© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — All of the 49ers’ top three draft picks were expected to play important roles in their rookie seasons, but not under recent circumstances.
Injuries carved newfound opportunities for Mike McGlinchey, Dante Pettis, and Fred Warner in San Francisco’s 24-16 loss at Minnesota Sunday. All three players stepped up and contributed in their NFL debuts, which opposed one of the league’s most talented squads.
McGlinchey, the No. 9 overall pick in April’s draft, started the game at right tackle. He did not end there.
Starting right guard Mike Person exited the game with a foot strain in the second quarter. Joshua Garnett replaced him and played just 14 snaps before he, too, suffered a foot injury. He was carted off the field, indicating a potentially serious injury, but Kyle Shanahan said Monday that Garnett suffered a dislocated toe. Both he and Person will be evaluated later this week, though neither injury is expected to have long-term implications.
That’s good news for McGlinchey, who was moved to right guard Sunday for the first time in his life.
Welcome to the NFL.
This wasn’t what Shanahan had in mind when he used his first-round pick on the Notre Dame tackle, but the 49ers head coach liked what he saw.
“I was so impressed with McGlinchey,” Shanahan said Monday. “By no means did he play perfect, but we were in a situation I haven’t been in too much in my career. He was in a situation he has never been in in his career, going back to Pop Warner or whatever league he played in when he was younger.”
McGlinchey faced arguably the NFL’s staunchest front-seven Sunday, only to compound his professional debut. The Vikings pressured the 49ers offensive line all game long, producing three sacks and regularly forcing Jimmy Garoppolo out of the pocket.
McGlinchey played well, but Shanahan felt the rookie’s willingness to play a new position was the most impressive part of his debut.
“Losing all those guys and having to throw someone in at guard, it was just neat to see how (McGlinchey) reacted to it on the sideline,” Shanahan said. “It was his first NFL game, he has never played guard, and you could see there was nothing about him that was scared to try it. He knew he had to do it and didn’t flinch at all.”
Pettis, San Francisco’s second-round pick, did not start, but he replaced Marquise Goodwin when he suffered a deep thigh bruise on the 49ers’ third offensive drive, sidelining him for the rest of the game.
Pettis first NFL catch was a touchdown, which came on a broken play.
Big-time play here from Jimmy G. Dante Pettis' first NFL catch is a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/UarFPnu64Z
— Brad Almquist (@bradalmquist13) September 9, 2018
Pettis reached high, snagged the ball, and dragged both of his feet to secure the touchdown. It was a massive score in a game that was in danger of escaping the 49ers in the third quarter.
Pettis impressed throughout training camp and the preseason with his fluidity and crisp route-running. His strides are long, but he uses choppy steps to break into his route, which often works to his advantage. He regularly embarrassed defenders throughout the preseason because his step cadence was so unpredictable. That transferred into his NFL debut.
Two drives after Pettis’ touchdown catch, he gained separation on Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes, Garoppolo hit Pettis in stride, and he turned upfield for a 39-yard gain.
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 10, 2018
Pettis finished with two receptions on five targets for 61 yards. He nearly hauled in a 43-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, but it was broken up in the end zone. Pettis also drew a pass interference penalty on San Francisco’s opening scoring drive. He logged 48 snaps altogether, the second-most of any 49ers receiver.
“Dante did a real good job,” Shanahan said. “A lot was thrown on his plate once Marquise got hurt, and he wasn’t perfect, had some mistakes and stuff, which does hurt, and you got to overcome them, but it was good that his first game he saw all the things that could happen. I think it will make him that much better next week, that much more prepared.”
One injury to a starting receiver drastically changes roles and substitutions. Pettis normally backs up Goodwin at the X spot in Shanahan’s offense, though Pettis cycles in at the Z (opposite wide spot) and F (slot) positions on select plays. Goodwin’s injury forced slot receiver Trent Taylor to occasionally move out wide to the X spot, which he typically does not do.
“All of that stuff becomes a mess,” Shanahan said. “That’s why it is such a big deal of who your five (receivers) up are on game day.”
The rookie standout who knew what his day entailed prior to kickoff was Fred Warner, who produced a historical NFL debut.
The 49ers’ third-round pick logged 12 tackles, 11 of which were solo, one forced fumble, a quarterback hit, and one pass defended in Sunday’s loss. He was everywhere, erasing running lanes and tracking down pass-catchers.
Warner became the first 49ers player to amass at least 10 tackles, a forced fumble, and one pass defended in a game since NaVorro Bowman did so against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 29, 2013.
Warner’s debut, too, was enabled with a teammate’s injury. Malcolm Smith, who plays the same middle linebacker spot as Warner, missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring issue. Reuben Foster’s suspension would have likely still carved a role for Warner, but it’s unlikely he would have played every defensive snap like he did.
Warner proved he belongs in the lineup moving forward, regardless of Smith’s Week 2 availability.
“The way (Warner) played yesterday,” Shanahan said, “it would be hard to get that guy off the field. He did a hell of a job yesterday in his first game.”
Some of the NFL’s most beloved folk tales involve players stepping into the spotlight as their competition suffers an injury. That kind of hyperbole may not apply to the debuts of San Francisco’s top three draft picks, but each player showed promise and willingness to do whatever was asked when dysfunction arose.
As Shanahan says, part of football is being ready when its odd, unexpected turns emerge.
“You study a game-plan, but in the NFL, that’s not all you’re responsible for,” Shanahan said. “When you only get a certain amount up on game day, something is going to happen, and you’re going to have go play a position you didn’t get reps at all week. You can say it’s fair or unfair, that’s just what the NFL is, and you got to be prepared for that.”