About a month ago, just before free agency began, I examined the potential moves of the San Francisco 49ers and projected the impact they might have on the NFL draft. Well, the draft kicks off this Thursday and, for better or worse, the Niners have been quite active in free agency since my initial blog post. Let’s take a look at how those additions and subtractions should impact the team’s draft needs.
First, a list of the 49ers’ most significant transactions:
- Anquan Boldin – WR
- Glenn Dorsey – DL
- Nnamdi Asomugha – CB
- Phil Dawson – K
- Craig Dahl – S
- Dan Skuta – LB/ST
- Colt McCoy – QB
- Cameron Morrah – TE
- Dashon Goldson – S
- Alex Smith – QB
- Isaac Sopoaga – DL
- Randy Moss – WR
- Delanie Walker – TE
- David Akers – K
- Ricky Jean Francois – DL
- Tedd Ginn – WR/KR
It’s also important to know precisely which draft picks we’re discussing so here are the 49ers’ thirteen selections:
- 1st Round – 31st overall
- 2nd – 34th (from Kansas City)
- 2nd – 61st
- 3rd – 74th (from Carolina)
- 3rd – 93rd
- 4th – 128th
- 4th – 131st (compensatory)
- 5th – 157th (from Indianapolis)
- 6th- 173rd (from Philadelphia via Cleveland)
- 6th – 180th (from Miami)
- 7th – 237th
- 7th – 246th (compensatory)
- 7th – 252nd (compensatory)
Let us acknowledge right now that with such a large cache of picks, the 49ers are in prime position to trade up for players they love or trade down when they see an opportunity to stockpile picks (Note: compensatory picks may not be traded so of the Niners’ thirteen, only ten are tradeable). Indeed, I fully expect them to be among the most active wheelers and dealers over the three-day-long draft-a-palooza. Nevertheless, I’m not in the business of projecting trades: just as with draft picks, making specific predictions about possible trades is a fool’s errand. My goal here is merely to tell you which positions I believe the Niners will prioritize over others and why. Positions are listed from most important to least. Let’s begin.
Safety – Several players have moved on from San Francisco, but safety remains the only position on the team without a bona fide starter. All-Pro Dashon Goldson signed a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay and the 49ers’ only response thus far has been the signing of former St. Louis Rams’ starter Craig Dahl. Can Dahl start for the 49ers? Sure. But I’ve watched every San Francisco – St. Louis game over the last four years and not once did I hear Dahl’s name called. That’s not to say he’s a bad player, just that the 49ers probably don’t envision him as a full-timer. Indeed, people more knowledgeable than me say Dahl was signed because he can backup both the free and strong safety positions while also playing special teams. CJ Spillman and Trenton Robinson are the only other potential replacements for Goldson presently on the roster so unless the Niners know something about those guys the rest of us don’t, they’re still looking for someone to start alongside Donte Whitner. If the 49ers don’t select a safety with one of their first three picks, I will be shocked. They could pick another one later in the draft as well.
Defensive Line – The signing of Glenn Dorsey fills the hole left by Isaac Sopoaga’s departure and the extension for Ian Williams likely signals that he will take some of Ricky Jean-Francois’ snaps, so the Niners certainly won’t feel desperate to draft a defensive lineman. However, with Justin Smith a free agent following the upcoming season and the line wearing down from overuse and injuries at the end of 2012, the team really does need to work on its depth up front. Given the talent along the D-line in this year’s draft, I believe the 49ers will address their issues there by drafting either a pass rushing end or nose tackle in the first/second round, and adding at least one more later on.
Tight End – Losing Delanie Walker hurts. Though he was technically a backup tight end, he played a very un-backup-like 57% of the offensive snaps meaning the 49ers will need a player better than your average second stringer to replace him. On the other hand, the trade for WR Anquan Boldin gives the Niners a player who can take some of Walker’s downfield blocking assignments and vastly improve upon his pass catching, thereby offering the team a bit of breathing room in their talent search. I still believe the Niners will draft a backup tight end, but I don’t believe they will do it with either of their first two picks. They will pick a TE, but it won’t happen before their pick at the end of the second round and I suspect it will happen in the third or fourth round.
