Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Have the 49ers mismanaged their draft class?

Marc Adams
Nov 9, 2021 at 10:13 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers are eight games into the 2021 season, and some high draft picks have yet to make much of an impact. It's still too early to declare this draft class a success or failure, and much of that will be determined by how Trey Lance develops as a quarterback. But many fans are unhappy with how the 49ers have managed this year's class so far.

Forget about past classes drafted by John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. Sure, there have been some questionable early picks, and even some bad ones. From Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon and CJ Beathard in 2017, to Dante Pettis (2018), Jalen Hurd (2019) and Javon Kinlaw (2020), there has not been a shortage of questionable high picks. (Note: I included Kinlaw for a couple of reasons. First, his history of knee injuries. Second, the fact that the team traded away DeForest Buckner to draft him. That decision is questionable, at best.)

A high pick is one that is used in the first three rounds. There's a lot of value in those picks. And the 49ers have struggled to be consistent in drafting "difference-makers" in these critical rounds, where teams can rebuild championship rosters.

But let's forget about the past drafts for a few moments and just focus on this year's class, the 2021 rookies, and see how each one has been managed so far, with some recent thoughts from Shanahan.

Round 1: No. 3, QB Trey Lance

Shanahan made it clear from day one: Jimmy Garoppolo would be the starting quarterback, until Trey Lance was ready. So it should come as no surprise to us that Lance hasn't replaced Garoppolo yet.

Mismanaged or not: I'm going to say Lance has not been mismanaged...yet. But the quarterback situation has been mismanaged. I was onboard with Shanahan's approach to this quarterback plan, but now I'm thinking that the way he's handled the quarterbacks has been a major reason for the team's struggles this season. How can they follow a quarterback who has one foot out the door? The 49ers have repeatedly told Garoppolo he's not their guy (with their actions), all while telling him he is their guy (with their mouths). This has to have impacted the team negatively.

I think it's time to let Lance start his development.

Round 2: No. 48, G Aaron Banks

Has Aaron Banks even played in a regular season game? He has only been in uniform for one game, that I recall. Banks dealt with a shoulder injury in training camp that put him behind the other linemen. So far, he hasn't been able to move past Tom Compton on the depth chart. That's concerning. But Lynch and Shanahan both believe Banks will become a really good player.

Monday, in his teleconference with the media, Shanahan said, "We knew we drafted a guard in the second round thinking he'd have a chance to push Brunskill and Laken [Tomlinson]...And we had to start getting some youth in here. Banks, we thought, had the best chance to compete to maybe win one of those jobs over the off-season, but he didn't get that. He wasn't there in training camp, started getting his work in week one, and has been behind the eight ball. I think he's had a couple good weeks here. His best two weeks lately, and he's starting to push him [Brunskill] a little bit, but when that time is right for him and our team, we'll make that move."

Mismanaged or not: It's hard to say, because offensive lineman sometimes have a difficult transition from college to the NFL. I'm going to say Banks has not been mismanaged, but he needs to get in there and start playing. Perhaps that move is coming soon.

Round 3: No. 88, RB Trey Sermon

Here's where I believe there may be some mismanagement going on. Again, it's hard to determine because we don't know what happens in practice. We can't see how hard (or not) players are working. We don't know each player's job on each play, so it's tough to evaluate this sometimes. But, it would seem that Trey Sermon should have a much larger role than he currently has.

Even when the team has been hit with injuries in the running back room, Sermon still isn't getting much playing time. On Sunday, an injured Elijah Mitchell (more on him below) got in most of the work. Sermon was a healthy scratch. Jeff Wilson, Jr., who just returned from injured reserve and only had three practices under his belt, was active ahead of Sermon.

Said Shanahan on Monday, "Our biggest thing with all those positions, whether it was running back, third, corner in the third and the fifth, and guard in the second, those are all positions we were very thin at. Now, we had guys there that were starters. We weren't drafting a hole to replace the starter, whether it was at guard or whether it was that corner or whether it was that back. I felt good with Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson as our starting backs, but we knew we needed some depth.

