5 San Francisco 49ers who must make massive 2nd-year leap in 2024

San Francisco 49ers tight end Cameron Latu (81)
San Francisco 49ers tight end Cameron Latu (81) / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

The 49ers could end up relying heavily on these second-year pros who didn't make much of an impact in 2023.

The San Francisco 49ers like to draft players for needs a year in advance. In 2021, they used a second-round pick on left guard Aaron Banks, who didn't play much at all his rookie season but became a full-time starter in 2022.

Some may argue this was the kind of approach the Niners used in last April's 2024 draft, too.

But, what about San Francisco's 2023 draft class? Of the crop of players taken, only two -- safety Ji'Ayir Brown and kicker Jake Moody -- held roles of any substantial substance.

In order to prevent last year's draftees from largely being a class bust, the 49ers have to hope these five second-year pros end up making a notable leap toward being significant contributors over the course of 2024.

No. 1: Tight end Cameron Latu

Former Alabama tight end Cameron Latu was the third of the Niners' three Round 3 draft picks behind Brown and Moody (that's a lot of threes), yet Latu was easily the biggest disappointment.

Struggling massively in training camp, Latu suffered a knee injury during the preseason that resulted in him being shelved on injured reserve, essentially redshirting his rookie year, which was probably a blessing for his long-term roster chances.

San Francisco's tight end depth behind All-Pro George Kittle is awfully fluid, however, so Latu's opportunity to bounce back and emerge as a possible No. 2 option is certainly there.

If Latu fails to seize it, though, he'll be added to the growing list of third-round draft whiffs the 49ers have had in recent years.

No. 2: Tight end Brayden Willis

The Niners have often missed on early round picks but hit on late-round selections, meaning seventh-round draftee Brayden Willis might end up being a preferred tight end backup over Latu.

Simply due to Latu's injury, Willis did as much by seeing action in seven games his rookie season, contributing mostly on special teams.

Willis is much more of an H-back than a traditional tight end in the mold of Latu, which could give head coach Kyle Shanahan more flexibility with offensive deployment.

Again, understanding how open the backup tight end jobs are right now points toward Willis potentially being as high as TE2 behind Kittle or off the roster completely after training camp concludes.

No. 3: Cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.

An offseason injury cut into cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.'s training camp and preseason workouts, and that setback also meant he managed to appear in seven games and saw the bulk of his on-field action on special teams.

Now, San Francisco has plenty of corners on the roster, including returning veterans like Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas, and it also added veteran free agents in Isaac Yiadom and Rock Ya-Sin before using a second-round pick last April on Renardo Green.

Aside from Green, though, each of the other names are pending free agents in 2025, meaning a long-term cornerback solution is going to be needed.

Perhaps Luter winds up placing himself into strong consideration for such a role.

No. 4: Linebacker Dee Winters

Last February's Super Bowl resulted in star linebacker Dre Greenlaw suffering a torn Achilles that endangers his chances of being available in Week 1. In a corresponding free-agent move, the 49ers inked former Green Bay Packers All-Pro linebacker De'Vondre Campbell to pair alongside Fred Warner.

But there's still room for the strong-side (SAM) backer to be present on base-down formations.

The Niners have options, but perhaps one of the strongest who'd be in consideration is Dee Winters, who got into 15 regular-season games and served almost entirely on special teams.

San Francisco would prefer to see more from Winters this season, though, especially considering Greenlaw might not return at 100 percent anytime soon and with the fact both he and Campbell are signed only through the upcoming season.

No. 5: Defensive end Robert Beal Jr.

The 49ers hope to have a top one-two pass-rushing tandem with edges Nick Bosa and Leonard Floyd, supported by offseason free-agent pickup, Yetur Gross-Matos.

Third-year pro Drake Jackson is also in the mix, too. But after two underwhelming seasons, it wouldn't be surprising if he's relegated to the very back end of the depth chart if not off the roster altogether.

That points to a possibility of edge Robert Beal Jr. assuming a much bigger role as a pass-rush specialist in 2024.

Beal was limited to just four regular-season games in year one because of injury, but the 6-foot-4 and 250-pound defender has a high enough ceiling to emerge as a quality rotational pass-rusher, and there's never an overabundance of those.

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