© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Sunday was not a banner day for top picks of the San Francisco 49ers over the last two years. Here’s a recap of what their involvement, or lack thereof, looked like:
Round 1, Pick 14: DT Javon Kinlaw – inactive, knee
Round 1, Pick 25: WR Brandon Aiyuk – very few snaps, took one punt (Shanahan’s explanation below)
Round 1, Pick 3: QB Trey Lance – 1st passing TD for five yard, 3 rush attempts, 2 yards
Round 2, Pick 48: RG Aaron Banks – healthy scratch
Round 3, Pick 88: RB Trey Sermon – healthy scratch (Shanahan’s explanation below)
Round 3, Pick 102: CB Ambry Thomas – performed pretty dreadfully, both as a kick returner and corner. Average starting field position at the 21.5-yard line on kickoffs, got burned multiple times in coverage
Javon Kinlaw’s knee continues to be a point of concern, which is not ideal for a man who’s listed at 6’5″, 319 pounds, and may be heavier than that. Aiyuk was effectively benched for Trent Sherfield on Sunday, though had some health and stamina concerns coming back from a hamstring injury; he was still allowed to return a punt in spite of that. Trey Lance isn’t ready to be a starter yet, but actually had the least concerning day out of any of the above players listed, despite the iffiness of the run plays he ran. Aaron Banks isn’t close to competing for the starting right guard job. Trey Sermon apparently is the fourth-best running back on the active roster. And Ambry Thomas has a real Dante Pettis vibe; while it’s way too early to give a complete judgment on a player, he does not look like a competent NFL player.
The real question marks on Sunday were Aiyuk and Sermon.
How was Aiyuk, who caught 60 passes for 748 yards and 5 touchdowns, almost completely uninvolved in the 49ers’ offense, and not targeted once?
According to Shanahan, it’s a two-fold explanation. Aiyuk practiced in full this week, but came in still nursing a hamstring injury which sidelined him the week prior. The other reason is perhaps more concerning; Shanahan indicated that Trent Sherfield may have simply outplayed Aiyuk — who had some issues with drops — in training camp.
“Aiyuk’s only been back for a week after he tweaked his hamstring, which we want to be smart with that and also Trent Sherfield’s earned the right to be out there more,” Shanahan said. “Aiyuk hadn’t gone the last 10 days you know with his hamstring and Sherfield was pushing him as it was.”
Shanahan said he had planned to get Aiyuk in “a lot,” but that the 49ers were scoring so fast in the first half, and had the opposite problem in the second half, that Aiyuk played “less than expected.”
It sounds as if Aiyuk’s snaps should increase next week, and there’s always the chance that Shanahan was using this as a point of motivation for Aiyuk. He’s no stranger to employing tough love as a motivation technique especially with his wide receivers, and it doesn’t seem viable or sensible to keep Aiyuk as an onlooker for any extended period of time.
The healthy absence of Trey Sermon was far more surprising, though it’s fair to say he had the least consistent camp of any of the 49ers’ running backs. The gap-bursting speed required from a zone-heavy offense was much more palpable from Raheem Mostert, Elijah Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty, but you expected, given that Sermon was repped as the No. 2 back and drafted in the third round, that the 49ers would employ him as their No. 2.
Shanahan didn’t get into detail on why Sermon didn’t play, but indicated the team felt more comfortable with Mostert, Mitchell and Hasty.
“We only dress three backs,” Shanahan said. “I always try to do four, but those were the three after going through training camp and stuff that we felt were the three we were gonna go with.”
So, what should we make of all this? Are the 49ers whiffing on their early-round picks? Is it time to panic?
Not quite. Week 1 is too early to panic over anything. That said, there is real reason to have some reservations about some of these selections. The 49ers were desperate for a corner, and went for Aaron Banks first, before then selecting Thomas.
One player the 49ers wanted, and rated higher than Thomas, was Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, who picked off Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Another option at corner before trading back from 43 to then select Banks at 48 was Asante Samuel Jr., who went 47th overall. General manager John Lynch indicated they likely wouldn’t have selected Samuel Jr. anyway, but he started for the Los Angeles Chargers on the outside in a 20-16 win today.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 12, 2021
Thomas, meanwhile, looks tentative and legitimately scared when reaching the point of contact as a returner and as a tackler. Luckily, for the 49ers, they also drafted Deommodore Lenoir in the fifth round, who looks like a bona fide steal.
49ers' CB Deommodore Lenoir as a nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats:
55 coverage snaps, 4 targets, 1 reception, 3 yards allowed.
Numbers-wise that's quite the debut for the 5th-round rookie.
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 12, 2021
But when you lose Jason Verrett likely for the season, and Emmanuel Moseley is still out, you’re now forced to rely on Lenoir and Dontae Johnson, or Josh Norman — whenever he’s ready — rather than having another capable rookie corner. Instead you have one who looks lost, plus an interior offensive lineman who’s so far behind the ball that you don’t feel comfortable having him active for game day.
This isn’t intended to completely excoriate the 49ers’ draft class. They managed to get Lenoir in the fifth round (along with Talanoa Hufanga) and Elijah Mitchell in the sixth round, both of whom seem better than their third-round counterparts, at least right now.
But when you’re getting next to no utility from your top six draft picks over the last two seasons, that’s a problem. And when you believe you’re a Super Bowl team and can’t get productivity from your rookies at key positions, you’re now forced into either a mid-season trade using draft capital which ha been hamstrung by the rookie quarterback you drafted — who might be incredible, but isn’t ready to start yet — or signing a veteran like Richard Sherman.
It’s not time to panic, but the 49ers will have to pay in one way or another for not drafting players who are ready to play right now.