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Going Big Could Work in Niners’ Favor

Apr 12, 2019 at 11:40 AM

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With the draft two weeks away, and with the insanity of free agent signings far in the rearview mirror, football fans are fairly frothing at the mouth for something relevant to discuss. Sadly, that is not likely to happen until maybe a day or two before the draft, if we are lucky. This slack tide period of football fandom has led to some writers to a state of near obsession regarding certain players, wild trade scenarios, and the like. It is all just a way to whittle away the hours in the day as we wait for that magic day, April 25, to arrive. I myself have described the NFL draft and my fantasy football draft days as being better than Christmas. The excitement, the anticipation, the possibilities make every fan hopeful that his or her team will hit the jackpot and fill every weakness on the roster, and that this season will be the one in which it makes that improbable run through the playoffs and finishes the season under clouds of confetti while hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

The reality is that almost every fan will wind up heartbroken. Only one team will finish the season as champions, and the likelihood of a Cinderella season is very, very low. Yet we continue to hope, and to cheer, and to talk trash, because this all means so damned much to us. We are invested emotionally in our team, irrational though that may be, and our Mondays are significantly impacted by the results of Sundays' games. We feel a part of the Niners, a small part for sure, but they are ours. Our team. We scream and laugh and wince and rage, sometimes moment to moment, as the men wearing our red and gold carry our hopes and dreams with them. We remember the Montana years, the Young years, that run like no other, when the Niners were the absolute best. We remember that brief flash that was the Harbaugh era, when they came so close but ultimately could not sustain what had built up so quickly, and egos, age, injury and a failure to evolve further served as too great a series of mountains to continue to climb. That team fell apart quickly and spectacularly. Was it really only six years ago that they came so close to title number 6? It feels like an eternity.

But now. Now we have a feeling like we have not had in what seems like forever. We have hope. We have a coach who is at times brilliant. We have a team that seems unified, and willing to work hard for each other, and sacrifice. We have a coach/GM combo who appears to work well together, and has a common vision, and believes in what it is doing. Not just paying lip service. Not just playing the game. It feels like this team is close, and with a little luck, there are brighter days ahead.

Turning now back to the paucity of football news, in looking at the draft, and at the Niners' options, and at what other teams are possibly willing to do as far as trading up, and what the team's greatest needs are, there is one possible avenue in this draft for the 49ers that could turn the NFL on its collective head. Draftniks are saying that there are a ton of receivers worth drafting this year; however, if you read what many NFL coaches and GMs really think, selecting a wideout is like throwing darts at a revolving board while blindfolded. The college game is so ridiculously wide open and devoid of defense that pedestrian quarterbacks and wideouts look like future Pro Bowl players. Look at the draft over the last 5 years - I discussed first-round picks in a recent piece, pointing out how few players turn out to be real hits. The second round is even worse. 22 receivers were drafted in the second round in the last 5 years, and only Davante Adams, Michael Thomas and JuJu Smith-Schuster have been unmitigated successes. Tyler Boyd, Allen Robinson and Sterling Shepard have been good but not great. The rest have underwhelmed (yes, even Dante Pettis, who had fewer than 500 receiving yards last season). That is a success rate of 27%. In the second round. Receiver is, as I wrote previously, a crapshoot.

It is without question that the 49ers need to boost their offense going forward. Their red zone production has been abysmal over the last two seasons. With Robbie Gould apparently at loggerheads with the team, it may well lose its best offensive weapon over the past two years. It needs to score points. It needs to score touchdowns. It needs something that is as close to a guarantee as can be found in this next draft. But it also needs to add even more to its defense. Both could be accomplished in the first round of the draft. How? Down the rabbit hole again we go...

