3 San Francisco 49ers who could be nice surprises in 2024

San Francisco 49ers safety Tayler Hawkins (41)
San Francisco 49ers safety Tayler Hawkins (41) / Michael Owens/GettyImages

The 49ers boast a ton of top-tier talent, but these ascending players could surprisingly impress this upcoming season.

In the second half of the 2023 season, then-rookie safety Ji'Ayir Brown went from a primary backup to a starting role after the San Francisco 49ers lost starting strong safety Talanoa Hufanga to a torn ACL just after the halfway point of the year.

Brown wasn't overwhelmed in the moment, finishing his inaugural NFL campaign with four passes broken up and two interceptions over five starts.

Those efforts were a nice surprise from the Niners' top pick from the 2023 NFL Draft.

Heading into 2024, Brown is expected to hold a much larger role, but it won't be as shocking if he continues his upward trajectory.

But there are other less-discussed players on San Francisco's roster who could turn into positive surprises this upcoming season.

Including these three.

No. 1: 49ers safety Tayler Hawkins

The uncertainty surrounding Hufanga's injury, plus the fact veteran safety Tashaun Gipson remains unsigned opens the door for someone else to claim a spot on the depth chart.

For the last two seasons, Taylor Hawkins has been close but not quite close enough despite a one-game promotion from the practice squad in 2023 for a game in which he recorded an interception.

Entering year three, Hawkins is certainly not someone the 49ers would want in a featured role. But, it does seem likely he'd be an excellent candidate for a backup spot behind Brown, Hufanga and George Odum, assuming the team makes no more significant transactions here.

Those two years of development on the practice squad could ultimately culminate in Hawkins being both a player to watch in 2024 and someone who may potentially make the most of his opportunities.

No. 2: 49ers edge Yetur Gross-Matos

While the Niners' big-ticket free-agent pickup in 2024 was that of edge Leonard Floyd, a less-discussed transaction was the grabbing of former Carolina Panthers edge Yetur Gross-Matos.

Floyd is going to be the every-down player opposite All-Pro Nick Bosa, yes. Gross-Matos, who underwhelmed in Carolina with just 13 sacks over four years after being selected early in Round 2 of the 2020 draft, gets a fresh start in San Francisco under the tutelage of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.

For those who aren't aware, Kocurek has a reputation for turning castoff defensive linemen into quality players.

Gross-Matos isn't going to turn into a 10-sack player in all likelihood. But it wouldn't be shocking if he winds up netting six or seven sacks over the course of the year in a rotational role.

No. 3: 49ers tight end Brayden Willis

The 49ers made two tight end investments in the 2023 NFL Draft: Alabama's Cameron Latu and Oklahoma's Brayden Willis.

Latu struggled in training camp and in the preseason before redshirting his rookie season with an injury, and there doesn't appear to be a lot of hope for him with regard to a bounce-back campaign.

Willis, meanwhile, could potentially be a player to watch.

The Niners' depth chart at tight end behind All-Pro George Kittle thinned out this offseason after Charlie Woerner departed via free agency and with Ross Dwelley unsigned. While it's possible San Francisco adds another tight end (or two) via this year's draft, right now, Willis is poised to be the primary beneficiary of the revamped roster.

It's possible Willis turns into that quality TE2 San Francisco has sought to pair with Kittle for years now.

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