The 49ers might be on a bye week after their high-point of the season, but Sunday’s win over the Giants was the team’s first in 10 tries this year — not to spoil the celebration, but this Niners season, as so many expected, is going to end in a high first-round draft pick.
A very high first-round draft pick.
The 49ers currently hold nine draft picks in April’s NFL Draft, which will be held at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. Not all of those picks were originally the 49ers’ — for instance, San Francisco’s second-round pick was originally held by the Saints and will be ordered according to New Orleans’ final place in the standings — but nine picks, with four likely to be in the top 100 selections, is a load from which the Niners can fill (or at least address) many of the team’s needs.
And boy, as anyone who has watched the Niners this year can tell you, are there prodigious needs in Santa Clara.
Free agency could change the 49ers’ roster significantly, too, but with the looming threat of franchise tags above top-flight players and plenty of time for things to change in contract negotiations between now and free agency’s first day, it’s a bit more difficult to project, much less expect anything, this upcoming free agent class.
Regardless, after 10 weeks of play, here are the 49ers’ biggest needs and some ways the team can address them this offseason:
No. 1 wide receiver
No offense to Pierre Garcon, or Marquise Goodwin — while both have proven to be solid receiving options for the 49ers this season, this team needs a receiver that can meld the reliability of the former with the game-breaking ability of the latter.
Those aren’t easy to find, particularly when you consider that Kyle Shanahan is coming from an offense that had Julio Jones. That might be his prototype.
And seriously, where do you find the next Julio Jones?
Luckily, Shanahan doesn’t hellbent on ideals — he can make different kinds of players work in his offense. (Though he, deep down, might really want Julio instead.)
Jones was most potent in the Atlanta offense under Shanahan because he was frequently used in the slot. Perhaps the 49ers’ next “top” receiver is a player that lines up almost exclusively in the slot…
Dolphins slot receiver Jarvis Landry has been one of the NFL’s best receivers since he entered the league in 2014. He’s on the last year of his rookie deal, and while he and the Dolphins are keen to make a long-term extension happen, reports out of South Florida are that there hasn’t been much traction in that department. Landry is a prime candidate to earn a franchise tag (if he and the Dolphins don’t come to an agreement on a new deal) but should he somehow hit the open market, the 49ers, who are projected to have $117 million in cap space to spend this upcoming offseason, should be a top bidder.
Garcon and Goodwin out wide, Landry in the slot? That’s not bad at all. I’d go as far to say that’s pretty good.
And if Landry isn’t available, or Shanahan is simply interested in landing that Julio Jones-type, SMU wide receiver Courtland Sutton is a player out of the Atlanta receiver’s mold and could well be worthy of a top-five pick.
Free agent possibilities: Jarvis Landry; Alshon Jeffery; Terrelle Pryor; Sammy Watkins
First-round possibilities: Courtland Sutton, SMU; Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Other draft possibilities: Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame (projected day two pick); Deon Cain, Clemson (projected day two pick)
All-around running back
We still don’t know if looming free agent Carlos Hyde will remain with the 49ers — Shanahan prefers a one-cut back who is also a more-than-viable receiving threat. Hyde is a solid back who has worked to fit into Shanahan’s offense in recent weeks, but he is neither of those things, and that could (should?) bring about a divorce this winter.
The Niners will carry 2017 draft pick Joe Williams, a one-cut back out of Utah who has spent this year on injured reserve, and Matt Breida, who has established himself as a solid zone runner this season, but probably isn’t this team’s lead back of the future. San Francisco can probably make due with both of those players, but an upgrade — landing a prototypical Shanahan running back; a three-down third-down back — could unlock so many things for this 49ers offense next year.
With Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman off the market — he signed a contract extension before the start of this season — the top option is Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who is arguably the top player in college football this year.
It might be bold for a rebuilding team to take a running back in the top-five, but Barkley is a perfect — and I mean perfect — fit for Shanahan’s offense. He has incredible vision and is coming from a system predicated by zone blocking, he has the rare ability to accelerate through and after cuts, and he’s a pass-catcher worthy of being split out wide. If Shanahan had a create-a-player option, he’d create something that looked an awful lot like Barkley.
Free agent possibilities: Dion Lewis; Jerick McKinnon; Rex Burkhead; Carlos Hyde
First-round possibilities: Saquon Barkley, Penn State; Derrius Guice, LSU
Other draft possibilities: Sony Michel, Georgia; Royce Freeman, Oregon; Bryce Love, Stanford; Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
No. 1 cornerback
Cornerback has been a sore spot for the Niners this season, as injury and downright poor play have made the position a week-to-week toss-up.
In the modern NFL, teams need to have three viable downfield coverage threats at cornerback at all times — even in a Cover-3 scheme like the 49ers run. Ahkello Witherspoon (one of my favorite prospects from the 2017 draft class) looks to have cemented a job as one starting cornerback next year, and Jimmie Ward could be an option to start at nickelback.
