49ers missed on their 2012 draft class
Even the best teams don’t always draft well. That includes the 49ers.
Last year’s second-round pick running back LaMichael James (MCL sprain) did not practice on Thursday and might not play Sunday, meaning the only member of the 49ers’ 2012 draft class in pads against the Packers will likely be fourth-round guard Joe Looney.
Fifth-round pick outside linebacker Darius Fleming is on injured reserve with the same torn ACL that caused him to miss all of his rookie year.
There were seven picks in ’12, so where’s the rest of the class? Gone. General manager Trent Baalke got rid of them.
First-rounder wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was thankfully traded last month in a front office face-saving move to Kansas City for wide receiver Jon Baldwin “who has a resume” per head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Neither sixth-round selections are around. Safety Trenton Robinson was cut on Aug. 31 then signed to the Eagles practice squad, and center Jason Slowey was cut out of camp last year and is a free agent — probably staying that way — after spending last season on the Raiders scout team.
After being buried on the depth chart, outside linebacker Cam Johnson — the team’s seventh-round pick who shined in the preseason finale — was dealt to Indianapolis a few days ago in exchange for a conditional 2014 pick.
A move designed to clear a roster spot for “Swiss Army knife” Chris Harper, it also allows Johnson a better shot at being active on gameday. The pick is a plus.
So if James is out for the home opener, Looney — a backup interior lineman — will be the only 2012 draftee in uniform.
One active pick out of seven. That’s not good and it can’t be ignored. This isn’t the media bullying or labeling players either, as any pick should be given three seasons before being tagged boom or bust.
Baalke and Harbaugh just missed on their picks in ’12, or, better phrased, they found players who better fit other teams’ systems.
The class hasn’t built upon the gold of 2011 that brought outside linebacker Aldon Smith, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, running back Kendall Hunter, cornerback Chris Culliver, guard/center Daniel Kilgore, and fullback Bruce Miller.
The Jenkins story is infamous, Slowey was cut, and Robinson and Johnson were practice squaders who cracked the roster late in the year.
James was inactive most of his rookie year due to a shaky preseason (three fumbles) while showing brief flashes of home run hitting talent in the last few regular-season games and into the playoffs where a lost fumble in the Super Bowl punctuated his season.
Fans saw more struggles in this preseason just as journalists saw in training camp. This isn’t a knock on him as he’s smart in the head and gifted on the gridiron, but let the Darren Sproles comparisons stop.
Once healthy he’ll resume his role as the No. 3 back and possibly on returns, but with so many weapons in Greg Roman’s arsenal, the amount of times the James bullet will be in the pistol clip is uncertain.
Looney — who was also out with injuries during his rookie campaign — improved greatly in camp and in exhibitions. He can play all three interior positions. If he stays healthy and continues his progress, he’s the dark horse to be the bright spot out of the three remaining 49ers.
Fleming had huge upside coming out of Notre Dame with the versatility to play 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. Yet the same injury twice is never a good sign. Hope is the word here.
James, Looney, and Fleming deserve all of this season and next before accurately grading their value. They could all end up panning out.
On a positive note, the 49ers’ 2013 draft talent is already looking more like the 2011 draft class — rather than last year’s.