These are the three biggest needs the 49ers should address in the 2019 NFL Draft
It might be more difficult for the 49ers to find players in this NFL Draft who can become starters.
That’s no reflection of a poor draft class. It signals the 49ers are further down the path of their roster-wide rebuilding process than when coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch started turning things over.
“It’s getting harder the longer we’re here,” Shanahan said at last month’s owners meetings when asked how many starters he expects to get out of this draft. “Our first year, I think all of our guys ended up playing. I think they all did start at one time, whether you were a seventh-round draft choice or a first-round draft choice.”
Indeed, 2017 first-round selections Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, fourth-round pick C.J. Beathard, fifth-round picks George Kittle and Trent Taylor, and seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert started games as rookies.
Last year, right tackle Mike McGlinchey (Round 1), receiver Dante Pettis (Round 2) and linebacker Fred Warner (Round 3) showed enough promise as rookies to solidify starting roles for the foreseeable future.
So with the additions of three free-agent classes and 19 draft picks in 2017 and 2018 (plus six more picks in the 2019 draft starting April 25), there simply aren’t the same number of holes in the starting lineup as in years past.
An argument can be made the 49ers’ most glaring voids are at receiver, where Pierre Garçon left a vacancy at the “Z” position, and free safety, where Jimmie Ward and Colbert are returning to compete for the starting job after injuries derailed their campaigns in 2018. Neither logged an interception while San Francisco set an NFL record for fewest in a season with two.
At cornerback, there should be one of the most competitive races to start opposite Richard Sherman between newcomer Jason Verrett, Witherspoon and 2018 third-round pick Tarvarius Moore.
The offensive line could use reinforcements for depth, though all five starters return, including right guard Mike Person, who re-signed on a three-year contract. Left guard Laken Tomlinson could miss some of the offseason program with a torn MCL suffered in the 2018 finale while center Weston Richburg, a pricey free-agent addition in 2018, had surgery to repair a knee and quadriceps injury that could keep him out to the start of training camp.
A theme for the 49ers’ offseason program will be increased competition, which was lacking this time last year as the 49ers were riding the momentum of a 5-0 spring to the finish in 2017 during Jimmy Garoppolo’s splashy run as the starting quarterback.
“Ideally, I hope that gets harder each year (to find starters in the draft),” Shanahan said. “Just because you didn’t draft a bunch of starters doesn’t mean you had a bad draft. It means you’re becoming an NFL team; the foundation has some depth. So we can draft some guys who are good players and they’re going to help on special teams because the guy in front of them is pretty good, too.
“Then, you get that natural progression of when a guy moves on, now a guy’s ready to step up, and that’s something I don’t think we’ve had here, and I think we’ve worked really hard to bring in a ton of guys. That’s been my theme with the competition. I realistically can see competition heading into this year. You can say whatever you want (as a coach), but the player can look next to them and sees whether that guy is really competition or not. And I think they’ll feel that a lot more this year.”
The plan all along has been to address glaring needs in free agency and trades to allow for flexibility to find the best players available in the draft regardless of position.
For instance, the trade for Dee Ford gives the 49ers an edge rusher they’ve lacked since Aldon Smith was released before the 2015 season. But Ford likely won’t prevent the team from tapping another defensive end in Round 1, where Ohio State’s Nick Bosa remains the favorite for the No. 2 overall selection.
The team added receiver Jordan Matthews on a modest one-year contract, though it’s unlikely that would keep them from taking a receiver, perhaps as early as Round 2 with pick No. 36. The same could be said for safety, as Ward and Colbert still have to prove they can be relied upon as weekly starters.
“So are we done? Free agency, it’s now a couple weeks in, but if something comes our way that we feel is a really good fit, we have flexibility to really be able to make moves,” Lynch said. “I think we were aggressive and we answered a lot of the questions such that we can go to the draft and make the best possible decision ... not being beholden to (addressing a specific position) in the draft.”