But the Niners do not have a cornerback who can lock down one side of the field — something that’s vital in a single-high safety system — and that has to be a top priority this offseason. (There are a lot of priority needs…)
As it stands, only one pending free-agent cornerback fits the bill: Trumaine Johnson of the Rams.
I’m not sold on Patriots pending free agent Malcolm Bulter as an option for the 49ers, because while he’s tenacious, he’s only 5-foot-9. Johnson has the size — 6-foot-1 — and the physicality play in the 49ers’ Seahawks-inspired scheme. More importantly, unless he comes to an agreement with the Rams on a long-term deal soon, he’ll almost assuredly hit the open market (unless the Rams want to pay him more than $23 million for the 2018 season), as he’s played the last two years under a franchise tag.
Last year’s cornerback draft class was generational. This year’s, while good, is nowhere near that level. There are viable corners with size (a necessity in the Niners’ system) worthy of a first-round pick, but none are deserving of a top-five pick.
I’ve known Florida State’s Tarvarus McFadden since he was a freshman at American Heritage High in Plantation, Florida and there’s no doubt in my mind he has the skillset to be a No. 1 corner in this league – but I haven’t seen the ability to spar with receivers yet. For a player with his size, that’s disappointing. Still, he’s an excellent prospect.
That said, Isaiah Oliver — who played with Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie at Colorado — is my favorite first-round-rated cornerback option for the Niners. He’s big, strong, fast, and sound — a near-perfect fit for what the Niners need in a cornerback.
Oliver’s short-area reactionary quickness and drive on the football in press man is astounding. Great example of mirroring w/feet at LOS: pic.twitter.com/GBc1XNSex5
— Jonah Tuls (@JonahTulsNFL) October 20, 2017
That said, Oliver is no surefire, lock-down No. 1 — he doesn’t have the same game-changing, shut-down upside as McFadden or the smaller Denzel Ward out of Ohio State — but he’s a great scheme fit (as is USC’s Iman Marshall). Still, I’m convinced Oliver will have a solid NFL career, even if it’s only as a No. 2.
And to be totally honest, I’m not sure if Minkah Fitzpatrick of Alabama, who might be the best defensive back in this class and the only one worthy of a top-10 pick, is a safety or cornerback right now.
That said, the 49ers need all the help they can get, they shouldn’t overlook the dynamic and versatile Fitzpatrick, though he could go in the top-five (that’d probably be to a team looking for a safety, and if I’m the Niners and want to address that area, I lock in on Florida State’s Derwin James at the bottom of the first round).
And don’t rule out the Niners making a free agent signing and also using a high draft pick on cornerbacks. You can never have too many.
Free agent possibilities: Trumaine Johnson; Malcolm Butler; Dontae Johnson
First-round possibilities: Isaiah Oliver, Colorado; Tavarus McFadden, Florida State; Denzel Ward, Ohio State
Other draft possibilities: Carlton Davis, Auburn; Ken Webster, Ole Miss; Iman Marshall, USC; Joshua Jackson, Iowa
Interior offensive linemen
Anyone who has watched the 49ers this year knows that the team’s protection up the middle needs upgrading this offseason. A full swap of the middle three offensive line positions could well be in order. As of now, only starting left guard Laken Tomlinson has a contract for 2018, with Dan Kilgore and Brandon Fusco set to become free agents at the end of the year.
Bully for the Niners, there will be solid options available to them in both free agency and the draft.
It’s a hell of an offseason to need an interior offensive lineman.
The Giants might be somehow worse than the Niners, but they do have two pending free agents that could be of serious interest to San Francisco — center Weston Richburg and guard Justin Pugh. Both are among the best players at their position in the league and could re-define this Niners’ o-line.
Richburg, in particular, would be a tremendous — though not cheap — signing for the Niners. Centers make a massive impact.
San Francisco appears poised to go with the tackle combination of Trent Brown and Joe Staley next year — for good reason — but don’t rule out the team selecting an offensive tackle in the draft and playing him at guard until Staley, who is 33 and has been constant fodder for trades, is no longer in red and gold. This year’s tackle class has a few tackles worthy of a top-five pick: Texas’ Connor Williams, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, and Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown.
There are four viable first-round picks on the interior, though: Ohio State center Billy Price, Mississippi State’s Martinas Rankin, UTEP’s Will Hernandez; and the best of the bunch, and Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, who might be worthy of a top-five pick, even as a guard.
Those are just the top flight guys — there’s depth in this offseason’s interior line free agent and draft class.
One sleeper from the free agent class: New Orleans guard Senio Kelemete, who has been outstanding in pass protection this season. One sleeper from the 2018 draft class: Washington State’s Cody O’Donnell, who has been one of the most dominant offensive linemen in the country and is 6-foot-8 (strange for a guard, but it works).
