With the 2018 draft just around the corner, it is a good time to look at some prospects that have been discussed as options for the 49ers with the ninth-overall pick. In the first of three installments, we will look at the offensive players who the 49ers have been linked to in the first round. I don't expect any of these players to be the pick at nine, as Kyle Shanahan teams have rarely picked offensive players in the first round. These prospects bear discussion, however, as John Lynch and Shanahan have only been together through one draft, which does not establish a reliable trend for this combination of decision makers.

Quinton Nelson


As I said in the Mock Draft Podcast, Quinton Nelson is my favorite player in the draft. He is simply a joy to watch. Nelson possesses an uncommon combination of length, size, mobility, power, and footwork. He has effortless hip extension that allows him to win the point of contact immediately, and his footwork and leverage allow him to stick with blocks through the whistle.


His physical gifts, along with his nasty demeanor, result in several highlight reel pancakes per game. Nelson's reputation as a dominant guard often results in defenses avoiding him in their pass rush scheme. With no defender threatening Nelson's immediate responsibility, he does exactly what you would expect a competitor to do: he finds work. The help that Nelson provides to his linemates usually results in Nelson de-cleating a hapless defensive lineman while they are occupied with one of his teammates. His football intelligence, elite vision, and tremendous processing speed allow him to check off of his own protection responsibilities to attack the most dangerous rusher at any point along the pocket.


With all of that in mind, I don't believe the 49ers will select Nelson with the ninth pick in the draft with the salary cap forcing teams to prioritize critical positions. Through his time in the league, Kyle Shanahan has shown a preference for building his offensive line units with marquee tackles and centers, while using bargain talent at guard. He certainly looks to get good, intelligent athletes who can reach and execute their blocking assignments while processing the game at the speed of Shanahan's offense; he just looks to get affordable value at the guard spots. I do not believe the popular internet judgment that Nelson is too large to play in the 49ers' outside zone scheme, because he moves tremendously well and rarely misses second level targets. I do believe that the 49ers would be unlikely to pay Nelson (as a guard) a competitive rate for his second contract, which would effectively make drafting him with the ninth pick an expensive four or five-year rental.

There is a chance that the 49ers see Nelson similarly to how the Chiefs perceived Brandon Albert in 2008, when they selected him with the 15th-overall pick. Albert was a guard in college, but he displayed the feet and length to project at tackle, and the Chiefs quickly pushed him outside to tackle. If the 49ers see the same potential in Nelson (he has tackle-like 34-inch arms), they could seek to start him at left guard until Joe Staley retires, then move Nelson outside to replace Staley.



Saquon Barkley


Running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at over 230 pounds is impressive. With Saquon Barkley's other athletic traits and highlight reel, that 40-time may be among the less impressive aspects of the most coveted running back in the draft. Barkley seems like the ideal Shanahan back. He is sudden enough to create arm tackles, and he is large enough to run through them. He has soft hands, and he is dangerous as a receiver at any level of the defense. He doesn't need to decelerate to change direction at sharp angles, which is nearly unheard of for a big back.


It works against Barkley that the Shanahans (with Bobby Turner) have a decades-long history of finding productive running backs later in the draft, and that the 49ers paid a hefty sum to make Jerick McKinnon their featured back (to be fair, the 49ers can get out of that contract painlessly as soon as 2019). I believe that Barkley would have to be a perfect prospect to get the nod at No. 9. He's close to it, but Barkley doesn't run like a big back. Most big backs aren't nearly as elusive as Barkley, but I would like to see a big back demonstrate the ability to chose a gap early and run behind his pads to grind out the tough yards you need to get to turn a red zone trip into a touchdown, or to turn a 3rd-and-short into a first down. I don't see that often enough with Barkley. While he tends to run with a low and powerful base, he doesn't adopt the aggressive upper body lean and determined leg drive that pushes piles.

It's unlikely that the 49ers even have the opportunity to pass on Barkley, as the recent success of 1st-round backs (Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliot) and Barkley's tremendous ability are likely to land him a new team somewhere in the first eight picks.

Courtland Sutton


Cortland Sutton is an impressive athletic specimen, and he is the only wide receiver that is projected anywhere near where the 49ers are selecting. As a large receiver, he has good speed, great athleticism, and elite body control. He extends well for throws outside of his frame, and he plays to his size, frequently securing catches through solid contact.


At first glance, he does not appear to be the type of receiver that Kyle Shanahan prefers to work into his offense. Shanahan is exacting in his expectation that his receivers run crisp, precise routes, and Sutton has a habit of rounding his breaks and rolling into his routes, which would allow adept NFL cornerbacks to undercut them. The rounded routes also prohibit Sutton from snapping out of his stem into his break, which results in close coverage throughout the route.

It was reported that 49ers GM John Lynch was particularly fond of Sutton's impressive 3-cone time (6.57 seconds), which potentially clouds this evaluation a bit. The 3-cone drill is usually used to evaluate a prospect's ability to bend and change direction. A 6.57 second time in the drill suggests that Sutton possesses the athletic potential to cut more sharply and to accelerate out of his breaks, gaining significant separation. Kyle Shanahan has been clear that he looks for traits over production. It is possible that Sutton's 3-cone time may convince Shanahan that a receiver possessing Sutton's athleticism and work ethic could develop into a precise route runner. I would not expect Sutton to be the pick at nine, but he could become an option if the 49ers trade back into the twenties and their preferred defensive targets are off of the board.

Check back over the next few days for the two final installations of our look at the 49ers options with the ninth pick: Defensive Backs and Front-Seven Defenders.

Poll

  • Of the three offensive players discussed here, which one would you want the 49ers to draft?
  • Quenton Nelson
  • Saquon Barkley
  • Courtland Sutton