There's something weird going on with the San Francisco 49ers: They don't use their rookies at all.
Sure, San Fran's fantastic. They're 6-2 right now, sitting atop an unexpectedly competitive NFC West. The defense is the league's stingiest, only allowing 12.9 points per game. The Falcons and Bears have better records, yes, and the Giants beat them at Candlestick, but the 49ers might be the league's best team, anyway—Football Outsiders ranks them tops in DVOA.
But it's hard not to wonder about what Jim Harbaugh's doing with his youngsters. Look at the team's draft class, primarily the first two picks. The 49ers chose A.J. Jenkins, a wide receiver who could help the spare passing game, and LaMichael James, a speedy back to complement the bruising Frank Gore and shiftier Kendall Hunter. Neither has played a snap this season. Not a single snap.
It's not like Jenkins would be asked to do a great deal. The 49ers rely heavily on the run—ranking first in rushing yards per game this season with 168.6—and little on the pass (Alex Smith has thrown 209 pass attempts this season, 31st among all QBs). And what more does a running back need to learn? Blitz pickup?
Danny Tuccitto of Niners Nation looked at San Francisco's draft class as a whole—he compared the Niners' rookie snaps to other teams'. By a huge margin, San Francisco's rookies see the least playing time in the league, with 0.5 percent—one in every 200 snaps—going to rookies through Week 9. Atlanta's closest to the Niners, with 2.7 percent of its snaps going to rookies.
Although head coaches prefer not to play rookies in general, it's also well known that they don't mind as much when it comes to populating their special teams. And yet, Jim Harbaugh will have none of it. Rookie safety Trenton Robinson has played 25 special teams snaps, Garrett Celek has played one, and that's it. For no other team outside of the Chicago Bears is the sight of a rookie on special teams truly "special."
On defense, the 49ers are one of only two teams in the NFL to have not given a single snap to a rookie. Granted, their 2012 rookie class is mostly geared towards the other side of the ball, but you'd figure Robinson would get into the game for one snap at the end of a blowout, right? Nope. Jim Harbaugh will have none of it.
Does Harbaugh have a hard-on for seniority? Maybe. Are all of the rookies busts and not NFL-worthy? Doubtful. Are the 49ers excellent enough with their current team that they don't feel the need to change anything up? That's probably it. They're really good. But—as Tuccitto points out—if one of those starters gets injured in a crucial situation, and the next man up is a fresh face with no experience on an NFL field, he probably won't hit the ground running. So the Niners could be in a bind. And given how brief the physical window is for most players, who are sapped of their athleticism before their twenties end, the rookies surely can't love this setup. They're missing a year of their physical primes. But as far as NFL dilemmas go, this is a good one to have.