© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
John Lynch has mastered GM-speak. His 40-minute-long meeting with reporters on Monday was filled with phrases like “due diligence,” drafting “special” players, and more generalities after being asked about specifics.
Lynch did, however, elaborate on what he has learned entering his third year as an NFL general manager.
When asked about how many prospects have first-round grades, Lynch declined to give a number, despite doing so last year. He admitted he would have preferred retaining Reuben Foster — arguably the organization’s biggest draft bust of the current regime — over signing Kwon Alexander to a lucrative four-year deal. Lynch said the 49ers have brought in more prospects in a group setting this year than in years past to see how they interact with others.
These remarks remind us that the 49ers, from the management to the field, are still a work in progress. Lynch and Shanahan believe steady progress has been made from the onset of their tenure. In year No. 3, the 49ers roster is deeper and more talented, and because of this, roster spots will be hard to come by, they have reiterated.
Those comments heighten the need for a successful 2019 draft. Of the 49ers’ six picks, they have the No. 2, No. 36, and No. 67 selections. They must add difference-makers in the early rounds. If they can locate a late-round gem, such as George Kittle, that’s a bonus.
The silver lining from a frustrating 4-12 2018 season is San Francisco’s high pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, set to begin Thursday evening. Now, it’s up to the 49ers brass to nail that pick, while addressing other areas of need in the subsequent rounds.
Here is what a successful draft for the 49ers would look like.
Fill two biggest needs in opening rounds
Let’s look at this simply. The 49ers’ two biggest weaknesses are a lack of an edge rusher opposite Dee Ford and a “Z” receiver. By the time the No. 36 pick rolls around, they will almost certainly have top options at receiver, but not edge rush. That’s why their first pick should be used on a pass rusher.
If Nick Bosa is there, don’t overthink it. He has been considered the best prospect in this class for the past year-plus. He helps morph San Francisco’s biggest weakness throughout the past two years into one of its greatest strengths. His powerful pass-rush style complements Ford’s lightning-quick first step.
The 49ers would still be OK if Bosa is taken No. 1 overall. That’s because they would receive offers from quarterback-needy teams coveting Kyler Murray or Dwayne Haskins with the No. 2 pick. The 49ers could potentially land a major haul in exchange for that pick. In that case, the 49ers could still draft an edge rusher with a profile similar to Bosa’s — whether Montez Sweat, Clelin Ferrell, or Rashan Gary — despite picking slightly later in the first round.
Onto the receivers. This class is one of the deepest at the position in the past decade, and several prospects would fit in nicely at San Francisco’s “Z” spot, a major need after Pierre Garcon was released in January. Deebo Samuel, N’Keal Harry, and A.J. Brown are all instant difference-makers who fit the profile.
Last year, Kendrick Bourne led all 49ers wide receivers with 487 yards. The 49ers passing offense turned largely one dimensional, targeting tight end George Kittle vastly more than any other receiver, as the 2018 season dragged on. Some of that had to do with injuries. But there’s no denying the 49ers need a sure-handed playmaker to set up speedsters Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin on the opposing side of the field.
Adding difference-makers at edge rusher and wide receiver in the opening rounds is paramount.
Add offensive line depth
The 49ers believe excellent offensive line play doesn’t slip far in the draft. That’s why they selected offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with the No. 9 overall pick last year. While he didn’t fill the team’s biggest need, he was a safe pick, and as it now looks, the right pick.
The 49ers want left tackle Joe Staley to retire as a 49er, but at some point, they will have to think about life after him. McGlinchey will be Staley’s successor. The 49ers will have to locate McGlinchey’s successor on the right side at some point, too. The team does not currently employ a backup offensive tackle with extended NFL experience.
The 49ers need to add more offensive line depth, particularly at the tackle positions. The team looks better at the interior after signing 31-year-old Ben Garland, an excellent run blocker at guard, on Tuesday. He will likely back up starting left guard Laken Tomlinson. Joshua Garnett and Mike Person will battle for the starting right guard position. And center Weston Richburg enters his second year in the starting role.
Drafting an offensive tackle and letting him learn under Staley and McGlinchey is a priority.
Address special teams conundrum
No team wants to enter the draft with its franchise-tagged player vocally disgruntled with his contract. That’s where the 49ers find themselves, with kicker Robbie Gould wanting out of San Francisco.
On Tuesday, he told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that much. Schefter said if Gould “reports at all, it will not be before the 49ers’ Sept. 8 regular-season opener, making him a summer holdout.” The 49ers have applied the franchise tag to Gould, but he has not yet signed the tender.
The 49ers will have to address their kicker situation eventually. If they do so in the draft, that evidently speaks to their lack of confidence in reaching an agreement with Gould. Maybe the 49ers can bait the Chicago Bears into sending a late-round pick in exchange for Gould, though Chicago trading for Gould three years after releasing him isn’t likely.
The 49ers could turn to the free agent market. Matt Bryant, one of Shanahan’s favorite kickers, is looking for a home. If the 49ers don’t foresee progress on contract negotiations with Gould, Bryant seems like the home-run replacement, considering his consistency and two-year partnership with Shanahan in Atlanta.
The punter situation isn’t much clearer. Last month, the team signed Justin Vogel, whose only NFL season was played in 2017. He is not thought to be the long-term solution. The 49ers need a capable punter who can also handle kickoffs, unless Gould’s potential replacement can do so.
It’s more likely the 49ers add a punter than a kicker in the draft. Stanford’s Jake Bailey has garnered some late-round buzz.
By the end of the draft process, the 49ers’ special-teams outlook should be improved in some way.
Add secondary depth
Contrary to popular belief, the 49ers seem to like their secondary outlook.
On Monday, Lynch was asked how difficult it would be for a young player to leapfrog veterans such as Jimmie Ward and Jason Verrett as starters.
“Difficult, but not impossible,” Lynch said. “I’ll leave that to Kyle, but there’s a few spots here where we know pretty certainly that this guy has this spot on lockdown. Otherwise we believe in competition and competition making everyone better. I would never rule that out.”
Ward, a much-maligned Trent Baalke holdover, was re-signed to a one-year deal, despite inconsistencies with play and health throughout his five years with the 49ers. Verrett, who earned a Pro Bowl nomination in his only healthy season, was a low-risk, high-reward flier to compete with Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore at the right cornerback spot. The strong safety battle will feature Jaquiski Tartt and Marcell Harris. Adrian Colbert and Reed will compete for the starting free safety job. Antone Exum will be in the mix, too.
It appears the only certain starter in the secondary, based on performance last season, would be Richard Sherman. Lynch’s comments suggest otherwise.
But it would be surprising if the 49ers don’t add depth at cornerback and safety at some point. Shanahan and Lynch have long maintained that you can never have enough players at those positions, considering the inevitable attrition and the NFL’s pass-happy offenses.
Adding a difference-maker in the secondary doesn’t seem like a top priority to the team. But, after recording an NFL-record-low two interceptions in 2018, it should be at least addressed before the final rounds.