The 49ers are embracing their youth, and that's a good thing

LANDOVER, Md. -- As San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard trotted into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins, left tackle Joe Staley offered only a small piece of advice.

"I told him, ‘Let loose, man, you have got nothing to lose,'" Staley said. "'Just go in there and do what you’ve been doing your whole career.'"

After Sunday's 26-24 loss -- the Niners' NFL-record fifth in a row by three points or fewer -- there really isn't anything to lose. At 0-6 with 10 games to play, it would take a miraculous turnaround to make this season matter in terms of something meaningful such as the postseason.

No, this season is and has always been about building for the future. While that means the offseason will be important in terms of adding and subtracting from the roster, the remaining 10 games are just as important when it comes to laying the foundation for that future.

To that end, the future is now.

On Friday, the 49ers released beloved veteran NaVorro Bowman after he grew unhappy with a reduced role and said so publicly. Part of the reason for that move was to clear a path for rookie Reuben Foster to start at middle linebacker -- the position the team envisioned for Foster upon drafting him -- when he returns from a high ankle sprain.

On Sunday, head coach Kyle Shanahan turned to Beathard in place of Brian Hoyer midway through the second quarter, then confirmed after the game that Beathard had done enough to be the starter moving forward. In a more subtle move, the Niners also quietly began rotating rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson.

Add those changes to rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas' stepping into the starting lineup for the injured Tank Carradine, rookie George Kittle's opening the season as the starting tight end and increased playing time for rookie receiver Trent Taylor and running back Matt Breida and it's not hard to see what's happening here.

The 49ers' youth movement has taken hold, whether they want to call it that or not.

"Each situation is different," Shanahan said. "I think everyone puts too much into 'you are trying to win with veterans [or] you are trying to build with younger [players].' I don't totally look at it that way. You try to think about everything that gives you the best chance to win now without sacrificing the future. You take it all into account. There’s not just an easy answer that veterans give you the best chance to win, but you are not grooming the young guys. Guys compete, they compete every day in practice, they compete on the field, and you try and do what's best for your team that gives you a chance to win every week and that will allow you to get better as the season goes."

Therein lies the rub. Just because Shanahan and the Niners have been using some of their younger players more regularly doesn't mean the results have changed. Yes, they're still losing, but they're not getting blown out, as the not-so-desirable distinction they earned Sunday would attest. In other words, the 49ers are still not winning, but at least they're not winning with players who still have growth potential.

Sunday's defeat was a good example. While it might have felt all too familiar because of how it happened, there was a noticeable difference just in the fact that it happened with Beathard at the controls. The Niners already know what they have in Hoyer, and they know Hoyer will be a good teammate and helpful to Beathard moving forward, which is part of the reason they signed him in the offseason.

With Beathard at quarterback for the next 10 games, they can get a long look at him and see what his ceiling might be. Hoyer has been hitting his head on the ceiling for some time.

The same is true at a number of other positions, so don't be surprised if the Niners continue to get more snaps for some of their other young players. Foster is likely to return next week against Dallas. Witherspoon's playing time will continue to increase. Rookie Cole Hikutini got his first taste of NFL action Sunday after being called up from the practice squad. Wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden Jr., offensive lineman Erik Magnuson and linebacker Pita Taumoepenu also could start working their way into the mix.

Even with the changes already made and more potentially on the way, Shanahan believes the close losses won't do anything but help his team moving forward. At least in the case of the players he wants to keep around.

"You don't have to classify it as a negative or a positive," Shanahan said. "You can make it into a positive. We are in a situation that not a lot of people have been in. I truly believe that if you got the right people, you don't look at other people, you look at yourself. I really believe you can learn from these situations and be better from it. Yeah, it’s frustrating now, and putting yourself in a hole like we are. What's this gonna make us? Is it gonna make us worse or make us better in the long run? There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, and I don’t know when it will be, but going through stuff like this will make us better."

If nothing else, continuing to commit to his many young players will give Shanahan a chance to determine who has what it takes to be part of what the Niners are building and who doesn't. After all, you can't know what's going to come next until you know what you already have.