SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Coming out of the 2021 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers had no grand plans for any of the seven players they selected.
Whether it was quarterback Trey Lance taken at No. 3 overall, running back Elijah Mitchell at No. 194 or the five others -- guard Aaron Banks, running back Trey Sermon, cornerback Ambry Thomas, offensive lineman Jaylon Moore and safety Talanoa Hufanga -- chosen in between, the Niners didn't believe any would need to play a significant role early in their NFL careers.
"We had a feeling with that with our quarterback," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Our biggest thing with all those positions, whether it was running back in the third, corner in the third and the fifth, and guard in the second, those are all positions we were very thin at. Now, we had guys there that were starters. We weren't drafting ... to replace the starter."
Through eight games, the Niners' rookie class has not seen the field much. Not because they haven't been needed but because they, with the exception of Mitchell and Hufanga, haven't been good enough to get on the field.
So far, the group has played a combined 1,138 snaps with 13 starts. Several players have seen playing time on special teams, but Mitchell is the only one to log more than 200 snaps on offense or defense.
In last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Mitchell and Hufanga started and played the bulk of the snaps. The other five rookies combined to play zero offensive or defensive snaps with Banks, Sermon and Lenoir (who was tending to a personal matter) healthy scratches.
That wouldn't matter much if the Niners were healthy. But running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. and cornerback Jason Verrett have missed most of the season with knee injuries. Nickel cornerback K'Waun Williams missed three games with a calf issue and starting outside corner Emmanuel Moseley missed the first two games with a knee ailment.
In all of those cases, there was a rookie who could step into the lineup on the depth chart. Mitchell has at running back but Thomas and Lenoir have mostly given way to veterans such as Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick who were signed off the street.
"We weren’t bringing any of the [corners] here to, we felt, start," Shanahan said. "We were hoping that they could add some depth and be guys who could play on our team and possibly do that next year. Unfortunately, having some injuries that we had early, we needed them earlier than we thought we would. And unfortunately, they weren't fully ready for it. And yeah, I wish they were."
While it's understandable that the Niners wouldn't expect their rookies to start given the uncertainty that comes with any draft picks, it's fair to wonder if they should have been searching for players who might have a bit less upside but who could turn into solid contributors right away.
That's especially true considering many of the 49ers' veteran players at positions such as cornerback, running back, quarterback and safety have lengthy injury histories. The Niners didn't need to view their rookies as starters, but players who could start. That they've gotten so little from the rookie class has only contributed to a disappointing 3-5 start.
Perhaps most emblematic of the 49ers rookie problem has been the one spot where injuries haven't created an opportunity: right guard. Veteran Daniel Brunskill entered the offseason as the starter but the selection of Banks in the second round seemed to point toward Brunskill returning to his utility role sooner than later.
"We thought [he] had the best chance to compete to maybe win one of those jobs over the offseason, but he didn't get that," Shanahan said. "He wasn't there in training camp, started getting his work in Week 1 and has been behind the eight ball."
Banks has been inactive for seven of eight games and he's one of three rookies taken in the second round to not play a snap. The other two? Chicago Bears offensive lineman Teven Jenkins, who has been out since August following back surgery, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Kyle Trask, who is learning behind a guy named Brady.
Even with Mike McGlinchey lost for the season, the Niners are unlikely to bump Brunskill to right tackle and plug in Banks at guard. Moore, who was taken three rounds later, appears to have a better shot at being the rookie to fill in, despite recent progress from Banks.
"I think he's had a couple good weeks here," Shanahan said of Banks. "His best two weeks lately and he's starting to push him a little bit, but when that time is right for him and our team, we'll make that move."
The early returns on this draft class haven't been all bad. Hufanga has offered promise replacing the injured Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety and has a chance to nail down that job full time.
Mitchell, the last of the team's picks, has made the biggest immediate impact. He's the Niners' leading rusher with 469 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. His speed, decisiveness and surprising sturdiness between the tackles pushed him past Sermon and firmly established him as the team's best option at the position.
"There's some stuff to his game that the more he plays, the more you realize that he's a special young player and there's a reason why he's having productivity," offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said. "You'd have no way of knowing. Even grainy Louisiana-Lafayette tape wouldn't tell you that.”
The story of this draft class is far from written and Lance's development will ultimately matter most. For now, Shanahan has said he won't play his rookies just to get them experience. But if a 3-5 season continues trending in its current direction, it will be time to sacrifice whatever marginal edge the fringe veterans have for the long-term potential of the unknown rookies.