They say that you truly can't tell if a player is a success or a bust until he's played three years in the league. Sometimes, however, you get a sense after 12 games. With that in mind, here's a quick run down of the 49ers' nine-man draft class, where they stand now, where they might stand next year.
1A. LB Patrick Willis (No. 11 overall). During training camp, I thought Willis was a pretty good player. Early in the season, I thought he had a shot at defensive rookie of the year. Now I think he's good enough for defensive player of the year. Will he get it? Tackles are great, but they're not as sexy as sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns. But who knows - a stellar performance against Adrian Peterson on Sunday could change that. Willis is fast, instinctual, plays hurt and - this is the scary part - is still getting better. But he's so humble, you wonder if he'll become a locker-room leader. He doesn't have the hot-fire intensity of a Ray Lewis or the cold-fire intensity of a Mike Singletary.
1B. RT Joe Staley (No. 28 overall). Another first-round hit. Staley has been the most consistent 49ers offensive lineman this season and it's likely that he will be switched to left tackle next season. A one-time tight end in college, Staley had quick feet when he arrived and has been fast to pick up technique. He's gotten more aggressive as the season has gone on and he should really benefit from the team's off-season weight program. Was he worth the 2008 first-round pick for which he was traded? The 49ers certainly didn't expect it would be so valuable, but Staley should measure up nicely with whomever the Patriots select.
3A. WR Jason Hill (No. 76 overall). Like all young 49ers receivers, Hill has had a hard time satisfying meticulous position coach Jerry Sullivan. He also has had trouble staying healthy, dealing with various muscle strains that have kept him out of action. But Hill has shown nice toughness when he's on special teams, a trait that bodes well for the flanker position the coaching staff envisions him playing. Hill isn't as fast as his 40-time indicates, but he is bigger and thicker than he appears at first glance. He's an eager learner who should blossom with time ... if he ever sees the field.
3B. DE Ray McDonald (No. 97 overall). McDonald gets off the line of scrimmage faster than any other 49ers' defensive lineman - and that's something you can't coach. He has shown flashes of potential at times, played like a rookie at other times. The 49ers are expecting him to take off next season. The question is whether McDonald has shown enough potential to allow current right defensive end Marques Douglas, an unrestricted free agent come March, to walk.
4A. OLB Jay Moore (No. 104 overall). Moore suffered a bad high-ankle sprain and was placed on IR before the season. Before he got hurt, he was making the difficult transition from three-point-stance defensive end to pass-rushing linebacker. The 49ers love Moore's size - 6-4, 270 pounds - and he has been a punctual student in the film room all year. He should provide nice depth at the all-important OLB spot next season, a la Parys Haralson this year.
4B. S Dashon Goldson (No. 126 overall). The darling of spring practices, Goldson looks like a keeper. He has excellent coverage skills and isn't afraid to lower his helmet for a tackle as shown by his recent play on special teams. Goldson's biggest obstacle is the play of the two players ahead of him at safety. Mark Roman has played well this year while Michael Lewis has played really well.
4C DT Joe Cohen (No. 135 overall). Cohen will have a tough time making the squad next year. He got shoved around in training camp, then suffered a devastating knee injury in a preseason game that left him with a torn ACL. He probably won't start practicing again until training camp. There is also quite a bit of depth at his position. Aubrayo Franklin is the starter while the team also picked up Atiyyah Ellison at the start of the season. Isaac Sopoaga and Ronald Fields - both of whom probably will be back next year - also factor in at the position. The best things that Cohen has going for him is that his rehab partner is Manny Lawson, who is providing plenty of incentive/encouragement for a strong recovery.
5 CB Tarell Brown (No. 147 overall). Ernest and polite, Brown has been a model citizen in San Francisco after a couple of brushes with the law at Texas. He hasn't had a lot of playing time this season but coaches love his athleticism and coverage skills. He almost certainly will factor into the mix at cornerback next season.
6 RB Thomas Clayton (No. 186 overall). Like Brown, Clayton was a guy who arrived with character concerns after a rocky college career. The 49ers coaches tested him early, making him the de facto tackling dummy early in training camp. Clayton handled it all with aplomb, played well in the preseason but landed on the practice squad before the regular season began. In order to beat out Maurice Hicks for a 53-man spot next year, he'll have to improve upon breaking tackles and staying on his feet.
Did you see the Ravens game last night? After that unfortunate fourth-and-one timeout (and you think Nolan calls some dubious timeouts!) the reaction from the Ravens' defenders was priceless. It was as if they collectively went Bobby Knight on their own coaching staff. It was a classic case of a coaching staff that had lost control of its players. You're starting to see/hear similar rebellion and unrest in Miami and a few other teams. In San Francisco? Nothing. And that's a big reason why Mike Nolan probably will be back next year. He's still in control.
Not sure how to proceed with the P. Willy Nickname Challenge. The vote has been sabotaged twice - P-52 was winning at the time -- and more nickname suggestions continue to pour in. A few recent notables:
1. Decker - Because there are 52 card in a deck and because, well, Willis decks people.
2. Wham Bam Willis
3. Rolling Thunder
4. Groundskeeper Willie
5. Smack Down
To me, the best nickname would combine Willis' humble demeanor off the field with his prowess on it. SF Chronicle writer John Crumpacker, for example, suggested Humble Hammer. Maybe it should be "Silent but Deadly," although that suggestion whiffs of something different altogether.
-- Matt Barrows