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Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

What Position Will the 49ers Target in the First Round of the NFL Draft? A Guide to Each Option From Quarterback to Cornerback

Apr 3, 2024 at 1:54 PM--

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As the Niners try to put together their roster for another deep playoff run, the NFL Draft looms large. Niners fans have naturally started to wonder who the team will pick in the first round. But beyond the specific player, fans are debating what position the Niners should try to fill. While the Niners don't have very many immediate holes on their roster, they have plenty of long-term needs, and of course want a contributor who can help them make another run to the Super Bowl.

Not Even Worth Discussing

Quarterback: Brock Purdy is only 24 years old and one of the best QBs in football (and he makes almost no money). The team will need to pay Purdy eventually, but as of now he still has two years left on his rookie deal. A late-round flier at quarterback might be in play, but a first round pick is out of the question.

Running back: Christian McCaffery is arguably the best running back in football and under contract through 2025. Elijah Mitchell, his backup, is under contract through the end of this year. While a successor to McCaffery might be on the Niners' mind after 2025, Shanahan has a history of turning late-round backs into productive starters. Given how rare first-round running backs are in the modern NFL, the Niners are not bucking the trend this year.

Tight End: George Kittle is getting older, but the Niners won't move on a replacement just yet. For starters, the only first-round tight end in this class is Brock Bowers. He's one of the best tight end prospects ever, and a local kid (born and raised in Napa), but the hype around him means there's no universe where the Niners can take him at pick 31. Even if the Niners tried to trade Kittle in exchange for a pick to draft Bowers, a draft day trade would add a massive amount of dead money to the Niners' already strained salary cap.

Second, the Niners already have three tight ends on the roster, adding both Cameron Latu and Brayden Willis in the draft last year. Willis got snaps in the Super Bowl last year, so it's possible he takes over back-up duties after Charlie Woerner's departure to the Falcons. The Niners also tried to add Brock Wright as a backup from the Lions, indicating the team does not see the draft as the ideal place to add another tight end. So using a first round pick on the position would be an odd use of draft capital here.

Linebacker: Dre Greenlaw is a free agent after next season, but a first round pick to replace him is out of the question. The Niners already signed De'Vondre Campbell to serve as the team's third linebacker, and drafted two linebackers last year (Dee Winters and Jalen Graham). It's unclear if Winters or Graham can be a replacement for Greenlaw if he leaves in free agency, but Campbell's contract, only one-year in length, indicates that the Niners haven't yet given up on either of their draft picks from last year. On top of that, the Niners have landed impact linebackers in the later rounds. Fred Warner was a third round pick, Dre Greenlaw a fifth, and Azeez Al-Shair an undrafted free agent. As a whole, linebacker is the most likely position in the NFL to see players become all-pros despite being drafted late or going undrafted. That, combined with the Niners' history here, makes a first round selection a non-starter in 2024.

Kicker, Punter, Fullback: Not only do the Niners have solid starters at all of these positions, but no team has drafted a prospect from who plays any of them since Sebastian Jankowski in 2000.

Possible, but not Top Priority

Safety: On one hand, the Niners' depth chart at safety is thin. George Odum (who mostly plays special teams) is the only backup behind Talanoa Hufanga and Ji'Ayir Brown as of now. Hufanga and Brown are also both aggressive safeties who are more comfortable playing downhill rather than in coverage. The Niners have expressed interest in signing a more coverage-focused safety in free agency, but could also add one through the draft either as a starter or backup. Also, Hufanga is a free agent after next season, and the Niners may want to draft someone who can replace him if they can't afford to re-sign him.

On the other hand, the Niners do already have two starting caliber safeties on the roster in Hufanga and Brown. For a team that wants to make a Super Bowl run this year, it doesn't make a ton of sense to take a backup at a position of relative strength. On the whole, it wouldn't be shocking if the Niners went safety here, but they probably will wait given their starters and the lack of first-round caliber safeties in this draft class.

Edge Defender: It would be hard to overstate just how much capital—both money and draft picks—the Niners have poured into edge rushers. This offseason, they signed Leonard Floyd and Yetur Gross-Matos, not to mention they gave Nick Bosa a massive extension last offseason as well. With that in mind, the Niners probably aren't looking to add another edge in the first round, especially because this draft lacks a large volume of consensus first-round players at the position.

But even with all that, it's still possible that the Niners will add an outside pass rusher in the first round. The team still wants to find a long-term bookend to Nick Bosa, and Floyd, while a productive pass rusher, is 31 years old and only under contract for two years. Gross-Matos is younger, but also under contract for only two years, and looks to have a role more as an edge-setting run defender rather than a pure pass rusher. And both have team-friendly exit options after next year. So if a hypothetical rookie edge defender plays well, the Niners could cut or trade one of them and take almost no dead money on their payroll.

