The two best teams in the NFL face off Sunday and the winner will be crowned Super Bowl champions, the highest honor a football team can achieve.
While both the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs are loaded with veteran talent, they are still reliant on rookies to play meaningful snaps.
In last year’s Super Bowl, the New England Patriots enjoyed 94 rushing yards and a touchdown from then-rookie running back Sony Michel while first-year defensive back J.C. Jackson played 29 of the 63 defensive snaps. The Los Angeles Rams had rookie defensive linemen John Franklin-Myers record a sack, forced fumble and quarterback hit.
Super Bowl 54 promises to have even more contributions from rookies. Here are the candidates who are primed to make an impact in the most important game of the season.
San Francisco 49ers
Deebo Samuel, WR
While drops have been frustrating, Deebo Samuel has been a dynamic weapon for the 49ers and has proven to be a perfect fit for the offense. One of only four rookie receivers with over 800 receiving yards this season, Samuel averaged 8.5 yards after the catch and hauled in an impressive 74 percent of his targets. Samuel’s ability to work in all levels of the field presents a considerable challenge to the Kansas City defense.
Nick Bosa, DE
Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2019 draft, immediately fulfilled the promise of being such a high selection and is already one of the league’s premier defensive playmakers. He is equally as effective rushing the passer as he is defending the run. Bosa is the type of talent that can wreck a game plan.
Bosa tallied 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hits, nine sacks and an interception during the regular season; and followed that up with three sacks and four quarterback hits in two playoff games. His matchups with Kansas City offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz might define Sunday’s end result.
Dre Greenlaw, LB
Dre Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick, became a full-time player beginning in Week 10 and is proving to be one of the draft’s biggest steals. Roaming behind the outstanding 49ers defensive line, Greenlaw has been one of their most active defenders. He is seemingly always around the football and has 83 tackles across his last 10 games. Given all of the dynamic weapons Kansas City’s offense features, Greenlaw has a critical role to play in containing its run game, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and playing sound in coverage. Greenlaw has improved consistently throughout his rookie season and San Francisco needs that to continue in the Super Bowl.
Mitch Wishnowsky, P
The 49ers made Mitch Wishnowsky a fourth-round selection and since then he’s been a valuable weapon. His blend of leg power and accuracy has limited players to just 5.2 yards per punt return this season, and Wishnowsky is netting 41.5 yards per punt. Given the dynamic return ability the Chiefs have in both Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, Wishnowsky has to be on his game.
In addition, Wishnowsky continues to kickoff for the 49ers. Don’t sleep on the importance of punting and kickoff duties in the biggest stage football has to offer. Wishnowsky has an important role to fill.
Kansas City Chiefs
Mecole Hardman, WR
Known for his blazing speed, Mecole Hardman has produced numerous chunk plays as a rookie. Hardman averaged over 20 yards per reception with six receiving touchdowns and an average 11.2 yards after the catch. He also had a rushing touchdown, kick return touchdown and averaged 9.3 yards per punt return. One false step by a 49ers defender when Hardman has the ball leaves a good chance at six points for the Chiefs. His presence in the lineup alone gives San Francisco a lot to account for, and he’s already proven more than capable of making game-changing plays.
Darwin Thompson, RB
Despite some hype about Darwin Thompson’s fit with Andy Reid’s offense given his incredible speed, his rookie season has yielded only a modest impact. In 12 games, Thompson has 46 touches for 171 yards and one touchdown. With that said, I can see him making an impact play given the depth Kansas City features. While the San Francisco defense is busy being concerned with Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, Damien Williams, Hill, and Hardman, Reid is certain to have a package or play where Thompson can utilize his speed. He won’t be a major part of Kansas City’s game plan but can make an impact, and Reid is the type of coach that can draw something up.
Khalen Saunders, DT
Khalen Saunders, a third-round pick, hasn’t been a major contributor to the Chiefs’ defense, but he has factored into the rotation. He is a high-effort defender with an intriguing athletic skill set and saw the field on 27 percent of the defensive snaps. San Francisco’s interior offensive line is one of its weaker areas, and Saunders could have some chances to take advantage of it. His lateral mobility will be useful against the 49ers’ zone rushing attack.
Rashad Fenton, CB
Rashad Fenton, the 201st pick in the draft, has developed and found playing time as a rookie. After not logging a defensive snap in the first four games of the season, Fenton wound up claiming at least 25 percent of the reps in seven contests down the stretch including both playoff games.
He is also a multi-phase special teams contributor. While he’s mostly held his own in coverage, Fenton’s best attribute has been his tackling consistency. Given how frequently the 49ers running backs get loose in opposing defenses, Fenton could play an important role in limiting those gashing runs in addition to coverage and special teams duties.