerbacks off the street — namely Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick — has been an abject failure. This was true even before Sunday’s embarrassing loss to the Arizona Cardinals, but Norman’s antics and Kirkpatrick’s inability to do even the simplest of tasks means it’s time to make a change.
The good news is that San Francisco drafted Ambry Thomas in the third round and Deommodore Lenior in the fifth round in the 2021 NFL Draft, so they have young cornerbacks waiting in the wings who could step in as either starters or immediate depth pieces if Norman and Kirkpatrick are jettisoned.
Whether the plan was for them to start as rookies or not, it’s pretty clear, given the current state of the 49ers’ cornerback room heading into 2022, they’ll be asked to be key contributors next season.
So why not grant them valuable opportunities to fail now when the stakes are lower, not next season when the pressure might be heavier?
This also goes for second-round pick offensive guard Aaron Banks out of Notre Dame and fifth-round pick tackle Jaylon Moore. The former has only suited up for one game and has yet to take a snap during his rookie campaign, while Moore started against the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks ago in place of Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams and performed admirably.
With right tackle Mike McGlinchey out for the season with a quad injury, Moore needs to be the starter in his stead. That much is clear.
But if Banks is truly closing in on incumbent starting right guard Dan Brunskill, then the long-term future of the position has to be taken into account at this juncture. The 49ers need to know, sooner rather than later, if Banks can be the starter at that position heading into 2022.
And finally, there’s the curious case of third-round pick Trey Sermon, the running back out of Ohio State whom the Niners moved up to snag. He reportedly had a slow training camp and then got beaten out by sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell, who has been excellent this season, for snaps.
With Raheem Mostert done for the season — and likely forever as a 49er — and JaMycal Hasty proving to be uninspiring as a second-string rusher, it’s time to create a two-headed monster out of the duo of Sermon and Mitchell.
Jeff Wilson is back, sure, but San Francisco knows what it has in the former undrafted free agent. And he suited up but didn’t play on Sunday in his first game back from offseason knee surgery while Sermon was a healthy scratch.
If that was the plan, why not run the rookie out there instead of the known quantity coming off a major surgery?
For all of these players, the case is the same: the 49ers drafted these guys to supplement the offense they were building around Lance. And while the plan was to slowly bring them along, as Garoppolo, Mostert, and injured cornerback Jason Verrett played key roles on a Super Bowl contender, that just hasn’t worked out.
So in order to avoid derailing 2022 before 2021 even ends, it is time for Shanahan to realize his mistakes and get these young guys some on-field action.
Otherwise, he risks another lost season after the debacle of 2020 and the surprising fall of 2021.