The 49ers hold what is likely the most valuable pick in the draft, even though it is number two overall. No one believes that the Cardinals will select anyone other than Kyler Murray, meaning that the Niners' pick will be the one that can be used for the best player in the draft. Most think that to be Nick Bosa. Some think Quinnen Williams. There are others, but those two are the ones who teams really want. In addition, if Murray goes first, teams wanting a quarterback will suddenly feel pressure to make sure they don't lose their guy. The Raiders, Giants, Jaguars, Dolphins, Broncos and Bengals all need quarterbacks. The Raiders pick 4th, The Giants 6th, the Jags 7th, the Broncos 10th, the Bengals 11th and the Dolphins 13th. The Raiders have three first-round picks, adding numbers 24 and 27 to their earlier pick. The Giants also hold the 17th pick. The two most logical candidates are the Raiders and the Giants. I used to think that the Raiders won't part with that #4 pick unless Murray slips past Arizona, but they desperately need pass rush help, and Bosa would make their fanbase ecstatic. If the Niners swapped the Number 2 and their third-round pick for the Numbers 4 and 24 picks, they would have pick numbers 4, 24, 36, and 104 (I'm leaving the last two picks out of this scenario to keep it from getting too convoluted). They could then offer to trade that pick to the Giants for the numbers 6 and 17 picks, but would almost certainly have to give up their second round pick as part of the deal, which would make it less appealing of a deal. More possible would be the Dolphins, who need a quarterback pretty desperately and might be willing to give up a lot to make that leap - like their pick number 13 and Xavien Howard, who they will not be keeping after this season, in all likelihood, as his rookie deal ends and he will want a serious raise. The Niners have that kind of cap space. This would leave the team with pick numbers 13, 24, 36 and 104, and its cornerback problems would have been reduced significantly via Howard being added to the roster.

With pick 13 the Niners could still fill their edge needs with Montez Sweat or Brian Burns. With pick number 24, they could grab Noah Fant or TJ Hockenson. With pick number 36, they could take Nasir Adderly, and with pick 104 they could look to stack linebacker or offensive line or, if they wanted, they could address wide receiver.

Many readers have now called me an idiot, because of course the team should have taken N'Keal Harry or A.J. Brown, or possibly even D.K. Metcalf at 24 instead of yet another tight end. I am definitely not on the Metcalf train - he looks fantastic, he runs like the wind and is a physical freak, but he is stiff in his cuts, fights the ball and if he is such a monster why didn't he dominate college football last year? He also has a neck injury in his recent history, and necks scare me.

But why a tight end? Well, the tight ends I mentioned are pretty unusual in that they are part of the evolution of that position that we have seen in recent years. Fant is 6'4" and 250, but runs around a 4.5 40. He's not the greatest blocker, but he's not horrible, and given his speed the team could move him out into the slot, or even split him out wide, leaving the defense with a serious problem of how to cover him. Few linebackers would have a chance, and if a safety tried, Kittle would benefit. The same would hold true if they picked Hockenson, although while he is a ferocious blocker, he is not quite as fast as Fant. I would hope that they took Fant for this reason - I could see him as a clone of Jimmy Graham. Yes, I am talking about a two tight end system, and one in which there could at times be no wide receiver on the field. You heard me. I am talking about using Coleman and McKinnon with Juszczyk while keeping both Fant and Kittle on the field. This takes my article of several weeks ago, in which I posited keeping three backs on the field with Kittle and Pettis and adds yet another wrinkle that makes it even harder on defenses. If a team played base defense, the Niners would throw at will, being able to shift players around as they wished, since every one of those players could easily beat linebacker coverage, and most safeties as well. Corners would be too small to cover the tight ends, and would have to shift to one of the backs, making tackling a challenge. If a team went with nickel, the run game would be unstoppable. It would be a lose-lose proposition for the defense. The team could still have traditional packages, and if Pettis, Matthews, Bourne, Taylor and the rest showed improvement, the sky would truly be the limit for the offense as far as formations and schematic wrinkles. Finally, the red zone problems would be a thing of the past, with big, strong targets who could outrun and outjump goal line defenses while still grinding it out against smaller opponents. Matthews, in addition to the tight ends, would make things tough to stop in close.

I know this sort of scenario is more than unlikely, it's a dream. The Niners are almost certain to sit tight and draft Nick Bosa. But with some creativity, the Niners could fill a number of holes that exist on the roster, and could throw lineups together that would make defensive coordinators lose sleep. It might not happen - but maybe, just maybe, it could work and work well.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Jim Rose
    Don't overthink this. Draft Josh Allen at #2 overall and plug him in at SAM linebacker and Nickel / Wide Nine pass rusher for the next decade .
    Apr 16, 2019 at 4:37 AM
  • NinerNoe
    I love the way you think.
    Apr 15, 2019 at 9:08 PM
  • gw2
    Love the 32 personnel idea. However, I'd rather stay at #2 and draft a lethal pass rusher, then trade up for Hockenson/Fant.
    Apr 13, 2019 at 11:58 AM
  • Rick Reulecke
    Nice read - thank you
    Apr 12, 2019 at 7:48 PM
  • Walter Sasiadek
    Apr 12, 2019 at 11:58 AM

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