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There are some obvious positions in the upcoming draft that the 49ers could or should look to address (wide receiver, defensive tackle, cornerback, offensive line), but San Francisco hasn’t been exceedingly predictable in which direction it’s decided to go in free agency, in trades and through the draft. So to discount positions because they don’t make sense on paper might be missing some detail which the 49ers are locked in on.
According to The Athletic’s Michael Lombardi, the 49ers have rejected every offer they received for Nick Mullens this offseason. They also failed to move C.J. Beathard last offseason (there’s no market for him), holding onto a roster spot for him in case of disaster. There are a few cases for drafting a quarterback in this draft, none of which make too much immediate sense, in part, due to the 49ers’ limited draft assets (two first-rounders, two fifth-rounders, one sixth, two seventh-rounders).
The first is that head coach Kyle Shanahan thinks he needs to replace Jimmy Garoppolo. If that was the case, the 49ers likely would have pursued Tom Brady and/or traded Garoppolo. He’s well-respected and well-liked in the locker room and was at worst, about the 10th-best quarterback in the NFL last season.
Maybe the case is to eventually make Mullens the starter, and cut Garoppolo next season, when cutting him would result in just a $1.4 million dead cap hit, per OverTheCap. Is that why the 49ers have decided not to restructure Garoppolo’s deal in an effort to hold onto DeForest Buckner? This scenario might make the most sense for drafting a quarterback. You cut Beathard, draft Mullens’ future backup, and go with Mullens and his backup into the future.
Or maybe the front office just wants an upgrade over Beathard and finds a guy like FIU’s James Morgan late on Day 3, viewing that as too much capability in a late QB selection to pass up as a potential starter-quality backup.
The 49ers currently spend more on their backfield than any team in the NFL, when you include fullback Kyle Juszczyk. They rank fourth without him. Instead of cutting or trading Tevin Coleman, they let $2 million of his $4.9 million salary guarantee on April 1. They also tendered Matt Breida at the second-round level ($3.26 million) and restructured Jerick McKinnon’s deal, making him more difficult to cut, but saving substantial money and getting rid of his 2021 year.
The tried and true recipe for dealing with running backs in the NFL is drafting them, letting their rookie deal expire, rinsing and repeating, while bringing in affordable veterans. But because Shanahan has a specific archetype of running back he looks for (speedy backs like Mostert and Breida who run full speed through the line of scrimmage, or larger, agile, pass-catching backs like Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson Jr., with Jerick McKinnon sort of a balance between the two), and the 49ers flopped so badly on Joe Williams, and have such capable running backs, the team has backed off that approach.
But one of those running backs on the roster is going to be cut or traded, and maybe more than one.
The case for drafting a running back is that the 49ers trade/cut Breida and Coleman in an effort to trim the salary cap at what should be one of the cheapest positions in the NFL, and they’re not sure of Jerick McKinnon’s health, and/or believe they can sneak a late-round pick onto the practice squad. This also happens as highly graded running backs become available in later rounds because it’s the most devalued position in the NFL.
Kyle Juszczyk has one year remaining on his deal and as of March 19, the 49ers had not reached out to him to negotiate an extension, per a source. He’s making $6.7 million this season, which is substantially higher than the next-highest-paid fullback in the NFL, Derek Watt of the Steelers, who’s going to make $2.08 million this year.
Dalton Keene, the fullback/tight end hybrid who the 49ers met with at the Combine from Virginia Tech, fits that mold perfectly; maybe the 49ers want to stop paying a fullback a disproportionately high salary and think they can find it in someone like Keene.
This is a likely position for the 49ers to address. The team lost tight end Levine Toilolo and has been looking at options in free agency, from Austin Hooper to Jordan Reed. Ross Dwelley was by no means poor, but the signs from the 49ers scouring of the market seems to be that Shanahan wants a solid No. 2 option behind Kittle. Dwelley had flashes of that, but didn’t show consistency to prove that he can be a starter-quality tight end in the NFL.
At the very least, the 49ers need a third tight end, and as KNBR examined here, the options in this year’s draft actually aren’t that poor. It’s a limited pool of talent, but there figures to be plenty of those options available in the third-through-sixth rounds.
This is the most obvious position of need on the 49ers’ draft board after Emmanuel Sanders’ departure. For the past 18 years, the team has drafted a wide receiver. That trend will continue this year.
Whether it’s with the 13th pick, the 31st pick, somewhere in between, or in the second or third rounds in a trade down, the 49ers must draft a wide receiver in the first three rounds. As proven by their draft history, the need to keep drafting wide receivers for nearly two decades arose because of a failure to get elite talent, and by missing consistently. Their best picks, as you would expect, come in earlier rounds.
With one of the deepest wide receiver drafts in recent memory, the 49ers have an opportunity to find a long-term, potentially elite partner for Deebo Samuel, and they should do so.
