The answers may surprise you
Just when you thought you were done with lists, ESPN lures you back in for one more. Kyle Posey was all over the Deebo news, so I went a different route this morning. Check out this list from ESPN of the top 25 under-the-radar players that could break out – it’s heavily populated with 49ers.
The article makes clear that they are picking players based on a very specific criteria:
- No one drafted before the third round.
- Entered the NFL between 2019 and 2021.
- Fewer than 500 career offensive or defensive snaps (except running backs, who are allowed 300 snaps).
- Have not signed a contract extension (players who have bounced around the league still qualify for the list).
- Age 26 or younger as of Sept. 1, 2022.
Enough preamble, let’s get to the list!
#5 – Ambry Thomas
Only a one-year starter for Michigan, Thomas had three picks and seven passes defensed in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season. He ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at his pro day and, though a little short at 5-foot-11, was stout enough to play press successfully in the Big Ten. As a true outside corner with any kind of track record of pure success, he was in demand enough to go in the third round.
Injuries forced the 49ers to open Thomas down the stretch, and he was torched in his first few weeks before making adjustments. Starting in Week 16, over five games (including the playoffs) he allowed just 5.5 yards per pass in coverage with a 59% success rate. The playoff run in particular was wildly successful, as even though he was picked on often, he was up to the task. Matthew Stafford targeted him 10 times in the NFC Championship Game and gained only 47 yards on those targets.
He’ll have to beat out Emmanuel Moseley for the spot (or perhaps one of them will play nickel), but Thomas’ rapid improvement has us believing he has the inside track.
I don’t know how many outsiders of the Bay Area would be as high on Thomas, but ESPN apparently is.
#16 – Talanoa Hufanga
USC’s starting strong safety from his freshman year on, Hufanga registered 16.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 12 passes defensed as he mostly stayed in the box. The main knock on him was a lack of elite speed, with a 4.63-second 40-yard dash mostly holding up on the tape in the eyes of most scouts and draftniks. He also dealt with injuries in both 2019 and 2020, and at 6-foot-even was regarded by some as a tweener.
But he wound up comfortably fitting a hybrid role in his first year in San Francisco, playing deep just as often as he played forward for defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. We had him with just four broken tackles in 392 snaps, and while he didn’t exactly dominate the passes defensed score sheet, he also had his yards per play allowed massively skewed by one 50-yard completion allowed to Christian Kirk in Week 9 — it’s the only pass play of more than 20 yards for which SIS had him in coverage all season.
With Jaquiski Tartt off to Philadelphia, Hufanga appeared to be winning the early competition with veteran George Odum to take over as one of San Francisco’s safeties. We do worry that the speed could be exposed, but as long as he’s not a single-high safety too often, the 49ers’ defense is a good fit for Hufanga’s skill set.
Hufanga definitely has the inside track on the starting safety position opposite Jimmie Ward, and we’ve seen nothing so far in camp to think he’s falling out of that spot.
#18 – Jauan Jennings
A big possession receiver type, Jennings is exactly what you’d close your eyes and imagine the 49ers targeting in the draft. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he led all FBS receivers with 30 missed tackles in 2019 en route to a 969-yard, eight-touchdown season for Tennessee.
Remember our Palmer write-up a few paragraphs ago? The Volunteers have been a brutal passing offense for years despite Jennings, Palmer, Jones and Marquez Callaway all getting drafted and/or producing in the NFL. Jennings’ lack of speed (4.72-second 40-yard dash at the combine) put him off the radar for a high NFL pick, and he slipped to the seventh round for the 49ers.
After spending most of 2020 on the practice squad, Jennings became the 49ers’ third wideout as the 2021 season wound down and Mohamed Sanu and Trent Sherfield were found lacking. Jennings caught two touchdowns against the Rams in the season finale to help San Francisco clinch the playoffs. He finished 19th in DYAR among receivers with between 10 and 49 targets, while he broke five tackles in just 24 touches. Jennings caught 10 of his 11 targets on third downs for the highest catch rate among receivers with 10 or more third-down targets.
Speaking about his third-year receivers — Jennings and Brandon Aiyuk — in OTAs, Kyle Shanahan said: “They’ve had as good an offseason as they’ve had since they’ve been in the league. And they’re as good as they’ve been right now. Both of them.”
The 49ers drafted Danny Gray in the third round this year, but Jennings has a window to fully establish himself as the main third wideout here. And should the Deebo Samuel situation turn sour again for whatever reason, there is a major upside here.
As you might imagine from his size, he’s also a major factor in the running game; he absolutely punished Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins on a block in Week 11.
Jennings absolutely carved out a great role for himself last year, when 20 of his 24 catches went for either a first down or a touchdown.
Honorable mention: Trey Sermon
Sermon found himself in the black hole that is the Kyle Shanahan doghouse last season, but Kyle did recently say that Sermon has, “learned from his rookie year and wants to do a lot more.”
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