The 49ers coaches and scouts this week will descend on Indianapolis where they will interview, observe, measure and mull draft prospects during the annual NFL scouting combine. The team will have seven picks in the May draft – one in each round – and is expecting two additional compensatory selections, which will be announced next month.
Here’s a closer look at their five biggest needs:
Wide receiver – It seems to be an annual question mark for the 49ers, and this year is no different. Michael Crabtree, Brandon Lloyd and Kassim Osgood will become free agents next month, and there’s a good chance none will be back.
If that’s the case, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson would be the likely starters. That’s not a bad duo. But Boldin will turn 35 during next season and is not signed beyond 2015, and Johnson’s salary-cap figure of $6 million could prompt the 49ers to seek a pay decrease.
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The team needs to look toward the future and finally find a speedster who can put pressure on the back ends of defenses.
Fortunately for the 49ers, this draft is deep at the position. The two top players, Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White, may be gone by the time the 49ers pick at No. 15. But Louisville’s DaVante Parker may be available, and the team will take a close look at troubled-but-talented Dorial Green-Beckham of Oklahoma.
If speed and big-play ability are priorities, then Ohio State’s Devin Smith ought to catch the 49ers’ eye. He is expected to have one of the fastest 40-yard dash times in Indianapolis.
Outside linebacker – No position has brought more drama to the 49ers. Aldon Smith was suspended nine games last season and Ahmad Brooks was benched for nearly two full games after lashing out at coaches and missing a meeting.
Brooks’ $7 million salary-cap figure could prompt the 49ers to release him. If so, Smith and Aaron Lynch would be the starters, and the only other outside linebacker under contract would be Corey Lemonier, who faded in 2014.
In that scenario, the team could use another pass rusher who could rotate at the position and serve as insurance if Smith winds up on a police blotter again.
Florida’s Dante Fowler is the type of big, athletic, long-armed pass rusher 49ers general manager Trent Baalke likes. But he may be gone before pick No. 15. UCLA’s Owamagbe Odighizua and Mississippi State’s Preston Smith are others who might be a good fit.
Running back – This should be a priority even if veteran Frank Gore re-signs. The team has only two experienced runners, Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter, under contract for 2015, and Hunter has suffered season-ending injuries in two of the past three seasons.
What’s more, this is a rare draft that is deep at running back. The best of the bunch, Georgia’s Todd Gurley, suffered an ACL tear in late November. Baalke has not been shy about drafting injured players, but Gurley could go in the late first or early second round – sooner than Baalke could swipe him.
Hard-running tailbacks who could tempt the 49ers later in the draft include Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman and Minnesota’s David Cobb.
Cornerback – This is a critical need, but one that could be remedied, at least partially, next month in free agency.
The 49ers will try to re-sign either Chris Culliver or Perrish Cox, both of whom become unrestricted free agents on March 10. They also likely would be interested in another pending free agent, Chris Cook, who played well in the preseason but whose season ended with a hamstring tear.
The team also has several holdovers at cornerback, including Tramaine Brock and Dontae Johnson, who played well as a rookie in 2014. Two other recent draft picks, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker, will be healthy again. Nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward is expected to recover from a foot injury that ended his season in November.
Baalke has done a nice job of finding talent at the position in the middle and later rounds. Tall, long-armed cornerbacks who fit the profile for a 49ers cornerback and who can be snagged late include Miami’s Ladarius Gunter and Utah’s Eric Rowe. Former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who is trying to become a cornerback, also might be an intriguing late option.
Tight end – The position nearly disappeared in 2014 after being a strength in earlier seasons. Only three other teams received less production in the passing game from their tight ends than the 49ers.
If Vernon Davis, who is set to count $6.9 million against the salary cap, is let go, tight end will become a bigger priority. It seems for now, however, the team is willing to look at Davis’ anemic 2014 season as an aberration.
Former second-round pick Vance McDonald has not delivered as a receiver and is battling a back injury; so is Garrett Celek. One promising player is converted wide receiver Derek Carrier, who made the most out of his scant opportunities last season.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, this – along with quarterback and safety – is one of the weakest positions in this year’s draft.
Minnesota’s Maxx Williams is considered the top tight end, but he is a late first- to early second-round prospect. The 49ers could see Delaware’s Nick Boyle, who is 6-foot-5 and 267 pounds, as someone with impressive potential they could get in the middle of the draft.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.
NFL SCOUTING COMBINE
What: Weeklong showcase where college football players perform physical and mental tests for NFL coaches, general managers and scouts
Workout schedule: Friday: Kickers, special teams, tight ends; Saturday: quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs; Sunday: defensive line, linebackers; Monday: defensive backs
TV: NFL Network: Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Friday-Monday, 6 a.m.-1 p.m.