This 2024 rookie will be the 49ers' unsung hero this season

The 49ers put the finishing touches on their draft class Saturday. Here's why one of the players selected on Day 3 might just be the difference-maker they need.
Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2)
Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) / Ronald Cortes/GettyImages

Whenever a team enters the NFL Draft, there is a fine line to be walked between helping the team right now and focusing on future needs.

For the San Francisco 49ers, who were a couple of plays away from winning the long-awaited sixth Super Bowl, this is especially true.

With quarterback Brock Purdy's inevitable contract extension looming over the horizon, the Niners are nearing the end of their Super Bowl window with this core of players.

They selected eight players in the 2024 NFL Draft, a combination of future focus and present need.

But one of the players selected with an eye to the future may end up being the unsung hero for San Francisco this upcoming season.

Here's why wide receiver Jacob Cowing, one of the 49ers' fourth-round selections, may end up changing the Niners' fortunes.

Speed, speed, and more speed

The 49ers, as an offense, lack the top-end speed typically associated with octane offenses. Make no mistake the Niners can run past teams if necessary, but they do not have the type of player to force a cornerback to back off a receiver and give available interior space.

Enter Cowing.

Cowing may be the fastest player on the 49ers roster right now after being drafted, and for a team that works best when they have space to get the ball to their playmakers, that type of skill is immensely valuable. Fellow 49ers wideout Danny Gray has the same game-breaking speed, but injuries and ineffectiveness have made it difficult for him to get onto the field.

Now, Cowing can add that extra element.

The 49ers do not need Cowing to be a bonafide WR1 in the NFL. They have Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and even fellow rookie Ricky Pearsall for that. What they need is someone who can give a spark to an offense, especially in games where the Niners are unable to gain any traction.

Cowing has the rare ability to change the game in one play because of how fast he is. The 49ers shuffled receivers throughout the entire season last year, typically reserving shot plays for now-Atlanta Falcons wideout Ray-Ray McCloud to limiited success.

The opportunities will now be there for the rookie receiver.

Putting 'special' back in special teams

The Niners have had special teams that range anywhere from mediocre to abysmal during the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch tenure. Much of that has to do with an impotent return game, one that oftentimes cost San Francisco more yards than it gained. McCloud was a serviceable returner, but he will be best remembered for muffing a punt in the Super Bowl, giving life back to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Here is another place where Cowing can contribute.

Despite his small stature, Cowing is willing to absorb a hit, and his return experience bodes well for a 49ers team looking for a returner now. With the new NFL rules about the kickoff game, players like Cowing with exceptional acceleration, along with straight-line speed, have become even more valuable.

There is a learning curve associated with playing wide receiver for San Francisco, one notoriously enforced by Shanahan. Not every player matches the high standard the 49ers' head coach upholds for receivers, and there is a long list of players who were unable to meet that bar.

But Cowing offers something unique with his speed, and that level of specialization might prove to be the difference for a 49ers team that needs just a couple more sparks from their roster to get over the hump.

Don't be surprised if Cowing makes a handful of big plays as the Niners strive to capture that elusive sixth Super Bowl.

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