At a time when the organization wants to place more emphasis on developing young players, three 2014 draft picks did not get those opportunities during the 49ers’ offseason workouts.
Three second-year players expected to fill big roles this season mostly spent the nine-week period rehabbing injuries and not getting on the field to work on getting better.
S Jimmie Ward: He won the job as the 49ers’ nickel back as a rookie. He might have more competition to hold onto that job this season. Ward did not participate in the offseason program as a rookie due to a Jones fracture in his right foot. When a titanium screw inserted into his fifth metatarsal bent during a game against the New Orleans Saints, Ward’s rookie season came to an end.
Ward has plenty of room for improvement from his first season, but he was not able to get on the field and work in Eric Mangini’s new system, which features far more wrinkles than Vic Fangio’s solid scheme. Ward will get plenty of competition to hold onto his old job from Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser. In addition, projected starters Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright are capable of playing inside.
The 49ers are hopeful Ward will be cleared for the opening of training camp.
OLB Aaron Lynch: The 49ers took a calculated risk in choosing Lynch in the fifth round. And after one season, it appears as if it was a good gamble. Lynch made tremendous strides on and off the field as a rookie. He put himself in position to beat out Ahmad Brooks for the starting job at left outside linebacker after tying Brooks with a team-high six sacks.
But while Brooks showed up in good shape and had an impressive offseason program, Lynch spent a good portion of the offseason on a stationary bike while nursing a hamstring injury. Lynch was also sidelined with hamstring injuries during the 49ers’ offseason program in 2014.
WR Bruce Ellington: As a rookie, Ellington leap-frogged Quinton Patton on the depth chart due to his contributions in the return game. Ellington did not have much experience returning punts in college, but he made a quick transition to become very steady in that role as a rookie.
Ellington averaged 8.2 yards on 23 punt returns (an 8.0 average is considered very good), and he did not have a turnover. Ellington muffed a punt in a Week 2 game against Chicago, but quickly recovered it. Ellington entered the offseason as the overwhelming favorite to win that job again. But as he nursed a hamstring injury, Reggie Bush and Jarryd Hayne handled those duties on the practice field.
Still, Ellington is the best option to handle punts. Bush, 30, whose career average is 7.9 yards, has not handled a punt in an NFL game since 2011. Hayne, 27, enters camp in an uphill battle to win a roster spot as he attempts a career in the NFL after reaching stardom in Australian playing rugby.
Ellington figures to be in the mix for the 49ers’ No. 3 receiver job, but while Patton, Jerome Simpson and some impressive undrafted rookies were on the field and acclimating to the new offense, Ellington was on the sideline.