San Francisco 49ers: High stakes for second-year players

Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (99) warms up prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (99) warms up prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

For the San Francisco 49ers’ seven players entering Year 2, there is a ton of pressure on their shoulders, but not all for the same reason.

It’s ironic that former San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke’s last draft may end up being one of his better ones. Four players received significant snaps in 2016 and will all be expected to make strides under new head coach Kyle Shanahan in 2017.

Baalke did not have to overthink his last first-round pick. DeForest Buckner was an obvious selection at No. 7, fitting very well into the 3-4 scheme the 49ers were running at the time. Buckner was impressive for much of the season, particularly down the stretch, and had six sacks to his name while demonstrating the power and quickness to win in the middle and occasionally off the edge.

The promise he displayed will heap pressure on Buckner to perform in the Niners’ new 4-3 defense, which will likely see him paired with 2017 No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas as interior rushers on passing downs. With Thomas set to command plenty of attention, Buckner will be expected to flourish again. And he will need to do so if the 49ers defense is to succeed, particularly with San Francisco adding little in terms of edge rushers this offseason.

More from San Francisco 49ers

2016 fifth-round pick Ronald Blair figures to be a part of the same defensive line rotation and, with three sacks in 2016, will carry the burden of added expectation after demonstrating his potential. Though Blair caught the eye sporadically, the man taken a round earlier than him, Rashard Robinson, is set to have substantially more trust placed in him this season.

Robinson, when healthy, was very impressive as a rookie corner. The gangly former LSU defensive back had eight pass deflections and, according to Pro Football Focus, was second among all rookies for the most coverage snaps per reception allowed. On the back of Tramaine Brock’s release, Robinson is suddenly the 49ers’ top corner and could form a promising partnership with rookie Ahkello Witherspoon.

With the 49ers lacking a game-changing edge rusher to take the pressure off the secondary, Robinson’s development in crucial to San Francisco, as is that of guard Joshua Garnett.

Garnett started 11 games last year but, while he did show off some of the run-blocking skills that convinced Baalke to trade up and draft him, he was graded poorly by PFF, who ranked him as only their 70th best guard. Considering Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme and his penchant for athletic offensive lineman, an improvement from Garnett, who does a very good job of blocking at the second level, is pretty much a necessity.

Improvement from Will Redmond, John Theus and Aaron Burbridge is also essential if they are to avoid getting cut.

More from NFL Spin Zone

Redmond, taken before Robinson in the third, spent last year on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in his final year in college and now has Witherspoon and free agent K’Waun Williams — the favorite for the slot corner role with Jimmie Ward’s move to free safety — to contend with on the depth chart

He has a significant task on his hands to impress and even compete for a place on the roster, never mind the nickel role he would have hoped to nail down in 2016. But he is not as much of a long shot as Theus and Burbridge.

There is a school of thought that the third day of the draft is where GMs make their money, and Baalke’s inability to consistently find difference-makers on the final day may be what resulted in his downfall.

Theus and Burbridge are the only two of the 49ers’ final six picks who are still on the roster. Though his athleticism may appeal to Shanahan as he has some swing tackle potential, Theus’ lack of strength limits his upside at both guard and tackle. Moreover, the Niners’ decision to bolster the offensive line through the additions of experienced players up front has only hurt his prospects.

Burbridge, meanwhile, had just seven catches in his opening campaign and has since seen the 49ers remodel their receiving depth chart extensively via free agency and the draft. Thus, the former Michigan State receiver is left with an uphill battle to stay on the 53.

Next: 2017 NFL Draft: Biggest steal for 49ers, each team

If San Francisco is to make strides in its rebuild in 2017, then Buckner, Garnett, Robinson and Blair will all need to live up to what are likely to be increased expectations. There will be no such expectation on the shoulders of Redmond, Theus and Burbridge, but there is also high stakes pressure of a different variety on their shoulders as they seek to stick on a team that has an improved look about it going into the new season.