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Assessing 49ers’ 2021 draft class and what we learned

© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There was no shortage of surprises in the 49ers’ draft. By its end, San Francisco had made its bet on the future of the franchise, and provided some protection in front of and behind him. It will define the Shanahan-Lynch era, but it regained some normalcy after the absurd buzz of the first night.

And though there were some not so surprising things. As I previewed the options on days two and three, here are some things that I expected, which panned out:

  • Trade with the Raiders from 43 to 48: I had expected this would be for one of the Raiders’ back-to-back third-rounders (79 and 80), with San Francisco sending back a fourth, but the 49ers probably got better value by only giving up a seventh (230 overall) and receiving a fourth (121 overall). It made too much sense given the way the board panned out and the likelihood a team would make a move up for some of the fringe first-round picks that fell out that San Francisco could move down.
  • Closed the gap from 43 to 102: That was just too many spots in too valuable a range for the 49ers to sit on the sideline. They ended up sliding back to 48, then packaging two fourth-rounders, No. 117 and 121, to get up to No. 88 for Ohio State running back Trey Sermon.
  • Prioritized the offensive line, started with an interior offensive lineman: It’s a basic philosophy. When you draft a franchise quarterback (and especially when your veteran who might start is injury prone), you also bolster the offensive line. That was done with Notre Dame bulldozing guard Aaron Banks and Western Michigan’s Jaylon Moore, who Kyle Shanahan said he views as a guard. I thought San Francisco would use its second pick on the interior offensive line, despite not drafting a single interior lineman in the last four years besides Colton McKivitz (who they said they viewed as a tackle). Perhaps the only surprise here was not taking a center who you could slot into the guard spot for a few years before moving back to center, but the 49ers clearly prioritized a Day 1 fit, and will cross the bridge to replace Alex Mack when that time comes. For right now, it’s Daniel Brunskill as the backup center.
  • Doubled down on corners: There was almost nonexistent corner depth, so they replenished it with Michigan’s Ambry Thomas (the other option they were interested in was Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, who the Saints took) and Oregon’s Demmodore Lenoir, who projects likely as a slot corner, but might get some run at safety, too. It would have been malpractice to skip drafting a corner, and a dicey approach to only draft one.

And here are some things that I did not expect:

  • Drafting a running back high, let alone two: I’m not surprised the 49ers took a running back. Their two lead backs in Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. both missed time due to injury last year and have one year remaining on their deals. JaMycal Hasty and Wayne Gallman are probably not the most reliable other options, so the 49ers prioritizing this is not surprising. What was surprising, though, was taking two running backs and trading up for one while not drafting a wide receiver. That said, I love both selections. Trey Sermon has elite burst and size with production on the highest stage, and Elijah Mitchell is a freaky fast speed back who could be an outside zone nightmare for defenses. This team rosters four running backs, so you’d bet it’s Hasty and Gallman on the outside looking in at this point, though Mitchell will have to prove himself in camp.
  • Skipping a receiver for the first time since 2002: This is the only thing that I’m still a bit surprised by. Outside of Deebo Samuel, who’s been injury prone, and Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco’s current group is Richie James Jr., Mohamed Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Jalen Hurd, Jauan Jennings, River Cracraft, Trent Sherfield, Matt Cole, Kevin White and Austin Proehl. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see many, if any guarantees in that group. James has proven enough thus far to be the favorite to start in the slot, but that’s far from a lock. Sanu has not looked himself in a while, Benjamin is probably a viable backup outside receiver, and who knows whether Hurd or Jennings will be healthy? The 49ers did pick up UAB’s Austin Watkins as an undrafted free agent, who has a real shot to make the roster as a taller slot option, but it still feels like there’s a depth issue here even if Hurd turns out to be fully healthy.
  • Skipping a defensive end: It was a weird defensive end class, but there were some quick-twitch athletes available all the way through to the fifth round. The front office did a fantastic job replenishing depth, but it still felt like there was room to bring in a rookie to compete for a spot. This team is founded on having an elite defensive front. It’s not a dire need, but their previous draft philosophy suggested they might go this route.
  • Skipping a tight end: This was a miscalculation in hindsight, given the putridity of this tight end class. It was either early, or very late, or, apparently, not at all. When I said they “have to draft one,” that probably should have been re-assessed as they really should acquire one. Could they be players for Zach Ertz? It wouldn’t surprise me. Kyle Shanahan wanted Austin Hooper a year ago and I find it hard to believe a group of Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner and Daniel Helm will be deemed sufficient.

Going back to the Lance selection, this is an in-depth explanation of why some, including myself, got convinced erroneously, and perhaps stupidly, that Shanahan would draft Mac Jones. It never made practical sense, and would have been a damning selection, but given the horrifically long buildup to the draft, Shanahan’s process in the 2017 draft and comments before this one, there was too much time to overthink it, and it wasn’t entirely far-fetched.

Team CEO Jed York told NFL Network’s Jim Trotter, just as I postulated here, that Jones was the team’s safety net; in other words, if they came out of the evaluation process of Lance and Fields unimpressed, they’d go with Jones. Shanahan said Jones was in the conversation.

As Trotter wrote:

“Jones was considered a safety net, if you will, someone they could win a title with but not necessarily a transcendent talent, because he lacks the mobility to consistently turn off-schedule plays into something positive.”

As I postulated on April 6:

“I believe the 49ers traded up to the third spot knowing that if they came out of their evaluations unimpressed with both Fields and Lance, Jones was a safe option they would be alright with.”

