Five players 49ers are counting on making strides in 2023


The 49ers offset some of their free-agent losses with a few veteran signings of their own this offseason.

Along the defensive line, for instance, the 49ers said goodbye to Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu, Jordan Willis and Hassan Ridgeway while welcoming Javon Hargrave, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant to the team.

But a lot of the 49ers’ hopes for advancing even further this season are based on the optimism that some of their important young players can make considerable strides.

Here are five players the 49ers are counting on for improved play and production in 2023:

Edge Drake Jackson

After selecting Jackson with the No. 61 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, coaches and teammates raved about his unique skillset.

After just two days of watching Jackson during the team’s mandatory minicamp, Nick Bosa said, “He does things out there that I definitely couldn’t do as a rookie. Just the way he moves. He’s definitely got some impressive stuff about him.”

Jackson started his rookie season strong with three sacks in his first five games. Then, he hit the rookie wall.

The rookie was inactive for two of the 49ers’ final three regular-season games. He did not suit up for any of the team’s three playoff games, either. The 49ers determined Jackson simply wore down late in the season.

“You got to play with power in this league,” Lynch said this offseason. “He needs to get a little stronger.”

The 49ers are relying on Jackson to provide a pass-rush threat on the outside opposite of Bosa that was lacking last season. Ebukam ranked second on the 49ers with five sacks last season. The 49ers need Jackson to provide an upgrade in pass-rush situations.

CB Deommodore Lenoir

When Lenoir took over in the starting lineup for Emmanuel Moseley, he was seen as the weak link on the 49ers’ top-rated defense.

But late in the season and into the playoffs, Lenoir turned into a strength.

“I am starting to figure out who I am as far as just being able to make plays and really have confidence in myself to make those plays,” Lenoir told NBC Sports Bay Area late in the season.

Lynch described Lenoir’s steadily improving play as a “breakthrough.”

In three playoff games, Lenoir was targeted 13 times and allowed just five catches for 85 yards while registering two interceptions.

Lenoir’s play prompted the 49ers to allow Moseley to leave in free agency for a one-year, $6 million contract with the Detroit Lions.

Now, the 49ers need even more from Lenoir as they count on him to carry over his strong finish into his first full season as the starter.

RG Spencer Burford

Burford won the starting job after arriving on the scene as a fourth-round draft pick from Texas-San Antonio. He ended up making 15 starts while sharing time with versatile veteran Daniel Brunskill.

After Brunskill signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent, there is no safety net for Burford as he enters his second NFL season.

Burford showed promise as a rookie but he lacked consistency.

With right tackle Mike McGlinchey signing a lucrative deal with the Denver Broncos, the 49ers need Burford to become a well-above-average player to take care of business on that side of the line.

DT Javon Kinlaw

Kinlaw enters the final year of his contract and faces an uncertain future beyond this season. But that's a conversation for another day.

For the first time, the 49ers are not counting on Kinlaw to be the next DeForest Buckner. All they need is a solid rotational player on the interior of the defensive line behind presumptive starters Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead.

Kinlaw’s development has been hampered by a bothersome knee condition that curtailed his practice time and limited him to just 24 games in his first three seasons. Lynch said he is excited to see what a healthy Kinlaw has to offer.

If there is little discernible drop-off this season when Kinlaw is on the field, that will provide the 49ers’ defense with a big boost.

WR Danny Gray

The 49ers felt a need for speed, so they selected Gray late in the third round last year with the No. 105 selection.

The addition of Gray, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, was seen as a logical move to give the 49ers a deep threat to go along with strong-armed, first-year starting quarterback Trey Lance.

Sure enough, in the first quarter of the 49ers’ first exhibition game, Lance hit Gray on a 76-yard touchdown pass. And that, without question, was the highlight of Gray’s rookie season.

Gray suited up for 13 regular-season games but caught just one of the seven passes thrown his way for 10 yards.

As is the case with most rookie wide receivers adjusting to Kyle Shanahan’s system, Gray experienced his share of difficulties.

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In his second season, Gray has to earn the confidence of the coaches and the quarterbacks to become a greater factor in the offense.

The 49ers could use the deep threat that Gray provides on the outside to go along with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.

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