Niners' rookie crop providing substantial impact

Posted Oct. 21, 2011 @ 3:47 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Greatly overshadowed by the increasingly high-profile persona of head coach Jim Harbaugh — whose postgame tiff with Lions counterpart Jim Schwartz took on a life of its own that will continue to be talked about deep into the season — the Niners' rookie crop deserves a huge amount of credit for the team's stunning success so far this season.

Inside sources agree that there isn't a team in the league that has gotten as significant a contribution out of its new kids on the block.

"It really does go back to coaching," one team insider said. "You also have guys from last year's class, like (2010 third-round pick) NaVorro Bowman, that have come on strong after initially struggling under the previous regime.

"Everybody is taking a step forward."

Three of the team's top four picks this season — first-round OLB Aldon Smith, third-round CB Chris Culliver and fourth-round RB Kendall Hunter — have quickly provided a major impact.

Smith has become a potent pass-rushing force, ranking fifth in the NFL entering Week Seven action with 5½ sacks.

"And he really hasn't even played all that much," the insider said. "The team previously kept hoping that (former first-rounder) Manny Lawson would become a perennial 10- to 12-sack guy, but that never happened. Smith looks like he will fill that bill. The combination of his really long arms and exceptional quickness has been devastating."

Culliver, a converted safety, has replaced Shawntae Spencer as the team's third corner.

"He plays with a real attitude and has very quick feet," the insider said. "He's really good at changing direction and just loves to tackle."

Hunter has become an impressive outside complement to featured back Frank Gore, who has been running between the tackles more effectively than ever.

"The kid's got great vision," the insider said of Hunter. "And at 5-foot-7, he gets lost between the linemen and just pops out of there."

In addition, seventh-round FB Bruce Miller has excelled as a blocker while also offering another dimension receiving out of the backfield, and sixth-round S Colin Jones has become a steadily developing terror on special teams with his great straight-line speed.