The 49ers are letting their rookeis watch and learn this season. First-year players on the St. Louis Rams roster are already in the mix. It's a tell-tale sign of two teams in radically different places.
The St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers, rushing toward a Sunday afternoon showdown, have more than a few things in common. At the meta level, both teams are trending up in the once lowly NFC West. Where they differ in that respect is where the two teams sit along the upward pointing curve. Take for example each team's rookie class, the group of players pulled out of the 2012 NFL Draft in April.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, the Niners' curious first-round pick, has yet to play a single snap this season. Running back LaMichael James, a second-round pick, hasn't even been active on game day through the first eight games of the season. The only rookie draft pick to have any playing time for San Fran this season is sixth-round safety Trent Robinson, who saw some time on special teams six weeks ago.
For the Rams, it's a completely different story. Of the 10 players they selected in the draft this year, nine of them have seen the field this season. Linebacker Aaron Brown, a seventh-round pick, is the only one that has not seen playing time, because he was cut before the season started. Even fifth-round pick Rokevious Watkins saw a little time before ending up on IR.
It wasn't always like that for the 49ers, as the Sacramento Bee story notes. Aldon Smith was a crucial role player last year. Offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati started all 16 games as rookies in 2010.
The Rams are leaning heavily on their rookies. Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker had starting roles as soon as they were picked up, in the sixth round for Greg the Leg and as a UDFA for the punter. Michael Brockers, the team's first-round pick, has been in the starting lineup since camp, save for a brief injury hiatus. Daryl Richardson and Chris Givens are surprise standouts on offense. Second-round picks Brian Quick and Isaiah Pead might be seeing the least action of anyone from this year's draft class.
Neither team is wrong in its approach. The 49ers have the luxury of letting their rookies sit thanks to good health and an already talented roster. It's the sign of a very healthy organization in the advanced stages of being annually competitive.
The Rams' rookie class is getting valuable playing time and experience, a leg up on being veteran starters next year and beyond. As fans here well know, the roster was a little barren in recent years thanks to poor drafting and bad personnel decisions. Jeff Fisher and Les Sean don't have much choice but to play the rookies, which results in the disappointing but completely normal ups and downs of being a young team on the grow.
Next season, the Rams will be one year closer to where the 49ers are this year. If all goes well, it might be tough for anyone from the 2014 draft class to crack the Rams' starting roster.