San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Why quarterbacks are key to SF’s draft

Quenton Nelson is not the ideal guard for the San Francisco 49ers, writes columnist Matt Barrows.
Quenton Nelson is not the ideal guard for the San Francisco 49ers, writes columnist Matt Barrows. AP

The Jimmy Garoppolo-smitten 49ers probably aren’t going to draft a quarterback at all in April and certainly aren’t going to take one in the first round.

But that doesn’t mean 49ers fans shouldn’t be rooting for passers to excel in the run up to the draft.

If you want Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or – oh happy day! – N.C. State pass rusher Bradley Chubb to fall to the 49ers at pick No. 9 or 10, the likeliest way that happens is if a cluster of quarterbacks gets taken ahead of them.

That scenario is starting to take shape at this week’s Senior Bowl.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield – who needs to prove, A.) His arm is strong enough for the NFL; B.) He has the serious, CEO mentality to command an NFL locker room; and, C.) He’s not Johnny Manziel – has begun to do just that in Mobile, Ala. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s Josh Allen is saying all the right things and showing off the physical traits – tall guy, can run, cannon arm – that separate him from the others in his class.

Those two, plus underclassmen Sam Darnold from USC and Josh Rosen from UCLA, seem the likeliest to be taken early in the draft. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson are wild cards the way Patrick Mahomes was at this stage a year ago. Mahomes ended up going 10th overall to Kansas City.

The Browns, Giants, Broncos and Jets – all of whom are picking ahead of San Francisco – could use a quarterback. The Cardinals, Bills, Chargers, Washington and the Saints might be in the market, too, and could maneuver into the top 10 the way the Chiefs, who started with the 27th overall pick a year ago, did with Mahomes.

If five quarterbacks were selected in the top 10, it would mean that one of the non-passers listed above at least would be tantalizingly close to the 49ers. Or that San Francisco has traded down.

Deep cornerback draft

The 49ers are so depleted at cornerback – Sacramento’s Ahkello Witherspoon is the only sure thing on the outside at the moment – they have no choice but to look at the position in free agency.

But the draft, especially the middle rounds, is believed to have a lot of options as well. Former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, who now runs his own scouting company, said this week he has 12 cornerbacks rated as first- or second-rounders. That might make cornerback and running back – two potentially needy positions for the 49ers – the deepest in this year’s draft.

They also are positions in which players can be expected to contribute as rookies. Pro Football Focus rated each of the players taken in the first round of last year’s draft. Four of the top 10 were cornerbacks, including two of the top three. Buffalo cornerback Tra’Davious White earned the top grade, followed by New Orleans cornerback Marshon Lattimore and San Francisco linebacker Reuben Foster, who tied for second.

Witherspoon had the scouting service’s fifth-highest grade among third-round picks.

Pass on a pass rusher?

On the other end of draft availability spectrum: pass rusher.

Chubb is widely considered the top candidate at the position. No. 2? It depends who you ask, but there’s a big gap between him and Chubb.

It may end up being Boston College’s Harold Landry, although he wasn’t nearly as effective during an injury-impacted senior season (five sacks) as he was as a junior (16 1/2 sacks).

LSU’s Arden Key began the 2017 season as one of the hottest prospects at the position, then petered out with a four-sack season.

The most watched non-quarterback at the Senior Bowl practices was University of Texas-San Antonio edge rusher Marcus Davenport. The question entering the week was how well Davenport would fare against bigger and better blockers than he faced in college. At the end of the week, that remained a question mark.

All of which might prompt the 49ers to find the edge rusher they need in free agency, not the draft. The best of the bunch available may be Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah, whom general manager John Lynch’s right-hand man, Martin Mayhew, drafted in the first round when he was the Lions’ general manager in 2013.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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