Better to be better in 2022


The 49ers did something rare in their 33-22 Halloween victory in Chicago.

He wasn’t beating the mediocre Bears. Rather, he wasn’t playing any of their first six rookie draft picks, all of whom were healthy and available, for a single shot on offense or defense.

“We had guys there who were starters,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said when asked a week later about the draft class’ lack of impact. “We weren’t (editorial) … to replace the starter.”

Shanahan’s response was charitable, but it rang true – in some cases. For example, 21-year-old quarterback Trey Lance was drafted third overall on the belief that he probably wouldn’t start until his second season.

Lance headlined the oft-criticized draft class which, much like the 49ers, looked better at the end of the season. How will it be perceived in a year? It will depend on how Lance and others fare when expectations are higher than they were in 2021.

A look player by player:

First Round (#3): QB Trey Lance

Statistics: 41 of 71, 603 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs, 97.3 passer rating; 38 carries, 168 yards, TD (two starts, 178 snaps).

Evaluation: One way to spin things up is that Lance’s stats from his two starts would translate to a total of 4,769 passing and rushing yards over a 17-game season! Another way: The 49ers scored a season-low 10 points in Lance’s first start, a road loss in Arizona … and they led the miserable Texans to four wins, at home, by three points with 10 minutes left in a 23-7 victory in his final start (cue the sad trombone music).

Lance showed his big-play ability. He had two of the 49ers’ nine completions for 40+ yards despite being 370 fewer passes than Jimmy Garoppolo. But Lance needs to improve on his accuracy — his 57.7 percent completion percentage ranked 47th among 53 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts.

Shanahan noted earlier this month that Lance will be spending time with QB coach John Beck in Huntington Beach for the second year in a row.

Role 2022: Lance will almost certainly be the starter after a redshirt season reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes’ rookie year in 2017. The 49ers will be thrilled if Lance’s 2022 season even comes close to Mahomes’ first year as a starter. Kansas City in which he was the 2018 NFL MVP.

Second Round (No. 48): G Aaron Banks

Statistics: Nine games, five attacking snaps, 44 special teams snaps

Evaluation: Shanahan argued otherwise, but the 49ers expected the Notre Dame All-American to replace right guard Daniel Brunskill in the starting lineup as a rookie. Shanahan’s position was unsurprising, but teams don’t invest a top-50 pick in a guard and expect them to sit out.

It didn’t help that Banks, whose five snaps came at the wrong time, was sidelined for several weeks with a shoulder injury he suffered in the opener of the pre-season.

The 49ers raised eyebrows when they drafted Banks because he was bigger (338 pounds at least in Senior Bowl of the year) than the inside linemen they preferred for their zone blocking programs that require athleticism. Banks lost weight before training camp, but wasn’t impressive in summer practices before his injury.

In November, Shanahan said it had taken time for Banks to get into “football shape” and that his pass blocking lagged behind his run blocking ability.

“When we feel Aaron Banks is ready to go and can be more consistent than Brunskill, and that’s the way to go, we will,” Shanahan said. “We obviously don’t feel that yet.”

Role 2022: After Banks has an offseason to continue streamlining his frame, it’s time to officially raise the alarm if he doesn’t start his second season.

Round three (#88): RB Trey Sermon

Statistics: 41 carries, 167 yards, TD (nine games, two starts, 107 offensive snaps)

Evaluation: The 49ers coveted Sermon — they traded 14 spots to nab him — before Shanahan subsequently showed a strong aversion to playing him.

Sermon was a healthy scratch for two games and had less than two runs in six of the nine games he appeared in (he missed the last five with a knee injury). He made his two starts early in the season when injuries left third back JaMycal Hasty as the only other viable backfield option.

Sermon spoke in October about trying to master the timing of the 49ers’ rushing out-of-area attack. He indicated that he overthought too many runs, which prevented him from hitting the holes aggressively.

Role 2022: Sermon’s disappointing season was partly clouded because Elijah Mitchell and, later, Deebo Samuel skillfully filled the void left by Raheem Mostert’s season-ending injury in Week 1. But the 49ers will want Sermon shares the backfield load in 2022 after Mitchell and Samuel soaked up a lot of punishment.

Third round (n°102): CB Ambry Thomas

Statistics: 23 tackles, five breakups, INT (12 games, five starts, 333 defensive snaps)

Evaluation: Even Shanahan admitted he was stunned by Thomas’ transformation. After playing 20 snaps in the first 12 games – and looking lost – Thomas became the starter in early December and showed potential for lockdown.

Secondary coach Cory Undlin said the 49ers were thrilled when Thomas was available in the third round. But it took Thomas a while to adjust to the NFL, in part because he opted out of his final season at Michigan and came in with a spindly frame (he’s listed at 6 feet and 190 pounds) that still needs some bulk.

Role 2022: Thomas enters the offseason as a favorite to start at left cornerback.

Fifth Round (No. 155): OT Jaylon Moore

Statistics: Seven games, three starts, 145 offensive shots

Evaluation: The 49ers planned to make Moore, an offensive tackle in college, a guard in the NFL. But that changed after swing tackle Justin Skule tore his ACL in June.

Moore, who had a strong training camp, was expected to take over at right tackle following Mike McGlinchey’s loss for the season in November. However, he only lasted six quarters before being benched in favor of Tom Compton.

The 49ers didn’t even turn to Moore when All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams was sidelined in Week 18. Instead, they started Colton McKivitz, who hadn’t played a wink in their first 16 games.

Role 2022: It wouldn’t be a surprise if Moore officially moves to guard next season and serves as inside depth.

Fifth lap (n°172): CB Deommodore Lenoir

Statistics: 17 tackles, two pass breakups, no INT (13 games, two starts, 237 defensive snaps)

Evaluation: Lenoir showed promise when he started the first two games, then had crushing cover late in the loss to the Packers in Week 3 – and was rarely seen again. He’s made just 38 defensive snaps in the last 14 games.

Role 2022: Lenoir has versatility – he spent time playing nickel corner, a difficult position for rookies to learn. He could serve as the best replacement there next season.

Fifth round (n°180): S Talanoa Hufanga

Statistics: 32 tackles, two pass breakups, no INT (15 games, three starts, 395 defensive snaps)

Evaluation: Hufanga also recorded 237 snaps on special teams; his 632 total snaps were the most among 49ers rookies.

Hufanga’s long injury history has pushed him off the drawing board. However, he only missed two regular season games and his ability prompted the 49ers to get him on the court using more three-safety covering looks.

He was also part of one of the biggest plays of the season, returning Jordan Willis’ blocked punt six yards for an tying touchdown in the playoff win at Green Bay.

Role 2022: The 49ers would ideally like to save some money and have Hufanga replaced with Jaquiski Tartt (an unrestricted free agent). However, Tartt is coming off a solid season and held off Hufanga last term.

Round Six (No. 194): RB Elijah Mitchell

Statistics: 207 carries, 963 yards, 5 TDs (11 games, 10 starts, 441 offensive snaps)

Evaluation: The 49ers’ last pick was their best. Mitchell set a franchise rookie record for rushing yards and impressed with his explosiveness and power that belied his size (5-10, 200). However, his style of play comes at a price: he missed six games and suffered a concussion as well as knee, finger, shoulder and rib injuries.

When available, Mitchell was a workaholic. Including the playoffs, Mitchell had 27 runs in three games, the 49ers’ total running backs in the previous 11 seasons.

Role 2022: Even though the 49ers re-sign Mostert (an unrestricted free agent), Mitchell figures to serve as a point guard. The 49ers would be wise to use more of a committee approach to reduce his risk of injury.

Eric Branch covers the 49ers for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @Eric_Branch

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