SANTA CLARA — With just 3-days left until draft day, the 49ers front office and new coaching staff will be scrambling to put things together. This will be a crucial draft in the future potential success of this team as they hold 10 total selections in 2017. While the 49ers have pulled in 20 free agents as part of the process in rebuilding this team, tailoring it to how Shanahan wants to build it, they will need to approach the draft similarly.
The NFL has become a league driven by quarterback’s and wide receivers. Recent rule changes have customized the rule book to favor these two positions specifically. As I go through this article, I will prioritize based on the current level of talent per position. In delving deep, I will bare in mind the potential of players that are young and already here as well.
Below, in order, I will categorize the 49ers Top 7 needs to fill some current holes that exist still on the roster.
#1 – QUARTERBACK
As mentioned above, this is a quarterback driven league. Without an average to above average starter at this position, you typically won’t go very far. Particularly, if you have a quarterback that is subpar, and do not have a top defense, it is impossible.
Currently, the Niners have two quarterbacks on their roster. It is assumed, as of now, that former Patriots, Browns, Texans, Bears, Brian Hoyer will be the starter. He has been a journeyman in the league that has had several different coaches and had to learn many different playbooks. But he will not have to re-learn Shanahan’s playbook as he played under him while Shanahan was the offensive coordinator with Cleveland. Hoyer had mild success in this offense for that short period of time.
They decided to bring on Hoyer’s back up last year in Chicago in Matt Barkley. Barkley, similar to Hoyer has played for multiple teams; primarily as a back up. He has a few starts under his belt though and had better success at the college level than did Hoyer, who played as the starter over Kirk Cousins at Michigan State.
Being that the Niners only have two quarterbacks rostered, it is widely assumed that they will draft another quarterback with one of the 10 selections that they own. I would expect that this happens within the first four rounds, or so.
Whether it winds up being Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshon Kizer, Davis Webb, Nathan Peterman, or someone unforeseen, expect them to fill that last vacancy of this crucial position relatively early on.
#2 – LINEBACKER
In moving to a 4-3 defense, the 49ers have just two starters at this position in Navorro Bowman and Malcolm Smith. There are guys such as Ray Ray Armstrong and Ahmad Brooks that could fill a roll but the rest of the players at this position are regarded as solid back ups and special teams players.
The Niners may never have another duo like Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman; nor may the NFL as whole.
However, should the Niners go this route in the first couple rounds, players like Reuben Foster, Jarrad Davis, or Zach Cunningham could step in day one and make a significant impact. We shall see how much this new regime places value on the middle of the defensive levels.
#3 – WIDE RECEIVER
As of now, the Niners only have two relatively well established wide receivers. Pierre Garçon had his best year in the NFL when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator as the NFL leader in receptions with 113. Jeremy Kerley had the best year of his career last season with San Francisco as the other established player at this position. He was one of the few shining players that stood out. Outside of those two, there isn’t really much proven success here. Just a bunch of hungry younger players like Marquise Goodwin, Eric Rogers, and Aldrick Robinson. Others such as Bruce Ellington and Aaron Burbridge, former Trent Baalke picks have not amounted to much to this point.
If the Niners are to get stronger here, they will need to strike gold in the draft early on with a guy who will either emerge as a true number one receiver or be an extremely solid number two to Garçon with Kerley playing in the slot.
Mike Williams, Corey Davis, Cooper Kupp, John Ross, Zay Jones just a few names to keep an eye on.
#4 – CORNERBACK
This is definitely a position of uncertainty for the 49ers. There have been talks of Jimmie Ward, the Niners 2014 first round pick moving back to safety with the departure of veteran Antoine Bethea via free agency. With that vacancy left behind, there is a very good chance that he fills that void being that it was his natural position in college. That leaves only one starter in last years rookie, Rashard Robinson. The Niners other starter from last season, Tramaine Brock was cut due to off-field issues that he had.
San Francisco also drafted Will Redmond last season who was injured most of the year.
They signed free agent K’Waun Williams from the Browns and he assumed to take the nickel back position.
Other players such as Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser have started for the 49ers but have failed to show consistency. That other job for corner is wide open.
With 10 picks, and a very deep cornerback draft this year, the 49ers are sure to pick one or two of them to fill the vacancy and breed healthy competition. It’s just a matter of when and where.
#5 – EDGE
Not much pressure was provided from the front seven last season. While the Niners had drafted defensive linemen in back to back drafts with DeForest Buckner (2016) and Arik Armstead (2015) both out of Oregon, there was not consistent pressure on a week to week basis. Buckner has great potential as a guy who can slide around along the front but it is widely assumed that he won’t be a double-digit sacks per year guy. The Niners need a true pass rusher. They have not had that since Aldon Smith had his off-field issues and ultimately released.
The Niners have been connected to both Myles Garrett and Solomon Thomas but there are a few sleeper picks that could be available in Rounds 2 and 3. With the 49ers not having a franchise quarterback, they could very well go that route with the second pick opposed to either of the aforementioned pass rushers.
Players like Takkarist McKinley, Tim Williams, Charles Harris, Taco Charlton, Carl Lawson, or T.J. Watt could be available when the 49ers pick in the second round as well.
# 6 – RUNNING BACK
Carlos Hyde has not been what most would label as being durable. He has yet to play a 16-game season. He has yet to rush for over 1,000 yards. With Kyle Shanahan using two backs in his system in Atlanta in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as a 1-2 punch combined with Hyde’s durability issues, it is safe to assume that despite bringing on free agent Tim Hightower, that the 49ers will add depth to the backfield in what is a relatively deep running back class.
Shanahan’s system requires that a running back have the versatility of not only running the rock but blocking and receiving as well.
The Niners could very well draft Leonard Fournette whether it be taking him at 2 or moving back in a trade and then selecting him. However, considering that the team was 4th in the NFL in rushing last season, that may be a reach. Other running backs that could fit the scheme are Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, or Samaje Perine. While those aren’t the only backs that could fit, they would be the best fits.
#7 – DEFENSIVE LINE
While the Niners have gone defensive line two years in a row, and they have players like Earl Mitchell, Quinton Dial, and Chris Jones for the defensive tackle positions, they could definitely afford to bring in some more size and talent. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead can move around along the front but they are long.
There are some options like Malik McDowell, Vincent Taylor, Montravius Adams that could definitely be appealing options for the Niners in the mid rounds. With that said, it’s my own belief that the Niners will address other positions before they go this route.
If they decided to address this a lot earlier, Jonathan Allen would be the pick. The Niners could shock everyone if they chose Allen with their first rounder.
This is obviously not gospel but it is a good guideline to go by. Some people may have a few of these higher or lower but it’s tough to debate that these are all areas of need. The Niners can easily afford to go with a best player available approach early on due to the fact that there will be a relatively long leash between new Head Coach, Kyle Shanahan and former player turned General Manager, John Lynch as evidence by their contracts. The more talent you have, the more impact they will make.