Will Joe Staley retire? That’s not out of the question, with NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco putting the chances at 50/50. General manager John Lynch said at the combine he expects Staley to be back and Staley repeatedly shot down questions about him retiring this year, after signing a two-year extension.
Even if Staley doesn’t retire this offseason, the 49ers may want to bring someone in now, not knowing if he’ll be around the following year. They could slot that prospect in at right guard until Staley retires. If one of the elite four prospects somehow falls to No. 13 (Tristan Wirfs, Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton), that could be an enticing option, or present an option for a trade down and selecting a tackle later.
As Matt Barrows of The Athletic reported, the 49ers have already met with Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland, so the organization is doing its due diligence on tackles.
The 49ers cut Mike Person and signed Tom Compton in an underwhelming swap of veteran guards. At this point, it’s clearly Daniel Brunskill’s job to lose. Shanahan and Lynch have expressed substantial confidence in Brunskill, and Shanahan said he viewed him more as a guard than as a tackle.
But maybe the team likes Brunskill more as a long-term tackle option than Justin Skule, or they view the opportunity to draft an elite guard like Netane Muti to compete with Brunskill as too much to pass up.
At center, Weston Richburg has struggled to stay healthy and clearly needs a long-term replacement, though he has a substantial amount of guaranteed money left on his deal. If you draft a high-upside center, you can keep Richburg at center and start that draftee — maybe Lloyd Cushenberry, of LSU, who was described to KNBR by a source as “athletic as shit” — at right guard until the time comes to cut Richburg.
When the 49ers lost Ronald Blair III last year, they lost a tremendous amount of run-defending capability, and struggled to replace his and Damontre Moore’s value with patchwork options like Jeremiah Valoaga and Anthony Zettel. The team’s recent signing in Kerry Hyder, hasn’t been productive since 2016, and there’s no area the 49ers love to upgrade more than the defensive line.
With Dee Ford a health question mark coming into the year, the 49ers could use edge depth and youth, preferably in the form of someone with a high run-stopping floor.
DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day are both members of the Colts. Are the 49ers really comfortable with Solomon Thomas as their starting 3-technique? They shouldn’t be. The 49ers will draft a defensive tackle, but it’s a weird position where there’s some elite talent, then a massive gap, and serviceable options late on. So if they don’t move on an interior defensive lineman, it would not be surprising to see them wait it out for a plug-and-play, lower ceiling, high floor option.
The most enticing option is to draft South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw at 13 or one of that second tier in TCU’s Ross Blacklock or Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore with the 31st pick.
When Kwon Alexander got injured, the 49ers weren’t anywhere near as dynamic defensively, and when Alexander returned for the playoffs, he was an absolute shell of himself. It’s a taxing position and upgrading it in the middle rounds makes a ton of sense, especially if you can find an athletic prospect who slots right in on special teams.
The 49ers like production (Azeez Al-Shaair was the nation’s third-leading tackler in 2017), so don’t be surprised to see them take a high college production, small school linebacker like David Woodward of Utah State in the later rounds.
Another position of need. Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley (RFA) and Jaquiski Tartt all have expiring contracts in 2021. Even without that knowledge, the 49ers should look to upgrade their secondary. There’s a heavy dose of quality corners in this year’s draft. Even if it’s finding a replacement for Williams late in the draft with someone like Auburn’s Javaris Davis, it’s necessary to add youth to the secondary now.
There is the clear case to be made that the 49ers could do better than Witherspoon or Moseley, who have shown extended flashes of excellence, but drive-ruining flaws and have not put a full season of excellent tape on the table. Someone is going to have to replace Richard Sherman, and even if Sherman goes and Witherspoon and Moseley stay, there will need to be a massive talent increase.
The 49ers aren’t likely to draft as high as 13 for a long time, barring another substantial trade, which provides them with a unique opportunity to draft a high-ceiling corner. That opportunity remains with the 31st overall pick, or even a trade down into the second or third rounds. Like with wide receiver, it’s hard to find high ceiling, high floor options at corner past Round 3.
Jaquiski Tartt’s contract expires in a year, and even if he’s re-signed, we all saw what happened when he was injured. The 49ers’ pass defense suffered mightily with Marcell Harris, who was basically a clone of Adrian Colbert in the vein of a power-hitting, run-stopping safety who frequently gets lost in pass coverage. The 49ers could look to find a capable backup here for Tartt, or a future replacement for him.
It’s difficult to make a case here, given that the 49ers are stuck with Gould’s $5.1 million dead cap hit if they cut him. If someone wants to trade for Gould, though, that could open the door for a kicker. Rodrigo Blankenship, anyone?
I’m not sure that anything could warrant drafting a punter in consecutive years, but maybe the 49ers get their hearts set on Texas A&M’s Braden Mann, or saw the 25 bench press reps by Arizona State’s Michael Turk and get all sorts of excited.