‘Chemistry you can’t force:’ 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on team’s offseason dynamics
The NFL Draft is more than 50 days away, but signals are pointing to the 49ers being in position to capitalize on a promising group of prospects. The draft class seems rife with players (see: edge rushers, receivers) that could help coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch improve the roster.
We spent last week in Indianapolis canvassing the scene at the annual scouting combine. Let’s take a look at the winners and losers from San Francisco’s perspective:
Winners: The edge class
The 49ers have coaxed productive campaigns out of the offense thanks to impressive work by Shanahan the last two years despite using three quarterbacks in each. They ranked 12th overall in 2017 and 16th in 2018 despite having a turnstile at the game’s most important position.
Logically, then, San Francisco should focus on defense with its first pick while hoping Jimmy Garoppolo can put in a full season as the starter. A pass rusher is the team’s biggest need despite taking defensive linemen in Round 1 three times in the past four years. Only DeForest Buckner has been a difference maker worthy of the premium selection, while Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead are still working to join that conversation.
The good news here: The draft is teeming with edge rushers. Nick Bosa (Ohio State), Josh Allen (Kentucky), Brian Burns (Florida State) and Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) tested well at the combine and will be in the mix for top-10 selections.
Sweat set a combine record by running a blazing 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash despite weighing in at 260 pounds. Bosa, the likely favorite for the pick if quarterback Kyler Murray goes first overall, tied for the best 10-yard split time (1.6 seconds) among defensive linemen and sixth among edge defenders.
Burns wasn’t bad either, weighing in at 249 pounds after entering the week facing questions about his weight. He also ran a 4.53, which would have garnered a ton of attention if not for Sweat’s remarkable time. Allen’s 28 reps in the bench press was second among edge defenders and would have ranked among defensive linemen.
Lynch’s point last week about finding a defensive end with “power” should make Bosa the favorite. But all these edge players testing well offers San Francisco the option to trade back, acquire more picks and still fill their most glaring need.
Loser: Jachai Polite
Florida’s star defensive end posted 11 sacks last season and entered the week lumped into the group of first-round edge defenders, but his antics in Indy might have pushed him down draft boards — even after he came in with questions about his maturity.
Polite told reporters the 49ers and Packers “were bashing” him during private interviews, asking about his character and about his bad plays they showed him on tape. To make things worse, Polite pulled out of workouts with a hamstring injury after running a sub-par 4.84 in the 40.
Whether Polite is entirely off San Francisco’s draft board remains to be seen. But it seems impossible the 49ers would consider him in Round 1 via a trade down with so many other quality options available.
The 49ers’ most glaring need on offense is at receiver after they decided to move on from Pierre Garçon. The good news: There should be plenty of potential starters available early in Round 2 at pick No. 36 overall.
In no particular order, A.J. Brown (Mississippi), Riley Ridley (Georgia), N’Keal Harry (Arizona State), Deebo Samuel (South Carolina), Andy Isabella (Massachusetts), Hakeem Butler (Iowa State) and Kelvin Harmon (North Carolina State) could be in the mix in Rounds 2 and 3.
Brown is a yards-after-the-catch monster who plays with a Garçon-like anger. Ridley is a sound route runner, which is always important in Shanahan’s offense. Harry is one of the most physical receivers in the draft, which could complement finesse players like Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis. Samuel showed at the Senior Bowl, coached by the 49ers’ staff, he can separate from man-to-man coverage. Butler blew up the combine by running a 4.48 while measuring 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, though he didn’t run the all-important three-cone drill.
Speaking of the three-cone ...
Loser: D.K. Metcalf
How could Metcalf possibly find himself in the loser category after having arguably the most impressive combine of anyone?
Remember, this is from the 49ers’ perspective, and Shanahan prizes change-of-direction skills and route running from his receivers above all else. So while Metcalf tested like an alien from Cybertron (4.33 in the 40, 40.5 inches in the vertical jump, 134 inches in the broad jump, 27 reps in the bench press — at 6-3 and 228 pounds), he didn’t show well in the most important drills to Shanahan’s evaluation.
Metcalf posted a 7.38 in the three-cone drill, which ranks in the second percentile among receivers. His 20-yard shuttle time, which also measures change of direction, was 4.5 seconds, in the third percentile. Pettis, San Francisco’s second-round pick in 2018, reportedly posted a 6.87 time in the three-cone at his pro day. Trent Taylor ran a lightning-quick 6.74 before being taken in Round 5 in 2017. Richie James, a seventh-round pick in 2018, logged a 6.78.
That’s not to say Metcalf won’t be a star player. He’s as physically gifted as any receiver in a generation. But it appears he’d be maximized in an offense with a limited route tree, and that certainly isn’t the 49ers, who have only drafted receivers with stellar three-cone times since Shanahan came on board.
Cutting 2017 first-round pick Reuben Foster in November created a sizable void at linebacker after the team seemed set with Foster and Fred Warner. But a talented rookie could be on the way if the 49ers decide to find one with an early round pick.
LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush were off the charts in their testing, running a 4.42 and 4.43 in the 40. They should be in the mix in Round 1, and perhaps sleeper selections for San Francisco if they decide to trade down from No. 2 or try to acquire another first-round pick.
More good news for San Francisco: Nine linebackers logged times faster than 4.6, which could be crucial in the search for weak-side players that can cover running backs and tight ends. Bush, White, Blake Cashman (Minnesota, 4.50), Tyrel Dodson (Texas A&M, 4.60), Gary Johnson (Texas, 4.43), Bobby Okereke (Stanford, 4.58), Germaine Pratt (N.C. State, 4.57), Ty Summers (TCU, 4.51) and Drue Tranquill (Notre Dame, 4.57) all qualify.