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Assessing how 49ers will prioritize positions of need in 2023 Draft



© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In roughly two weeks, the 49ers will select the first of potentially 11 players.

While their 11 draft picks are tied for the second-most in the NFL, all of those selections are from the late third round on. A recap of their picks:

  • Round 3, Pick 99 (compensatory)
  • Round 3, Pick 101 (compensatory)
  • Round 3, Pick 102 (compensatory)
  • Round 5, Pick 155 (via Miami Dolphins)
  • Round 5, Pick 164
  • Round 5, Pick 173 (compensatory)
  • Round 6, Pick 216 (compensatory)
  • Round 7, Pick 222 (via Denver Broncos)
  • Round 7, Pick 247
  • Round 7, Pick 253 (compensatory)
  • Round 7, Pick 255 (compensatory)

San Francisco is viewed by some draft models as having the least draft capital of any team in the league:

Their early-round assets departed in the Trey Lance (Round 1, Pick 29) and Christian McCaffrey (Round 2, Pick 61 and Round 3, Pick 93) trades.

Despite all that, the 49ers are a team that has long been successful in the later rounds.

George Kittle, Dre Greenlaw, Talanoa Hufanga and Deommodore Lenoir were fifth-rounders (as was D.J. Reed, who’s been a massive success in Seattle and New Jersey). D.J. Jones and Elijah Mitchell were found in the sixth. Jauan Jennings and Brock Purdy — as some might be aware — were in the seventh.

Of the team’s 11 projected starters on defense, seven were selected in the third round on. Two, in Mooney Ward and Tashaun Gipson Sr., were undrafted. Their second defensive end spot is open for the taking, but probably defaults to Drake Jackson.

On offense, if you assume Purdy is the starter, five players were found in the fourth round or later.

This draft is largely about the 49ers finding future starters and depth pieces, of which they’ve proven they can find in the later rounds. Here’s how they might set their priorities by position (the numbers before each position are how I would rank them in terms of need):

Chance to compete for starting job

1a. Defensive end

The team’s defensive ends not named Nick Bosa are: Drake Jackson, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant.

That’s it. It’s not exactly a confidence-inspiring group.

Jackson is probably the leader in the clubhouse, having shown promising signs in the first half of the season before falling out of the gameday lineups late in the year. Ferrell has been a disappointment for the Raiders after going fourth overall in 2019 (a shock at the time), but he’s just 26. The 49ers were massively successful bringing in Arden Key and will hope for similar success with Ferrell. Bryant is also something of a project player who had 4.5 sacks in 2021 and none in any of his other three seasons.

No one has locked down that job. It is a major position of need and it’s hard to see the 49ers not using one of their first three picks on it.

1b. Right tackle

The 49ers lost Mike McGlinchey and are replacing him with Colton McKivitz. McKivitz has looked serviceable in opportunities, but it’s a definite point of concern, regardless of the slander — sometimes fair, sometimes deranged — levied at McGlinchey.

San Francisco is extremely detailed, especially in its run blocking assignments, so the likelihood of a third-round tackle coming in and immediately taking the job from McKivitz seems low. But if they have enough quality, there could be a camp competition, and an opportunity to win the job throughout the course of the season.

This is another spot that might make sense for one of those first three picks.

Open competition

2a. Kicker

The 49ers will almost certainly draft a kicker. Zane Gonzalez, who was acquired from the Panthers after he was supposed to be released, can be cut without any penalty.

He’s accomplished enough to be considered a legitimate option, but not enough, and without a substantial contract, to be considered a favorite to keep the job.

Michigan’s Jake Moody is generally viewed as the top kicker in this year’s draft. The real question is, if he’s the guy the 49ers want, where would they select him?

They have no fourth-round picks. That’s the round they selected Mitch Wishnowsky and where many mock drafts have Moody going, though specialist predictions are often completely wayward.

The only kicker selected last year, Cade York, went in the fourth round.

Aside from 2016, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second (second!) round, every kicker since 2006 has been selected in the fourth round or later.

There’s a chance San Francisco would have to draft Moody in the late third, or move into the fourth to get him. Or maybe they don’t like him at all, or just feel confident about waiting until the fifth round.

But they’ll need a kicker, whether it’s Moody or someone else.

No depth behind starter, who has substantial injury history

2b. Tight end

While safety and kicker are huge priorities, it’s glaring that the 49ers need another tight end.

Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley have offered next to nothing. Tyler Kroft, who is a free agent, played over both of them down the stretch last year. That ended catastrophically.

Woerner has been the blocking tight end and Dwelley the receiving tight end. But neither are good enough at either of those two things to warrant being out on the field with any consistency.