Wide Receiver – This is the wild card position in the 49ers’ draft. With Boldin and Michael Crabtree as their starters, the Niners have one of the better one-two punches in the league at wideout. However their depth is suspect: both Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are coming off serious knee injuries (Williams could be back to start the season; Manningham might return mid-season if he returns at all), 2012 #1 pick A.J. Jenkins caught ZERO passes as a rookie, and free agent signees Marlon Moore and Ricardo Lockette are unknowns at this point. Moreover, Boldin, Williams, and Manningham all become free agents in 2014. As such, while the Niners don’t necessarily need a starter for 2013, they absolutely need someone who can contribute next season and potentially start further down the road…and the ability to return kicks and/or punts wouldn’t hurt. Though I don’t think it’s likely, if the right player slips down the board I could see the 49ers using their first round pick (again) on a receiver. It’s more likely, though, that that they take one in the third or fourth round.
(Backup) Quarterback – Colt McCoy has twenty-one career starts (with Cleveland) which probably makes him the backup by default. Then again, Scott Tolzien knows the Niners’ playbook and they like him enough enough to have kept him around as their third string QB for the last two seasons. Will the presence of either prevent the Niners from drafting another quarterback to compete for the backup role? That depends on just how much the team actually likes McCoy and Tolzien. I don’t know what the front office thinks, but considering the 49ers like to use training camp competitions to flush out the best talent, I think Baalke and Harbaugh will add one more QB when all is said and done. They might just wait until Sunday to sign an undrafted free agent, but I could see them drafting one in the fourth round or later.
Offensive Line – The 49ers had the best offensive line in football last year and with every starter returning and healthy, this is not a position of need. Additionally, the Niners spent a fourth round pick on Joe Looney (G) last year and a fifth rounder on Daniel Kilgore (G) the year before so they have young backups waiting in the wings. Some have speculated that with center Jonathan Goodwin in the last year of his contract at age 34, the Niners will look for a replacement in this draft; they might, but I suspect they are grooming either Kilgore or Looney for that role. No, if the 49ers draft an offensive lineman this year, I’m reasonably sure that they will go after a tackle to backup Joe Staley and Anthony Davis since last year’s backup – Leonard Davis – was not re-signed. Look for the team to draft one in the 4th round or later.
Cornerback – All of the Niners’ starters return healthy and Nnamdi Asomugha has been added to the fold, making this a stable position group. However, while Asomugha, Tarell Brown, Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, and Carlos Rogers are all decent enough, none is irreplaceable, especially in an era when 4000+ yard passers are a dime a dozen. It is also worth noting that corners often double as return men, an area where the Niners need help following the departure of Ted Ginn. With that in mind, the 49ers could easily select a CB at any point in the draft to shore up their secondary.
Linebacker – As at offensive line, this group ranks as the best in the NFL, and it’s not even close. The team could, however, use a backup to help with their depth since Larry Grant is still un-signed (and suspended by the league for four games), Parys Haralson is coming off an injury as is last year’s fifth round pick, Darius Fleming; and new 49er Dan Skuta was signed as a special teams ace, not as an every down linebacker. The team could select one in the fourth round or later.
Running Back – If Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James are all healthy, then the Niners have one of the deeper and more dynamic groups of running backs in the league. However Hunter is coming off a knee injury, Frank Gore turns 30 this year – an age where RBs typically begin to see their production decline, and fourth stringer Anthony Dixon made the squad mostly for his special teams contributions. It is not imperative that the Niners take a back this year, but with Hunter and James on the small side, looking for a bigger RB who can run inside and potentially replicate Gore’s production would make sense. The 49ers might not draft a RB at all, but if they do it will happen no earlier than the third round.
Kicker – In my preview, I thought the Niners would go cheap at kicker and draft one in the fifth or sixth round. With the signing of Phil Dawson they could still pursue an undrafted free agent to see if they can find (cheap) lightning in a bottle, but using a draft pick on a kicker now seems highly unlikely.
If you enjoy making player-specific predictions, I’d love to see them in the comments.