"When you look at the running back, yeah, Trey Sermon. We didn't bring him here to come and start at running back. We needed to add some depth and unfortunately, we lost our two starting running backs within two plays of the first play of the year. And after that, I wouldn't say it's anything against Trey Sermon, but we felt better with Elijah [Mitchell]. Elijah had a strong camp, ended up beating Trey out and that's why he got that role. Trey got some opportunities when other people got injured. But right now, Jeff Wilson's back healthy, and Elijah is healthy, and those are our two starting backs right now, with Trey being third, and unfortunately, Hasty's been our third down back and done the stuff in the pass game. So, he's kind of been the odd man out with that, which is tough on him. It doesn't mean that we don't believe in him. He's just not ahead of those other guys right now in terms of running the ball on first and second down."

Mismanaged or not: Yes, I believe Sermon has been mismanaged so far. That said, if he's just been beat out by the others, that's on him.

Round 3: No. 102, CB Ambry Thomas

Ambry Thomas has been the one most difficult to figure out. He was active on Sunday, but has mostly been inactive this season. It's not surprising that it's taking him a while to get in there. He didn't play last season in college, so he has some catching up to do. But I thought that, by now, he'd at least be playing, especially after some of the injuries the 49ers cornerbacks have dealt with.

"I felt very good about [Jason] Verrett, [Emmanuel] Moseley and K'Waun [Williams] as our starting three corners," said Shanahan. "But we also knew we needed some depth behind them for injury and for going into next year, especially with the one-year deal those guys are on.

"And when you look at our corners, the third-round pick, the fifth-round pick, we weren't bringing any of them here to, we felt, start. We were hoping that they could add some depth and be guys who could play on our team and possibly do that next year. Unfortunately, having some injuries that we had early, we needed them earlier than we thought we would. And unfortunately, they weren't fully ready for it. And yeah, I wish they were. But the third-round pick and the fifth-round pick, they weren't, and that's why we've gone with veterans instead of them. Trying to get them some time to get to where they need to be."

Mismanaged or not: I'm going to say Thomas has been mismanaged, mainly because he's barely even been active. The biggest mismanagement involving the cornerback is that the 49ers weren't better prepared in case Verrett went down. Verrett has a long history of injuries, so it wasn't surprising he was injured. Having two rookies as their key depth was a bad idea. And now they have to rely on two old and terrible corners, Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Norman.

The rest of the draft (rounds 4-7) are considered mid to low picks, so I'm not sure we can debate whether they have been managed well or not. Anything you get from mid to low draft picks is positive. And so far, this regime has shown a knack for hitting on mid to low picks (see George Kittle). So let's take a quick look at the rest of this class.

Round 5: No. 155, G Jaylon Moore

Jaylon Moore started one game in place of left tackle Trent Williams, and he did pretty well. With Mike McGlinchey being lost for the season with an injury, Moore may be counted on to start the rest of the season at right tackle.

Round 5: No. 172, CB Deommodore Lenoir

Deommodore Lenoir started out hot in the off-season, but has since cooled off. My hope is that we see less of the Norman-Kirkpatrick mess, and more of the Thomas-Lenoir rookie combo.

Round 5: No. 180, S Talanoa Hufanga

Talanoa Hufanga is currently the starting strong safety, in place of the injured Jaquiski Tartt.

Round 6: No. 194, RB Elijah Mitchell

Mitchell has been the best part of this class. He is the team's starting running back, and currently has 469 yards rushing on 89 carries (a strong 5.3 average). He has three rushing touchdowns, no fumbles, and is near the top of the league in rushes for over 20 yards (five). Mitchell is an excellent back for this offense. He was a great pick.

So of the eight draft picks, the top four have had very little impact (if any) so far. Some of that was planned coming in (Lance), some is mismanagement, and some is injury or player-related. The lower four rookies have had a much greater impact. All four have played significant minutes, and if Moore replaces McGlinchey, the lower four will have three starters the rest of the way.

Go back and look at the 49ers' 2017-2021 drafts and you may see a pattern. The coaches and front office seem to miss (or mismanage) on the higher picks, and hit (or manage well) on the lower picks. I'd love to know who is responsible for scouting and drafting each tier of picks. If the team could flip-flop those results, this might likely be the Super Bowl roster we expected it to be.
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