As the bowl season begins, there’s a roaring debate over decisions by two running backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, to sit out their teams’ games.
Both expect to be first-round draft picks – Fournette likely will be the first running back taken – and neither wants to risk a December injury. Both already are dealing with minor sprains and tweaks and presumably want to be as healthy as possible when predraft drills begin in February.
Sitting out bowl games has stirred all sorts of sentiments about being a good teammate vs. being a sound businessman, not to mention the fact that Stanford’s upcoming Sun Bowl game would be much more watchable if McCaffrey were in it.
The debate is interesting from a 49ers perspective because of what happened last New Year’s Day to Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith. Entering the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Smith was perhaps the top inside linebacker in the country and a likely top 10 draft pick. But he tore multiple ligaments in his left knee in the first quarter and subsequently dropped to the Cowboys in the second round of the draft. Smith hasn’t played during his rookie season.
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The No. 10 pick in last year’s draft signed a contract for $15.1 million. Smith’s contract is valued at $6.5 million.
The 49ers took a long look at Smith in the run-up to the draft with general manager Trent Baalke in the press box when the Fighting Irish visited Stanford earlier that season, a game in which Smith had a season-high 15 tackles.
Without the injury, the 49ers likely would have zeroed in on Smith, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley as Round 1 got underway. There is absolutely nothing wrong with their choice, Buckner, whose stamina has been unquestioned – he leads all NFL defensive linemen in total snaps played this season – and whose career is off to a solid start.
But excellent inside linebackers have been the heart of the 49ers defense in recent years, and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil spoke at length this week about how essential the position is to his defensive strategy.
The player many believe will be the first pick in the upcoming draft, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, said he will play in the Texas Bowl on Wednesday against Kansas State.
The Cleveland Browns, who currently have the top draft slot, have an “astronomical” draft grade on Garrett, ESPN reported earlier this month. Translation: We’re open to trading out of the No. 1 spot, but it’s going to take a lot of compensation.
The Browns are devout “Moneyball” disciples, believing that quantity of picks is essential when it comes to the draft. Last year, they traded five times, including out of the No. 2 spot, and wound up with 14 selections.
The Browns likely are trying to tempt the 49ers with the “astronomical” leak. San Francisco, after all, could use a top-notch pass rusher like Garrett as much as any team but may not be as interested in the player many see as the No. 2 prospect, Alabama’s Jonathan Allen. He’s a defensive lineman, the position the 49ers have taken in the first round of the past two drafts.
Can the one-win 49ers beat the no-win Browns in the race to the bottom and grab Garrett? Yes. The first draft-pick tiebreaker among teams with the same record is strength of schedule. As it stands now, the Browns have the more difficult schedule (their opponents have combined for 109 wins, the 49ers’ for 99 wins).
Which is to say, if the teams finish with the same record, the 49ers are the favorites to get the better draft selection. The Browns end the season against the Chargers (5-9) and Steelers (9-5). The 49ers finish against the Rams (4-10) and the Seahawks (9-4-1).
The one bowl game a suffering 49ers fan might want to watch? The Peach Bowl on Dec. 31 will be full of potential first- and second-round picks.
Alabama may have the best defensive lineman, Allen, and inside linebacker, Reuben Foster, in the draft and also has a very good edge rusher in Tim Williams, a first-round offensive tackle in Cam Robinson and a big, fast tight end in O.J. Howard.
Washington has an exceptional wide receiver, John Ross, and a 332-pound defensive lineman, Vita Vea. The 49ers’ top nose tackle this season, Glenn Dorsey, is scheduled to be a free agent in March.
Meanwhile, the Sun Bowl might be boring without McCaffrey. But it features North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the most likely passer to make a Carson Wentz-like run up draft boards in the coming months.
Wentz was taken second overall last April. You know who is closing in on the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft.