Despite the league's stigma of a sophomore slump, many young players came to play in the 2022 season and made a name for themselves on the San Francisco 49ers roster.
While at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, 49ers general manager John Lynch shared that his favorite part of his role is getting to watch players have breakthroughs in their game and make a mark on the league. One player Lynch spotlighted as having a "breakthrough year" is second-year defensive back Deommodore Lenoir.
"We believed in him as a player coming in," Lynch said. "It's a hard position to play. It's a hard position to get thrown into a fire. The coolest thing about him, he kind of broke through that and it wasn't easy.
"There's another corner on the other side in Charvarius Ward that people really respect, so they were going to go at the other guy. He withstood some adversity where people were coming after him and the only way to put out that fire is to start making plays. And by the end, I wasn't so sure in some cases that they were throwing it at Mooney, so I think that speaks a lot about the fortitude both mentally and physically of Deommodore. The coolest thing is he's got some flex where he can play outside and inside, so he gives us a lot of versatility there. We're really proud of the young man. He's going to be a big part of us moving forward."
Lenoir is a highlight late-round pick of the 49ers 2021 draft class. Coming out of Oregon, the defensive back was selected in the fifth round (172nd pick) by San Francisco. Lenoir saw steady production in the regular season starting in 13 of the 49ers 18 games, but made a flash in the postseason. He picked off passes in both of the 49ers playoff wins against the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys, allowing only a 21.8 passer rating in the postseason and finishing the year with three total interceptions.
Lenoir isn't the only sophomore player strengthening the 49ers secondary. Safety Talanoa Hufanga, also selected in the fifth round (180th pick) by San Francisco in 2021, made his name known around the league after an incredible 2022 season.
After being named a Pro Bowler for the first time in his career, Hufanga also earned a spot on the AP First-Team All-Pro list. He capped off the regular season with 97 total tackles, four interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 2.0 sacks and two forced fumbles.
"I love the physicality that he brings," Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans said. "He's a fun, exciting player to watch because you know he's going to bring it every single play. In some type of way, he's going to be around the ball, making a big play for you."
The 49ers 2021 Draft class brought stars on the other side of the ball also.
Selected in the second round (pick 48), offensive lineman Aaron Banks shined in his second year of play. After starting left guard Laken Tomlinson signed with the New York Jets in free agency, it was unclear how the 49ers offensive line was going to perform in the 2022 season. Banks stepped up and delivered in a big way for San Francisco, playing in 696 snaps where he only allowed 1.0 sack and held down the blindside with veteran left tackle Trent Williams.
"I think he surpassed those expectations and this was just the first stepping stone into a very storied career that he's going to have," Williams said. "He's going to do very well... Words can't express how good he played this year, and we know that there's more to come."
Banks helped pave the way for the team's run game and his draft class teammate Elijah Mitchell.
Taken by San Francisco in the sixth round (pick 194) of the 2021 NFL Draft, Mitchell quickly established himself as the 49ers starting running back after veteran Raheem Mostert's season-ending injury in Week 1 against the Detriot Lions. In his first NFL season, Mitchell broke San Francisco's single-season franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie and his explosive performance hasn't stopped since. In 2022, the sophomore running back recorded 364 total scrimmage yards, three touchdowns and provided valued depth in the 49ers backfield.
A majority of the 2021 Draft class selections came after the first two rounds and the same scenario is lined up for the 49ers in the 2023 NFL Draft. As it stands, San Francisco is projected to start drafting players in the third round and the team's track record of finding late-round gems has proven to be successful.
With a majority of the 49ers starters set in the team's roster, Lynch's goal for this year's draft is to find players who can provide depth to positions of need.
"If someone were to ask me to describe this draft as I see it right now, there's probably not as many blue chips as I am accustomed to seeing of top-end players, but there's a lot of depth to this draft, so I think that it's a good marriage with where we're at," Lynch said. "I really truly believe that it's because the way we worked as a personnel staff with our coaches that we find value late in these drafts and some of our best picks have been there... You constantly have to be replenishing your team and we look forward to that opportunity."