They need a second tight end. George Kittle’s body takes a beating every season, and while he was healthy last year, saying it was the best he’d felt in a long time, they must improve there.

This is a deep tight end class. It’s crucial that the 49ers are proactive about adding somebody who could potentially back up Kittle and/or be on the field with him at the same time.

It’s a situation where if the right guy is available, you might want to pick up a tight end with your first pick, or one of the first three. Keep in mind, again, that the 49ers have three near-consecutive picks (three in a stretch of four selections) at the end of the third round, so the order isn’t all that important.

Starters established, but competition and depth for future starters welcome

3a. Safety

The fact that Tashaun Gipson Sr., at age 32, was able to take over the 49ers’ starting job alongside Talanoa Hufanga, is incredibly impressive. But he considered retirement this offseason and might only have one year left.

Hufanga, by the way, was named a first team All-Pro in a confounding voting result that shows a lot of writers don’t know what they’re watching, or don’t watch much safety play (which, hey, that’s fair).

Part of that is the fact that if you’re not watching All-22 tape, you can’t really grade the secondary that effectively. TV copies only tell you what happens at the line of scrimmage and a bit behind that, so you’re blind to most coverage responsibilities.

Hufanga was incredibly explosive in the first half of the season. He timed snaps and wreaked havoc in the backfield. But so much of that became predictable in the second half and came with him starting to miss tackles with regularity. On the back end, he was deficient in coverage a handful of times, especially against the Raiders.

While he’s just 24 and coming off an accolade-heavy season, he needs to prove a lot more in coverage this year if he’s going to warrant the 49ers extending him. If not, they might opt to keep adding through the draft and going with cheap veterans in a safety market that is particularly ruthless to older players.

Either way, the 49ers will want someone ready to take over for Gipson next season and potentially compete with him this year. They have George Odum and signed Myles Hartsfield, so there’s a bit of immediate depth there, but nothing long-term.

3b. Corner

Deommodore Lenoir had an impressive postseason after a fairly underwhelming regular season. He overtook Ambry Thomas, who seemed like he was going to compete for the job before training camp.

But with Emmanuel Moseley signing elsewhere, the 49ers are going to need to replenish the outside position. They should be fine at nickel with Samuel Womack and former Falcons corner Isaiah Oliver.

They’ve really struggled to find a capable outside corner in the draft during John Lynch’s tenure. Moseley was undrafted.

While Lenoir is capable, he isn’t exactly stellar. Maybe he gets there. He’s at least at the top of the list of guys including Thomas, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tim Harris Jr. and Tariq Castro-Fields.

The best cornerback pick they’ve had, D.J. Reed Jr., had a pectoral injury that led to the 49ers cutting him and leaving the Seahawks to scoop him up.

This would be a great opportunity to add another corner and maybe, possibly, finally, find a good one.

Depth encouraged

4. Linebacker

With Azeez Al-Shaair gone, there’s a clear opening at SAM linebacker. Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles are probably the favorites there, but the 49ers might want someone younger and speedier. Marcelino McCrary-Ball and Curtis Robinson are the two young guys who’d get a bit of a run there as things stand.

This might be a position where, if you can’t package some of the sevenths to move up, you spend one on a linebacker. San Francisco has had a lot of success in finding undrafted linebackers in Al-Shaair, Jonas Griffith (traded to Denver for a sixth-round pick) and Justin Hilliard (scooped off waivers by the Giants), so that’s another route, too.

5. Everywhere else

You can never have too many offensive linemen or defensive linemen. If the 49ers hit all or most of their pressing needs, spending a few of their picks on raffle spins in the trenches is probably a worthwhile strategy.

As always, you can make an argument for just about every position, and if they want to draft a wide receiver, too, go for it.

It’s wild to see how well-rounded the position group is — with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Ray-Ray McCloud and Danny Gray — compared to where it was a few years ago, when the 49ers had an 18-year streak (ended in 2021) of drafting a wide receiver. Still, Jennings’ contract expires at the end of the year and it always helps to keep getting younger.

That said, receiver doesn’t strike me as being high on the priority list.

Running back might be higher up, and if it’s a sixth-round pick or later, there’s a better chance of that working out than in the early rounds. But the running back group of Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, Jordan Mason and Ty Davis-Price is pretty solid.

The only position not mentioned so far, outside of long snapper (local Twitter user Taybor Pepper re-signed this offseason) and fullback, is quarterback.

It might make sense to spend another seventh on a quarterback, especially if the team gets a compelling offer on Trey Lance, or if they just want another roulette wheel spin. It worked out pretty well last year. Why not this year?