The Niners also need depth at the position. They spent a second round pick on Drake Jackson in 2022, but so far he's failed to contribute, and there's little reason to be optimistic about his future production. Behind him, the Niners have Robert Beal Jr., a 2023 fifth round pick, whose physical traits (6-4, 247) and athleticism (4.48 40-yard dash) are promising. He did get some snaps in the playoffs and Super Bowl, but he's unlikely to be a major part of the defense without a big jump in his second year. But still, the Niners might not take a player in the first round just to throw him into such a crowded depth chart, so a first round selection here seems less likely than in years past.

Interior Defensive Line: Similar to edge rushers, the Niners have invested a lot in their interior defensive line. They signed Javon Hargrave last offseason, signed Jordan Elliot to a two-year deal this offseason, and traded for Maliek Collins to replace Arik Armstead.

That being said, there's still good reason to think the Niners might add a high draft pick here. For one, the run defense last year was shockingly weak, and every interior defender who will get significant snaps next year is a better pass rusher than run defender, according to PFF. While the Niners have historically prioritized pass rush over run defense on the interior, last year may scare the team into drafting someone with more of a run-stopping presence. Additionally, Maliek Collins is a solid, durable starter, but he's no Arik Armstead. Cutting Armstead was the most obvious loss of talent the Niners suffered all offseason, and they may want to reload at the position. Lastly, the contract situation lends itself to targeting a young player here. The Niners can fully opt-out of Maliek Collins's $10 million contract next year with no dead money, and can do nearly the same with Jordan Elliot's $3.5 million deal. So if the team gets a contributor in the first round here, it also gets a path to freeing up a sizeable amount of cap space.

Wide Receiver: All good things must come to an end. It feels just like yesterday that the Niners receiving core was a weak point on the team. Now that group has Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, with Juan Jennings contributing as well. But the Niners won't be able to pay all of them. The team is already in a contract standoff with Aiyuk, and the Niners have reportedly entertained trade offers. If the Niners do trade him, then a wide receiver becomes a top priority for the first round. Even if they extend him, they will likely need to move on from Deebo next offseason to stay within the salary cap. Picking a successor at pick 31 might be a better plan than waiting until next year.

But the Niners' goals this year might complicate this. The team wants to win the Super Bowl and likely wants to draft a player in the first round who can help them do it. Even a great wide receiver will be stuck third on the depth chart and see limited playing time. A pick with a view toward the long term isn't impossible, but the Niners likely pass on a receiver in the first round unless someone they love falls.

Prime Candidates

Cornerback: Unlike for most of Kyle Shanahan's tenure, cornerback is not an immediate weakness for the Niners. Charvarius Ward and Demmodore Lenoir are both good players. Plus, the Niners signed Isaac Yiadom from the Saints, with the plan for him to be a full-time starter on the outside.

However, the team's top four corners are all free agents after next year. Re-signing more than one of them will be difficult to do financially, so the Niners are going to need to start rebuilding this unit with young talent—and fast. While the team does have Samuel Womack and Darrell Luter Jr. on the roster, nothing suggests that the team views them as a long-term solution at the position. The Niners win-now attitude and signing of Yiadom means that a selection here may see limited playing time next year. While this cornerback class does have quality players that might fall to the Niners later in the draft, hitting on a pick here is important if the Niners don't want to be in desperation mode next offseason.

Offensive Line: Fans have been clamoring for an upgrade at the position (perhaps the only glaring weakness on the Niners' roster). Not only did the O-line faulter in the biggest moments in the Super Bowl, but it struggled in drop-back pass protection throughout the season, according to PFF. While Trent Williams is one of the best tackles in football, every other player on the line grades out as mediocre or average. The Niners desperately need an upgrade here and this year's crop of offensive linemen is chalk full of talented players.

But still, fans shouldn't be shocked if the Niners pass on an offensive lineman in the first round. The Niners haven't spent a first round pick on a lineman since 2018, when they drafted Mike McGlinchey. On top of that, the Niners' O-line is a unit where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While most of the lines grades as below-average, especially in pass blocking, the Niners gave up relatively few sacks in 2023 and had one of the best rushing attacks in football. With continuity being an important factor in O-line success, the Niners may decide they want to run it back one more time with this unit and see if it can improve in 2024.


Given the weaknesses on the roster, O-Line seems like the most likely route for the Niners to take in the first round. But don't be surprised if the Niners go for a player who fits a more long-term need, especially if the team has that player high on their draft board.
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