The annual NFL Scouting Combine begins next week in Indianapolis, meaning the 49ers’ brain trust is evaluating prospects’ game film and figuring out what questions need asking before they get up close and personal through private interviews and medical examinations.
It’s clear San Francisco has needs at pass rusher, receiver, linebacker and in the secondary — some of which could be answered through free agency by way of $65 million in salary-cap space.
But their most important decision could come down to the No. 2 overall pick, which will have ramifications for years as coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch look to field a winning roster for the first time since being hired in 2017.
With that crucial decision in mind, let’s take a look at the most important questions facing Shanahan and Lynch ahead of their trip to Indy.
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Is it as simple as finding an edge rusher?
It’s widely believed this is an ideal draft to land a pass rusher off the edge, which hasn’t been the case for Shanahan and Lynch since they started calling the shots. They’ve used just one of their 19 draft picks the last two years on the position, 2017 sixth-round pick Pita Taumoepenu, who’s appeared in six games and been credited with three tackles. No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas has played defensive end but has been more effective inside next to tackle DeForest Buckner (and he has just four sacks in two seasons).
The 49ers have struggled to bother quarterbacks and set an NFL record with just two interceptions in 2018. A possible star defender off the edge could have significant ramifications on the pass rush and secondary, similar to the way a good quarterback can elevate an offense, as Shanahan said in December.
“A quarterback can hide a lot of problems, and so can a pass rush,” he said. “You can do different things in coverage. You can be more aggressive.”
Which is why many believe the 49ers will come away happy with either Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa or Kentucky defensive end and hybrid linebacker Josh Allen with their No. 2 selection. They are widely considered the top two edge rushers in the draft.
What about interior defensive line?
The other position that’s considered deep in this class is defensive tackle, where the 49ers already made a glut of serious investments. Buckner, a first-time Pro Bowler in 2018 after going seventh overall in 2016, headlines the list, while the team is banking on Thomas to make dramatic steps forward in Year 3.
The wild-card incumbent might be Arik Armstead, whose $9 million salary becomes fully guaranteed at the start of the new league year next month. The 49ers might decide that’s too high a price for a player who has dealt with injury issues over four seasons and only had three sacks in 2018. Armstead could be cut, which might make taking another interior defensive lineman — the fourth in five seasons in Round 1 — a possibility.
Prospects such as Quinnen Williams (Alabama), Ed Oliver (Houston) and Rashan Gary (Michigan) could be top-10 prospects worth considering, particularly if the 49ers like those players more than the options on the edge.
There’s a chance Williams or Oliver end up being the best defensive players in this class, and teams often take the best players on their draft boards regardless of position or roster needs.
How do the quarterbacks affect pick No. 2?
Trading back is always a possibility for teams picking early, especially those set at quarterback.
The 49ers’ selection might end up being an inflection point when it comes to the game’s most important position. They might be able to get a bounty of draft capital (multiple first-round picks?) by moving back in a trade with a team looking to take Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins or Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.
That might prevent San Francisco from landing a top-flight edge rusher, but they could potentially find high-end starters at multiple positions by trading down. Shanahan and Lynch have just five picks to work with at the moment before compensatory selections are announced.
The Jets, picking third, have their quarterback in Sam Darnold and could be a target for teams looking to trade up. That means the 49ers’ second pick could be had for other teams looking to ensure they get ahead of that No. 3 spot for the quarterback of their choosing.
There are two lines of thinking for San Francisco here: Stay at No. 2, where there’s a higher likelihood of landing a star player, or take more picks. There’s no clear-cut answer, though the 49ers badly need an impact player in Round 1 while 2017 first-round picks Thomas and Reuben Foster, who was released in November, haven’t paid off.
Is there a possibility we’re missing?
The 49ers entered last year’s draft with two good tackles in Joe Staley and Trent Brown. But Brown was entering a contract year and the team didn’t consider him a good fit for Shanahan’s system. So Shanahan used the No. 9 overall pick on Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey and quickly traded Brown to the Patriots.
Tackle is an important position. Many would argue quarterback is the only more crucial spot on offense. But San Francisco also needed pass rush help and a game-changer in the secondary, which proved to be true throughout 2018.
All that made McGlinchey a surprising selection for the 49ers. Could there be a similar surprise in 2019?
Tackle could be a position of interest again. Staley, who turns 35 in August, hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2019, meaning the 49ers might already be considering his replacement. They also could have a need at right guard, where incumbent starter Mike Person is an unrestricted free agent.
Might the 49ers consider Alabama star Jonah Williams in Round 1? Williams, who attended Folsom High School, could presumably play guard before moving to either tackle spot once Staley retires. And if they draft him after trading back in Round 1, Williams would be a far cheaper option than trying to find land a productive tackle in free agency, who could cost upward of $15 million per season in 2020.
Or, the team could target a linebacker (LSU’s Devin White?), receiver (Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf?) or cornerback (LSU’s Greedy Williams?), who would be surprising but defensible picks.
Stranger things have happened.