SANTA CLARA — The main characters of the 49ers’ dramatic, historic turnaround were mostly rookies.
Twelve rookie draft picks, seven undrafted rookie free agents and one sort-of-kind-of rookie quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo isn’t an actual rookie — he has been in the NFL four seasons. But, he has started only seven games. He has less game experience than many of the real rookies on the 49ers.
“Obviously Jimmy came in and was fabulous,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in the 49ers auditorium Tuesday afternoon. “He was great for us and he made people around him better. I think that’s the mark of a player who has an opportunity to be special — do you make people around you better? He did that.
“There was also a confluence of a bunch of young guys that were improving. Around that same time, a couple things happened. We got healthy after enduring a lot of tough injuries, and the experience level of some of these players and the confidence level started to kick in.”
By the end of the season, the 49ers were one of the hottest teams in the NFL — they won six of their final seven games. And they had 15 rookies on their 53-man roster, plus three more rookies on IR.
Here are the rookies’ names:
Solomon Thomas, defensive end, first-round pick. Started 12 games and recorded three sacks.
Reuben Foster, linebacker, first-round pick. Started 10 games and recorded 72 tackles.
Ahkello Witherspoon, cornerback, third-round pick. Started nine games and intercepted two passes.
C.J. Beathard, quarterback, third-round pick. Appeared in seven games, started five games and threw for 1,430 yards.
George Kittle, tight end, fifth-round pick. Appeared in 15 games, started seven games and caught 43 passes.
Trent Taylor, wide receiver, fifth-round pick. Appeared in 15 games, started one game and caught 43 passes.
D.J. Jones, defensive lineman, sixth-round pick. Appeared in nine games and recorded 10 tackles.
Pita Taumoepenu, linebacker, sixth-round pick. Appeared in no games but maintained his spot on the 53-man roster all season.
Adrian Colbert, safety, seventh-round pick. Appeared in 14 games, started six games, recorded 37 tackles, broke up five passes, forced two fumbles, recovered one fumble and won the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award for the rookie who best took advantage of his opportunity with the 49ers.
Jeremy McNichols, running back, fifth-round pick. Got cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Signed with the 49ers on Sept. 4. Appeared in two games.
Elijah Lee, linebacker, seventh-round pick. Got cut by the Minnesota Vikings. Signed with the 49ers on Sept. 13. Appeared in 14 games.
Victor Bolden Jr., wide receiver/kick returner, undrafted free agent. Appeared in nine games and returned 19 kickoffs. Injured his ankle Week 14 and went on IR.
Cole Hikutini, tight end, undrafted free agent. Appeared in four games and caught two passes. Sprained his MCL Week 9 and went on IR.
Erik Magnuson, offensive lineman, undrafted free agent. Appeared in four games and started two games at right tackle. Sprained his foot Week 12 and went on IR.
Darrell Williams Jr., offensive tackle, undrafted free agent. Appeared in seven games.
Greg Mabin, cornerback, undrafted free agent. Got cut by the Buffalo Bills. Signed with the 49ers on Oct. 18. Appeared in six games.
Kendrick Bourne, wide receiver, undrafted free agent. Appeared in 11 games and gained 257 receiving yards.
Matt Breida, running back, undrafted free agent. Appeared in 16 games and rushed for 465 yards.
“I’ve got a great deal of belief in that (rookie) class,” Lynch said. “That’s just not because I’m tied to them, because we chose them. It’s because I saw what they did on the field. I saw the way they conducted themselves.
“What I loved is that the vision we had for those guys started to play out on the field. When Kyle can articulate, ‘Here is what I’m looking for at this position,’ and we see that come to life, that’s a good thing. When you have 15, 16 rookies playing and contributing in a big way, that’s encouraging.
“These guys came and really picked our team up in a big way and were accepted by their teammates because of the way they go about their work.”
The rookies made their biggest impact the final two weeks of the season.
In those games, Breida ran 23 times for 146 yards and a touchdown, Kittle caught seven passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, Witherspoon intercepted a pass, Foster recorded 10 tackles and Colbert recorded nine tackles.
“You can see them get better each day,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We see it on the practice field a lot. You guys saw it throughout the second half of the year. It’s always nice when it was that obvious, to where the fans could see it, you guys could see it.
“We’ve got a very special group of guys. They’re guys we put a lot of pressure on. Some times they weren’t fully ready for it. But, because of the type of people they were, I think they all fought through a lot of things. At the end of the year, I think they were better players, better pros, really showed something about their character, which I think goes hand-in-hand with them becoming better as their careers go.”
After leaving Sunday’s game with a chest injury, DeForest Buckner said Tuesday he feared he may have cartilage damage. He doesn’t.
“He had a chest contusion,” Lynch said. “He’s doing better.”
Lynch plans to begin negotiating a long-term contract extension with Jimmy Garoppolo soon.
“That process is going to take place here,” Lynch said. “We’re eager to get that done. We want Jimmy to be a Niner for a long, long time.”