San Francisco 49ers

49ers mailbag: Who will be most improved in 2019? Other positions to watch in NFL Draft

49ers’ most notable moves of the offseason

Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers’ most notable moves of the NFL offseason
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Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers’ most notable moves of the NFL offseason

Could it be? A 49ers mailbag without a slew of questions about which player to draft with the second overall pick?

That’s what we have this week, as it appears San Francisco is likely to tap Ohio State’s Nick Bosa to plug in at defensive end (assuming, of course, the Arizona Cardinals go with quarterback Kyler Murray first overall). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important questions to address with the draft just over two weeks away.

Let’s get to it:

Brannon Crowe asks: Which player would you predict as the Most Improved Player for the upcoming season? Or a list of candidates? Kittle ran away with it last season. J. Tartt?, S. Thomas?, D. Pettis?

This is a very good question. There are several candidates, mostly because so many young players didn’t play particularly well in 2018.

The list has to start with Dante Pettis, who has 1,000-yard potential if he continues to improve and stay healthy (a big if). Nothing should stand in the way of his playing time and targets because coach Kyle Shanahan has said he wants Marquise Goodwin’s role to be dialed back. With the team likely to add a prominent rookie to the receiving corps after moving on from Pierre Garçon, Pettis should be the team’s most targeted wideout.

Would Jerick McKinnon qualify? The athletic running back was expected to have major roles in the running and passing games last season before tearing his ACL a week before the opener. Shanahan admitted he had to change things schematically with McKinnon unavailable to run so many plays the team worked on before the season. McKinnon could be a fulcrum of the offense if he makes it back healthy.

If you had to ask the team’s brass, I’d bet they want Ahkello Witherspoon to be atop this conversation. The 49ers badly need to improve their play in the secondary, and getting Witherspoon to bounce back at corner opposite Richard Sherman could be big for the defense’s turnaround.

Solomon Thomas is a strong candidate as well. If Bosa is the pick at No. 2, Thomas could benefit from Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Bosa commanding most of the attention from opposing offensive lines. That might allow Thomas to thrive in one-on-one matchups against heavy-footed guards, which is his best avenue toward success.

Vinnie the 9er fan asks: After EDGE/WR what is the bigger need for the 49ers? Safety or Guard?

It’s safety — free safety specifically. The position was an injury-riddled disaster last season. Jimmie Ward, Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt are intriguing players, but each dealt with injuries throughout 2018 and, in Colbert’s case, he struggled even while healthy to back up his promising rookie campaign.

The team brought back Ward on a one-year deal, which shouldn’t preclude them from bringing in an early draft pick to compete for a starting job. The 49ers might be playing with fire if they expect Ward and Colbert to rebound from last season. Free safety is arguably the most important position in the secondary. It’s the last line of defense and requires covering considerable space in a single-high scheme. That’s why I expect the club to find a free safety on Day 2.

The situation at guard isn’t as dire. The 49ers like what they have in Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person, though Tomlinson will miss some of the offseason program after tearing his MCL in the season finale. Person played all 16 games. He turns 31 in June after signing a three-year contract extension. I don’t think Person would keep the 49ers from finding a guard, but I wouldn’t expect that until Day 3.

Peter Christian asks: Would a trade up from the No. 36 pick back into the late first to grab the receiver they want be an option they might explore? I’m worried there will be a late 1st run on receivers so trading up for “their” guy would seem likely in that scenario.

It’s tough to say.

Yes, the 49ers like trading back into Round 1 for a second pick (they did it in 2016 and 2017), but this is also considered a deep receiving class with several possible options all the way to Round 4.

I’d imagine trading back into the first would happen if they wanted to take Mississippi’s A.J. Brown. Baltimore, picking at No. 22, has bandied about as a trade-back candidate. Same for Seattle at No. 21. That could be the sweet spot for Brown.

But San Francisco also has just six picks in this draft and traded away its second-round selection in 2020 for Dee Ford. They might feel inclined to stay at No. 36 to take their wideout.