Free agent possibilities: Justin Pugh; Weston Richburg; Senio Kelemete
First-round possibilities: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame; Connor Williams, Texas; Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame; Billy Price, Ohio State
Other draft possibilities: Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State; Frank Ragnow, Arkansas; Cody O’Donnell, Washington State; Will Hernandez, UTEP; Mitch Hyatt, Clemson
The 49ers have invested heavily in the defensive line in recent drafts, but to this point, DeForest Buckner is the only player who you can firmly say has been a hit for San Francisco.
As such, the Niners still have a huge need for a pass rusher, and while preferably that player would be an edge rusher — forcing either Solomon Thomas or Arik Armstead into the interior of a four-man line — the quarterback-seeking skill the Niners need can come from anywhere.
For instance, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst might be a perfect partner for Buckner as pass-rushing, pocket collapsing interior linemen on a four-man front that can both stop the run and get after the quarterback — I’m not sold on him being worth a top pick, but he’s a first-round talent.
Luckily for the Niners, this offseason also has no shortage of pass-rushing talent.
On the free agent market, Dallas’ Demarcus Lawrence is going to command big money and is likely to be franchise tagged by the Cowboys — though if he does hit the market, expect the 49ers to be bidding. Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah’s contract is set to expire and with the Lions’ salary cap situation, he might actually hit the open market — the Niners could use someone like him, too.
But the real motherload of talent is in the draft. I love, love, love, this class, which has four pass rushers — yep, four — with top-five talent, in my eyes.
First on the list is North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, who entered this season with high expectations and has exceeded them, posting a Power 5-best 10 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss so far this campaign.
At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, he’s the prototype of a modern NFL defensive lineman — able to hit tackles with speed or power, or wreak havoc on the inside on passing down. He’s no Myles Garrett, but I would have put him above Solomon Thomas on last year’s draft board (and I loved Solomon Thomas on last year’s board).
In this class, even with the quarterbacks, Chubb is a viable No. 1 overall pick. So while it might not be couth for the Niners to select another defensive lineman with a high draft pick in April, if that pick is Chubb, I wouldn’t scoff.
Just behind Chubb is Boston College’s Harold Landry, who might be a more intriguing prospect for the 49ers because of his athletic ability. While Chubb is a tactician with great athletic ability, Landry has the ability to stand up and play outside linebacker, while showing relatively polished pass-rushing skills. Landry is a guy who is always going to be on the edge of the line, which is what the Niners really need.
More athletic than either Chubb or Landry is LSU’s Arden Key. The issue with Key is his size (he hasn’t been at an ideal weight since his freshman year — though LSU says he’s at a target weight now, I’d like to see him a bit bigger) and effort. He can be a dominant, All-Pro caliber pass rusher — no question — if he puts it all together at the NFL level, but whichever team selects him is going to be crossing their fingers.
The final top-five prospect is Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, who had a monster performance in the College Football Playoff as a redshirt freshman last year. Ferrell is a prototype, too — tall, strong, and long. He’s not necessarily raw, but you can see how young he is in his play.
He could leave Clemson after this season — if he stays, he’s probably the No. 1 pick in 2019 — but if he enters the draft, it’ll be hard to let a talent like his fall far in the first round.
Free agent possibilities: Demarcus Lawrence; Ziggy Ansah
First-round possibilities: Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State; Harold Landry, Boston College; Arden Key, LSU; Cleilin Ferrell, Clemson
Other draft possibilities: Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss; Josh Sweat; Florida State; Daylon Mack, Texas A&M; Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State; Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest; Dorance Armstrong, Kansas
Reuben Foster needs some company. The Niners’ rookie linebacker has impressed when he’s been on the field, but Brock Coyle isn’t going to cut it as his batterymate in 2018.
It’s not clear if the Niners view Foster as a long-term middle linebacker or if he’s going to be a sideline-to-sideline weakside backer — he can do either, and in this NFL, those roles aren’t different as they once were — but the original point stands: the Niners need another impact linebacker for next season.
There’s not much to be found on the free agent market in that regard: Demario Davis of the Jets, Zach Brown of Washington, and Jon Bostic (who isn’t all that dynamic, anyway) of Detroit stand out as the cream of the crop. Brown is the best of that class, but he’ll be looking for a long-term deal after signing a one-year deal with Washington.
Luckily, this draft has some rock-solid options, including a few middle-to-late first rounders.
At the top of the list has to be Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who has been downright phenomenal for the Bulldogs this year. I see Smith as a WILL backer who isn’t a liability in the run game, which would push Foster to MIKE.
Smith can cover a tremendous amount of ground in coverage and he’s a ferocious hitter in the run game. He’s a top-15 talent in this class.
If the Niners are looking for a true middle linebacker, Texas’ Malik Jefferson or Florida State’s Matthew Thomas are first-round graded players who fit the bill.
Free agent possibilities: Zach Brown, Demario Davis, Jon Bostic
First-round possibilities: Roquan Smith, Georgia; Malik Jefferson, Texas; Matthew Thomas, Florida State
Other draft possibilities: Jerome Baker, Ohio State; Rashaan Evans, Alabama; Micah Kiser, Virginia