If you’re worried about Lance, don’t be. He’s definitely raw, but that’s a positive thing. This is Kyle Shanahan’s dream. He’s been able to get the most out of — let’s be honest — limited quarterbacks who succeed largely on fundamentals and processing. In Lance, he has a ball of clay; a player who is already a natural processor, surveyor of the field, and who quite literally has every available tool in the arsenal.

Do those tools need to be sharpened? Of course. Will there be growing pains? Absolutely.

But he’s a 20-year-old super athlete who wowed Shanahan and the 49ers’ staff not with his physical traits, but with his mind. It was his ability to break down film, dive into the minutiae and verbiage of his offense that blew them away. Shanahan would not have taken a chance on him if he didn’t see him prove those particularities he values in his footwork, anticipation and processing. He has those, and it might take time, but the 49ers now have someone who has the very real potential to dominate the NFL for the next decade and beyond.

And from a running game perspective alone, it’s clear what the 49ers have done.

Shanahan and Lynch said they didn’t intend to go out of their way to draft two guards and two running backs, that it’s just how the draft played out, and how they had players ranked on the board. But it’s evident they put a premium on protecting their new, young quarterback and reaffirming the run game.

They’re not going to make Lance a read-option quarterback, but you can be damn sure that when Shanahan said that he’s long been “intrigued” about having a quarterback with a running element to his game, he means he intends to frequently exploit defenses who don’t account for Lance as a runner.

Everything in Kyle’s system, and how he surveys the game is about mismatches; how can the 49ers have one more blocker than the other team has tackler? How can they exploit space, timing and habits to their advantage?

That’s exactly why Kyle Juszczyk has been so crucial to making the system work; he’s a dynamic blocker and potential sneaky receiver if he’s not accounted for.

I hate to give draft grades immediately after the draft has concluded because it’s, well, innately stupid. We haven’t seen how these players operate at an NFL level, the behind-the-scenes issues or injuries they deal with, and whether they’re simply in a bad fit or receiving poor coach. If a guy gets injured early but had a clean bill of health before the NFL, is he a bust? It’s a weird exercise trying to grade players before they’ve taken a single snap.

That said, I’ll cave and give an overall draft grade, because that’s what the cool kids do: B+

First, the bad:

  • Drafting two players you view as guards gives me some pause, whereas drafting a college center who could slot in at guard, at least in my view, would have been preferable, and someone like Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey was available when Banks was, and had the same sort of athleticism. That’s not knocking the Banks selection; I’ve loved his tape for a while, but it’s unclear how long Alex Mack will last, and if he retires after this year, well, Shanahan is a stickler about having a well-versed, preferably veteran center, and it feels like this was a good opportunity to draft the future of that position.
  • I just have a very hard time trusting this wide receiver group. Samuel has been oft-injured, and both Jalen Hurd and Jauan Jennings have yet to play a down in the NFL. Travis Benjamin has been out for a year (hey, maybe that’s a good thing; it was for Trent Williams). Who knows what Mohamed Sanu has left in the tank? Maybe Austin Watkins will be a training camp stud and this point will be moot, but I still think the team should have drafted a slot receiver.

The good:

  • Trey Lance is a stud. Barring injury, I think he’ll take to Shanahan’s coaching faster than some may expect and oust Garoppolo as the starter by Week 6.
  • I love the running back selections. Both Sermon and Mitchell have the burst to thrive in an outside zone system, but provide different skillsets. It’s not smart to bet on Mostert or Wilson or any running back’s health holding up, and with both of them expiring in a year, and Mostert asking for a raise last season, it’s intelligent and forward thinking to move early. I don’t really mind spending two fourths to move up for Sermon.
  • Same goes for the guards. Aside from what I mentioned above, that I would have preferred a center who is positionally flexible, I love the philosophy of stacking the offensive line. The Chiefs did it, as did the Jets. Protect your quarterback. I also think Moore has more capability to play tackle than Colton McKivitz (who had a howler of a rookie year) ever did, and the 49ers view him as thriving on the interior. Aaron Banks is going to bully people on the inside.
  • They addressed the defensive backfield. I thought they needed two corners and they got two corners. Both are a bit raw, but hey, that’s what training camp is for, and both have athleticism and tape that fits the position. Ambry Thomas stood out at the senior bowl and has elite ball-tracking ability, which may be a whiplash reaction to Ahkello Witherspoon’s lack of it. Deommodore Lenoir has almost an identical physical profile to K’Waun Williams, and the plan is probably to have him be the long-term replacement at nickel.
  • I’ve only watched about five minutes of Talanoa Hufanga, but I’m in love with this kid after watching that little tape and talking to him. Lynch said it well, that it doesn’t really matter what position he plays; he’s an All-American, and he can play. His injury concerns are from 2019, when he broke his collarbone. He plays with and admitted to playing with a discernible joy for the game, and channels that into beautiful, downhill violence. He said he aims to be a special teams Pro Bowler in his rookie year. How can you not love that?

To review: the 49ers drafted a dual-threat quarterback of the future, who will unlock this offense and terrify the rest of the NFL, while adding protection for him and potentially easing the burden on him early by adding some young, quick-twitch runners. They replenished a secondary that needed replenishment with three selections, using only one pick, with Hufanga, on a person with a mildly concerning injury history. The bets are on guys who they expect to be ready for day one. Aside from concerns about receiver depth (and maybe tight end and defensive end, too), there’s not too much to complain about.


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