The 49ers on Sunday will have a halftime ceremony that features Dwight Clark and that looks back proudly on the team’s glorious past.
During the game, however, they will be focused squarely on the future.
As many as 13 rookies will see action against the Dallas Cowboys. One of them, C.J. Beathard, will become the first 49ers rookie to start at quarterback since Alex Smith in 2005.
“I just think I don’t get too high or too low in any situation,” Beathard said of suddenly being in the spotlight. “I just try to stay pretty mellow because I know the game of football. There’s a lot of ups and downs. You never want to get too mad when you have a bad play or too high when you have a good one. It’s all about staying mellow and staying the same through all of it.”
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When Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were hired in February, they said they were hitting the reset button on the franchise. Few figured they’d press it so vigorously or how reliant they’d be on rookies this season. For example:
▪ First-round pick Solomon Thomas played 68 snaps last week against Washington, the most of San Francisco’s defensive linemen. His workload only will increase with Arik Armstead out for perhaps the rest of the season with a broken hand. Thomas ranks second to DeForest Buckner in tackles by a 49ers defensive lineman this season with 23.
▪ Another first rounder, linebacker Reuben Foster, is expected to be on the field Sunday following a six-week rehabilitation from a high ankle sprain. Foster’s return was one of the developments that prompted the 49ers to release veteran NaVorro Bowman last week. When Foster is ready to play an entire game, he will take over Bowman’s middle-linebacker spot and, like Bowman, will be the player who runs the defensive huddle. That means rookies, Beathard and Foster, will call the plays for the offense and defense.
▪ Third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon has played in the two most recent games and – perhaps in an attempt the boost the rookie’s confidence – garnered lavish praise from both Shanahan and Saleh in the run-up to the Cowboys game. “He looks enormous for some reason – on tape he does,” Saleh said. “He looks like he’s put on weight and he’s gotten bigger and he’s turning into a man. Sky is the limit. He’s got immense potential.”
Since the end of training camp, the 49ers have parted with their two longest-tenured defensive players, Ahmad Brooks and Bowman. The players who have that title now, safety Eric Reid and defensive end Tank Carradine, are scheduled to be free agents in March and may not be back.
With that in mind, Lynch and Shanahan seem eager for the youngsters – especially Thomas and Foster – to warm-up to a leadership role.
“I’ve made it clear that I don’t care if you’re a rookie, I don’t care if you’ve been here six months, I don’t care if you’ve been here eight years,” Shanahan said. “It doesn’t really matter to me. I think leaders can be all over. I think everyone can do it their own way. I think you have to do it by being yourself. But it’s something that I do definitely want more guys here stepping it up to do that.”
Other rookies who will have big roles against Dallas include wide receiver Trent Taylor, who has played 233 total snaps and is the team’s punt returner, George Kittle, who was Beathard’s favorite target against Washington, and Matt Breida, who is the safest bet among 49ers running backs to be on next year’s roster.
Beathard, meanwhile, has a chance to significantly shape San Francisco’s offseason plans. As it stands now, the team appears poised to either sign a free-agent quarterback to a big-money contract or use a top draft pick on the position.
How much can the rookie dictate how the team proceeds?
“A ton,” Shanahan said. “That’s for every position. That’s for every player on our team. That’s for every coach on our team. Like I’ve been saying, I know we’re 0-6 and that’s extremely tough, but I’m extremely excited about this place and excited about where we’re at and where we’re going.”
Rookie snap counts
Includes special teams
- DL Solomon Thomas 348
- TE George Kittle 315
- WR Trent Taylor 233
- RB Matt Breida 176
- NT D.J. Jones 128
- S Lorenzo Jerome 115
- LB Elijah Lee 114
- WR Victor Bolden 87
- S Adrian Colbert 83
- CB Ahkello Witherspoon 61
- QB C.J. Beathard 55
- DE Pita Taumoepenu 28
- LB Reuben Foster 11
- TE Cole Hikutini 10
- WR Kendrick Bourne 10