My guess: South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel seems like an obvious fit early in Round 2. He’s physical, fearless, a strong route runner and excellent after the catch. He looks like a replacement for Garçon as a “Z” receiver. N’Keal Harry might also be an option. Riley Ridley (Georgia) is a name to keep an eye on in Round 3.

Thurman Merman asks: Thoughts on adding another TE in the early rounds? Not a need of course but why not add to a strength?

It’s a great idea. The 49ers would love to make life easier on George Kittle by adding weapons for the middle of the field. Garrett Celek had just five catches last year and is entering the final year of his contract.

But it’s important to remember how much Shanahan loves using fullback Kyle Juszczyk. And it would be tough for that second tight end to get the snaps he needs because the 49ers use a fullback more than any other team. I wouldn’t expect Shanahan to sacrifice one of his core offensive tenants to get a second tight on the field more often.

However, getting a tight end to develop for the long haul would be a good idea. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one added through the draft. I’m almost expecting it. Maybe they strike gold again in Round 5 like they did two years ago with Kittle.

Antonio Da Costa asks: What position is not being talked about that you think the front office might surprise with an early round pick? I think if a top flight tight end falls at 36 it might be better than taking a receiver. Imagine George Kittle and Noah Fant going down he seam ...

For the reasons mentioned above, it’s definitely possible, although I don’t think Fant will last to pick 36. And if he did, the 49ers might be more inclined to trade back to a team targeting him. This is a good year to get additional second- and third-round picks, and there are holes to fill at receiver and in the secondary.

The position that isn’t being talked about is tackle. Joe Staley hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2019, and if we learned anything from last year’s draft, it’s that Shanahan isn’t afraid to address the position a year before it becomes a necessity. The 49ers were fine at right tackle but decided getting Mike McGlinchey in Round 1, rather than having Trent Brown in a contract year, was the right move.

That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if the team looked for a tackle in the second or third round to develop into Staley’s long-term replacement. Otherwise, they might have to use a first-round pick on the position next year or give out a massive contract to a free agent, which is becoming a little tougher with more money on the books this season and DeForest Buckner expected to get a massive raise soon.

Speaking of ...

Zman asks: Who is an offensive line candidate they consider drafting if they trade down or in the second round?

I’d keep an eye on Wisconsin’s Michael Deiter, West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste, USC’s Chuma Edoga and Oklahoma’s Bobby Evans. All seem like the type of athletic tackles the 49ers might look to develop as a “swing” tackle in 2019 with a chance to develop into a starter.

Marcus Covarrubias asks: For the 3rd straight offseason the 49ers have failed to supply Kyle Shanahan with a legit offensive play maker through trade or free agency, does the blame lie on the shoulders of John Lynch or the organizations reputation for “team friendly” contracts?

If you were to ask the 49ers about this, I think they would mention three things. First: Jimmy Garoppolo. Second: Jerick McKinnon. Third: They ultimately want to build through the draft because it’s the easiest way to sustain success.

As we know, offensive play makers don’t come cheaply. They generally require massive contracts or giving up significant draft capital to acquire in a trade. Raiders free agent Tyrell Williams, for example, became the NFL’s 17th-highest paid receiver this offseason despite ranking 46th in yards among the position (653). The value doesn’t align on the open market.

The Giants reportedly wanted the 49ers’ No. 2 pick in the draft — while not giving up their No. 6 pick — in a package for Odell Beckham Jr., before putting San Francisco on the hook for the remainder of his five-year, $90 million contract. The 49ers were smart to pass, in my opinion, given how badly they need to improve the defense if they want to contend for a Super Bowl anytime soon.

Ultimately, Shanahan is the one responsible for all the major decisions on offense. So if you’re looking for someone to blame, it would be him. But it’s also important to note the 49ers have taken the long-term approach to building the roster from the start.

If things don’t start to turn in 2019, then it will be time to ramp up the pressure on the decision makers.

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