After spending last week at the NFL owners meetings, our weekly mailbag has returned as the 49ers continue to gear up for the NFL Draft on April 25. Let’s get to your questions:
Peter Moriera asks: Why hasn’t (Nick) Bosa’s reluctance to play out his college career hurt his draft stock? It seems he thinks he is bigger than his team?
Because NFL decision makers understand choices like Bosa’s come with the territory. There’s simply too much money on the line for some players to risk getting injured — or, in Bosa’s case, aggravating an injury — and fall from a top-five pick to Day 2 or later.
The majority of contracts for first-round picks are fully guaranteed thanks to the rookie wage scale implemented in the latest collective bargaining agreement. For reference, let’s look at the Nos. 2 and 36 picks last year, because that’s where San Francisco picks this month.
Running back Saquon Barkley signed a four-year, $31.2 million deal with the Giants after taking him second overall. All his money was guaranteed. The No. 36 pick, linebacker Darius Leonard of the Colts, signed for $7.2 million over four years. Only $4.2 million was guaranteed.
So the difference in dropping 34 slots would have been roughly $24 million over the length of those contracts, not including the fifth-year option Barkley will likely get as a first-round pick (which should be worth more than $10 million).
Would you leave school early if you knew it was a $34 million decision? I probably would. The majority of NFL decision makers probably would, too.
But it’s fair to ask about what Bosa left behind. Ohio State was in the mix for a berth in the College Football Playoff. He would have needed to rush back from his core muscle surgery to make an early return in November.
Yes, he could have returned and further endeared himself to his coaching staff and teammates. But it wasn’t a gamble he was comfortable making, given how much money was on the line.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith offered the most memorable example when he suffered a gruesome knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl while he was widely expected to be a top-five pick. He wound up going in the second round to the Cowboys, costing himself millions, and he missed his rookie season rehabbing.
Greg Ritz asks: Since I doubt seriously we keep four halfbacks on the active roster, what are the chances we trade one away for a draft pick? If so, who do we trade away and for whom?
I’d say the chances are slim. The 49ers were forced to rely on four running backs last season. Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. played significant roles because of injuries.
It appears likely Shanahan would decide to keep four running backs on the 53-man roster and have three suit up on game days. That way, there would be a healthy player in reserve the following week in case of an injury.
There’s also a chance the club decides to start Jerick McKinnon on the physically unable to perform list, which would allow him to return midseason. Getting him back in the fold would be like trading for a starting-caliber running back at the deadline, and he could provide extra juice down the stretch (or even the playoffs).
Either way, having four capable halfbacks on the roster should give the 49ers needed flexibility after getting tattered with injuries last fall.
Brian Stalker asks: Does (coach Kyle Shanahan’s) system have significant room for two-tight end formations? They appear to offer good mismatches and No. 1 tight end cheaper than No. 1 receiver.
I think it could, but it might go against one of Shanahan’s core principles: the use of the fullback.
The 49ers used “21” personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers) on a staggering 43 percent of their snaps last season. The Patriots were second at 28 percent, and no other team used it more than 15 percent of the time.
I asked Shanahan about his personnel groupings last week.
“I like having the fullback because it’s the only time you can really dictate the game on offense,” Shanahan said at the owners meetings. “If you put three receivers out there, then (the defense) can run certain blitzes and stunts where you cannot run the ball. And they can force you to pass and they can force you to do things. When you have a fullback out there, it doesn’t matter how many guys they have in the box, which is nice because if they put a lot of guys in the box it makes it easier to throw.”
Which is why Kyle Juszczyk, who has made the Pro Bowl in both seasons with San Francisco, is so valuable. He can block well in the running game while also being a pass catcher defenses have to account for.
Shanahan’s ability to dictate to defenses is one of his primary strengths, and it might be more difficult with another tight end rather than an elite receiver.
I’d argue the fully unlocked version of Shanahan’s offense would continue to utilize Juszczyk while improving the receiving corps. A potent running game mixed with tight end George Kittle as an intermediate target and improved receivers could be wildly successful.
Mark asks: If Bosa goes No. 1 in the draft what do the 49ers do?
That’s the most interesting question to tackle over the next three weeks. The 49ers like Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and might be inclined to stick to the best-player-available philosophy and take him.
But Bosa going first would mean Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray is still on the board. That might offer San Francisco’s best chance at trading back to acquire more picks. Shanahan and John Lynch only have six picks this year.
Would the Raiders want to jump up two spots, maybe offering the 49ers one of their extra first-round selections? Would the 49ers be willing to move to No. 6 in a deal with the Giants or back to 10 in a trade with the Broncos if it meant multiple early-round choices? Or 11 (Cincinnati) or 13 (Miami) or 15 (Washington)? That might mean tapping pass rushers Montez Sweat or Brian Burns in a trade down.
If not, it seems likely the 49ers would take Williams or Josh Allen and feel fine with either if they stayed at No. 2.
Victor Simone asks: Kyle Shanahan has coordinated two very good offenses with stars at WR (Andre Johnson and Julio Jones). Understanding that neither team won a championship I still have to ask. Why is there a sense that this offense can be successful with anyone at the receiver position?
I don’t think that’s the case. It’s been made very clear the 49ers are in the market for a receiver, particularly with Pierre Garçon not returning. That was evident at the combine and when the team admitted to trying to trade for Odell Beckham Jr. last month.
However, while I think the 49ers absolutely need more production from their receivers, I don’t think that necessarily means they have to find a player the caliber of Johnson or Jones to be successful. Neither had a tight end as dangerous as George Kittle, and Kittle’s emergence could help San Francisco’s receivers thrive.
Which is why I expect the team to find a receiver (or two) in the draft, with the emphasis coming after Round 1. N’Keal Harry, A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, Hakeem Butler and Andy Isabella seem like they could fit the bill. They should be in consideration at pick No. 36 in the second round.
Peter Christian asks: If Lynch has another below .500 season should he or/and Shanahan be on the chopping block?
It depends on how things go more so than the record, in my opinion. Keep in mind, both signed six-year contracts and Jed York seems happy with the direction of the team despite going 10-22 in their first two seasons.
If the team is destroyed by injuries again, it might be hard to blame Shanahan and Lynch. If health isn’t an issue but the team doesn’t show significant signs of development, then things will heat up.
It appears the only way Shanahan’s job comes under scrutiny is if Jimmy Garoppolo proves he can’t bring the team to the postseason. The 49ers have invested heavily in him, and failing live up to his $137.5 million contract would be a bad look for the head coach who decided Garoppolo was the guy.
Shanahan is the most important figure in the football operation. He seems more insulated from another bad season than Lynch, whom Shanahan picked to be his GM. Lynch is more replaceable, in my opinion, because there would likely be several executives willing to try their luck working with Shanahan, who remains one of the most respected offensive coaches in the league.
Finding a coach to replace Shanahan would be far more difficult.