2021 draft will be biggest key to 49ers’ 2022 success

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The 49ers don’t have a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft, leaving some question about their chances of selecting a player who can be a high-level starter on Day 1 of their rookie season. While finding a rookie who can improve the team on the field right away would be ideal, the bigger issue for San Francisco in their quest to get back to the Super Bowl will be what their 2021 draft class looks like in its second season.

With a handful of starting jobs coming open, the 49ers could conceivably roll out seven second-year players in full-time starting roles for the first time. After a disappointing Year 1 for the 2021 class, this season will offer them an opportunity to be one of the most impactful draft classes in 49ers history.

Here’s where each player from that group stands going into Year 2:

QB Trey Lance

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Lance figures to be the starting quarterback for the 49ers after sitting a year behind Jimmy Garoppolo. The team’s chances will ride a lot on this class, but a disproportionate amount of their success will come down to how Lance develops. San Francisco has a chance to win it all if he’s good.

Projected role: Starting quarterback

OL Aaron Banks

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

This is a massive year for Banks, who was selected to start at right guard last year. He couldn’t play his way onto the field though and only saw three snaps on offense. If he becomes the player the 49ers are hoping he can be in his second season, the team could quickly shore up some issues on the interior of their offensive line.

Projected role: Starting left guard

RB Trey Sermon

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It was a rough rookie campaign for Sermon who couldn’t get on the field at first, and then when he finally started to find his sea legs in the NFL he suffered an ankle injury that effectively ended his season. The 49ers traded two fourth-round selections to move up and pick Sermon, so he’ll get plenty of chances to improve on his 167 yards and one touchdown. Chances are he won’t take over the full-time job from Elijah Mitchell, but if he can earn some regular work as a reserve it would be an important step forward in his contributions.

Projected role: Backup running back / third-down running back

CB Ambry Thomas

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

There wasn’t a more improved player on the 49ers last season than Thomas. He looked unplayable in Week 1 when he was forced into action because of an injury to cornerback Jason Verrett. He didn’t look particularly good when he started getting full-time work again because of injury in Week 14. However, he improved every week after that and capped his ascension with an interception to clinch the 49ers’ playoff berth. Even if he starts the year behind Emmanuel Moseley and Charvarius Ward in base packages, it would be a dramatic improvement for San Francisco’s secondary if Thomas picks up where he left off a season ago.

Projected role: Nickel cornerback

OL Jaylon Moore

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Moore had an interesting rookie year. He was brought in to compete at right guard after playing left tackle for four years in college. His move inside never came to fruition though after he filled in a lot at left tackle during camp when Trent Williams was unavailable. During the season he didn’t make the move either. Moore might be one of San Francisco’s best offensive linemen if he’s able to effectively transition to guard.

Projected role: Starting right guard

CB Deommodore Lenoir

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

It looked like Lenoir was the team’s future nickel cornerback when they drafted him. He had a ton of experience and played well enough in camp to earn the top backup role on the outside. He struggled as the year went on though, leaving his stock somewhat low going into the offseason program. The good news for Lenoir is that there’s no surefire plan in the slot, so he’ll get chances to play his way back into that job.

Projected role: Backup cornerback

S Talanoa Hufanga

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Hufanga was a pleasant surprise last season. Immediately after the draft his stated goal was to make the Pro Bowl on special teams. While he contributed a lot on that unit, he also saw action on defense and nearly won the starting strong safety job out of camp. There are a handful of options at strong safety this year and Hufanga is firmly in the mix.

Projected role: Starting strong safety

RB Elijah Mitchell

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Mitchell was awesome in his rookie season. Health is the big question mark for him. He rushed for 963 yards and five touchdowns on 207 attempts, but he only played in 11 games. A 17-game season from Mitchell would help the 49ers’ offense a lot.

Projected role: Starting running back

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