San Francisco 49ers

NFL Draft assessment: These are the 49ers’ 5 biggest roster holes after free agency

John Lynch: Mock draft “exercises are invaluable”

General manager John Lynch held his pre-draft press conference in the John McVay Draft Room, which is where he'll be for the start of the draft.
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General manager John Lynch held his pre-draft press conference in the John McVay Draft Room, which is where he'll be for the start of the draft.

The plan for the 49ers since head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017 was to fill glaring holes on the roster through free agency. That way the team would have flexibility when it came to the NFL Draft to add the best players available.

It’s a sound plan – but it’s also limited by the financial constraints of the salary cap and the marketplace for players. The team simply can’t buy all the best players at positions of need because there are 31 teams trying to bolster their rosters. So, naturally, there are still holes that need filling with draft looming April 25.

There’s always a conflict between drafting to fill needs and taking the best players available. Needs can change instantaneously when a player rolls an ankle during practice or makes a bad decision away from the field. Taking the best players over the long run is often the right choice even if that player doesn’t fill a need in the short term.

It’s a tough balance to strike.

“You want to take the best player, but you also aren’t in it to just stockpile players. You’re trying to build a team,” Shanahan said at the owners meetings last month. “So you got to weigh both of those into it and you hope it works out the best. That’s why you go target certain (positions).”

Let’s look at the top five areas the 49ers should target with their six draft picks following the key changes in free agency, highlighted by the additions of Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, Tevin Coleman and others.

1. Wide receiver

If the season started tomorrow, the 49ers’ starting receivers would likely be some combination of Dante Pettis, Kendrick Bourne and Marquise Goodwin. Pettis and Goodwin combined to miss nine games last season while Bourne, an undrafted rookie in 2017, led the team’s inconsistent receiving corps with just 487 yards. Additionally, San Francisco’s offense ranked dead last in red zone efficiency, proving the need to add a scoring threat for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo beyond tight end George Kittle.

Fortunately for Shanahan, there appears to be an array of starting-caliber wideouts that could be had after the first round, perhaps at pick No. 36 in Round 2. The team could try replacing departed veteran Pierre Garçon with players of similar skill sets such as A.J. Brown (Mississippi), N’Keal Harry (Arizona State), Hakeem Butler (Iowa State), Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) or Riley Ridley (Georgia). Shanahan scouts receivers more heavily than any other position, so don’t be surprised if the 49ers move up or down the board for a prospect he likes to fill Garçon’s role as a “Z” receiver.

2. Free safety

The 49ers decided they liked their incumbent players more than paying top dollar for an in-demand free agent safety like Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. They brought back 2014 first-round pick Jimmie Ward on a modest one-year contract despite his lengthy injury history. He’s the favorite to start at free safety, at the moment, while third-year pro Adrian Colbert is hoping to bounce back after a lackluster second season which ended after seven games due to a high ankle sprain. Jaquiski Tartt could also be in the mix if the team decides to move him away from the starting strong safety spot, which might allow Marcell Harris to jump into the lineup after impressing late in 2018. D.J. Reed, a fifth-round pick last spring, could also be in the mix.

All the uncertainty makes it seem likely the 49ers will add a true free safety to compete with Ward for a starting job. And like receiver, there are intriguing options that could be had in the second or third rounds. Virginia’s Juan Thornhill, Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Maryland’s Darnell Savage, Iowa’s Amani Hooker and Alabama’s Deionte Thompson could all make sense for the back end of coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense. The 49ers started eight different combinations at safety last year and would love to solidify the position.

3. Edge defender

Defensive end was arguably the 49ers’ most pressing need before the start of free agency. Lynch and Shanahan addressed it in a big way by trading a 2020 second-round draft pick to the Chiefs for Ford following his 13-sack campaign that included a league-leading seven forced fumbles. But there’s a still void on the edge on the other side of the formation. Sure, the 49ers could try Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead out there again, but both have proven to be more effective on the inside, and part-timer Ronald Blair hasn’t proven worthy of an every-down role.

That’s why Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is the heavy favorite to get taken by the 49ers with the second-overall pick. He’s widely considered the best prospect among a deep group of pass rushers in this year’s class. That also means San Francisco could decide to trade back to add to their collection of draft picks, perhaps targeting outside pass rushers like Josh Allen of Kentucky, Brian Burns of Florida State, Montez Sweat of Mississippi State or Clelin Ferrell of Clemson. Shanahan, after all, believes effective pass rushers can elevate a defense like a quarterback can on offense. So why not have two of those players coming from either side?

4. Offensive tackle

Yes, the 49ers have their two starting tackles in Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey. But as we saw last year, they might be willing to address the position a year earlier than expected. San Francisco used the No. 9 pick last spring on McGlinchey despite having Trent Brown in tow before trading him to the Patriots ahead of his contract year. Staley, 34, hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2019 and could be weighing retirement. It might be wise for the 49ers to consider finding his replacement now in order to get a head start on developing him as the backup “swing” tackle. Otherwise, it might require San Francisco using a first-round pick at the position again in 2020, or doling out a massive free agent contract for a tackle that could cost north of $15 million per season.

That could mean looking for tackles in middle rounds (unless the 49ers shockingly decide to go with Alabama’s Jonah Williams in Round 1, who played in high school at Folsom and could play guard before eventually switching outside). Prospects that could make sense include Michael Deiter (Wisconsin), Greg Little (Mississippi), Chuma Edoga (USC), Bobby Evans (Oklahoma) and Tyree St. Louis (Miami [Fla.]).

5. Cornerback

The 49ers invested third-round picks in the position during the last two drafts in Ahkello Witherspoon (2017) and Tarvarius Moore (2018). But neither has established himself as a sure-fire starter and Richard Sherman, who just turned 31, will have to replaced at some point soon. San Francisco bringing in former Chargers first-round draft pick Jason Verrett in free agency signals the team wants to add competition to the roster. But Verrett’s hardly a sure thing. He appeared in just five games since the start of 2016 and suffered a torn Achilles tendon during a conditioning test last summer.

The 49ers would love for Witherspoon to put his disappointing 2018 campaign behind him and grab hold of his athletic potential. But there’s a feeling that a lack of competition last offseason led to complacency on his part. Moore is a wild card who converted to cornerback last season after playing safety in college. Some corners to keep an eye on include Rock Ya-Sin (Temple), Justin Layne (Michigan State), Trayvon Mullen (Clemson), Joejuan Williams (Vanderbilt), Lonnie Johnson Jr. (Kentucky) and Isaiah Johnson (Houston).

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