Kirby Lee - USA Today Sports

Kirby Lee - USA Today Sports

The NFL Draft, Part 1: Where the 49ers may go with their first pick

Don Atkinson
Mar 24, 2020 at 9:30 PM1

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It's been just about a week since the official start of the 2020 NFL season, and in that short period things are suddenly shaking out for the 49ers in terms of their initial roster. Star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner is gone, as are veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders and long-standing offensive lineman Mike Person. Defensive line anchor Arik Armstead is staying, along with Safety Jimmie Ward and nearly all the team's key reserve players.

Now approaching the 2020 NFL draft, the 49ers find themselves in an enviable position: They are coming off a Super Bowl season with their roster functionally intact, and they are in serious need at very few positions. It's doubtful the 49ers are worrying much at all about their overall situation, but they are justifiably a bit concerned about a few individual components moving forward.

The 49ers' offensive line must be stabilized, and with the release of Mike Person last week and the questions over the likelihood of 35-year-old tackle Joe Staley playing much longer, it's taking over as one of the team's most compelling needs. Much talent is already in the building, but the team needs to settle in on its starters, secure its key reserves, and let them gel as a unit.

The defensive line needs very little help but adding one or two quality players to the roster to make up for the loss of Buckner would bring a sense of depth security that was iffy for most of last year. When all are healthy, the 49ers' line is iron thick, but they can't rely on that being the case. Adding in a superior defensive tackle or edge rusher from the draft would go a long way to locking in depth for the foreseeable future.

The wide receiver situation may be the most critical. When Emmanuel Sanders left for New Orleans, the landscape changed immediately, and standing pat on this present group of receivers is dangerous. Failing to address the loss of Sanders early in the draft, the 49ers would be taking an extraordinary risk that wide receivers Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor will be healthy and able to produce big numbers in 2020.

There are a few other places the 49ers could muscle up: The team will almost certainly be shopping for another quality tight end to back up George Kittle, and plucking a couple of solid defensive backs from this draft class would be a benefit as well. It's unlikely the 49ers are going to do more than give running backs or linebackers a cursory look, and quarterbacks are functionally off the table.

One of the less common practices of teams is simply to draft the best player available on the board, regardless of position. There is some merit to that, in the right situation. But it's more useful to teams that are either absolutely stacked at every position, or absolutely bereft of talent. The 49ers are neither, so the "best player" option wouldn't be the better plan. A more position-precise approach is what 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will undoubtedly adopt, and rightfully so.

There's no guarantee, of course, that the 49ers will be holding both the 13th and 31st picks on Day One of the draft. Lynch likes to deal, and it wouldn't shock anyone to see him parlay one of those first round picks into multiple picks in later rounds. But assuming the 49ers keep them both, let's look at the options of how best that first pick at Number 13 might be utilized.

Wide Receiver:
Yes, the 49ers will be looking to both develop a versatile offensive lineman and also fill the large shoes of DeForest Buckner on defense. But with Emmanuel Sanders gone, it's now imperative that the 49ers find another starting wideout to join Deebo Samuel, who would prefer not to be double covered on every snap this coming season. That player could come later via a free agent signing or a trade, but that is a huge gamble as well.

The best plan is for the 49ers to use a pick to draft a game-changing wide receiver and do it in the first round. This draft class is unusually heavy with top receiver talent and to pass that opportunity by to select an offensive guard for development in Round 1, even when that lineman may be needed, might be a critical error.

At Pick 13, the 49ers will likely miss out on Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, possibly the best receiver in the draft. As such, they will need to look at alternatives.

In the Discussion: An early fan favorite has been Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, an explosive pass catcher and a premier route runner. Jeudy's teammate, Henry Ruggs III, a speedster with good hands, is also getting some looks. But Jeudy can fairly be classified as a finesse receiver and hasn't shown much ability to fight for the ball. That's problematic for the 49ers, who may have had their fill of finesse players these days.

Ruggs has blistering speed. But then so does Marquise Goodwin. Speed is fun to watch, but it's assertive pass catching that tends to win ball games, and for that reason, the 49ers would be smart to look at bigger, more aggressive receivers that will pair up well with Samuel.

The Better Choice: Clemson's Tee Higgins (6'4" and 220 lbs.) isn't as skilled a route runner as Jeudy, nor is he as fast as Ruggs, but he has the size to create devastating mismatches on the field against smaller defensive backs, has a quick football mind and can play from any one of the receiver positions, which is a sign of his versatility.

Other good options at wide receiver could be Denzel Mims (Baylor), Laviska Shenault, Jr. (Colorado) or Chase Claypool (Notre Dame), all of whom are larger, stronger receivers who could fit well into the 49ers' offensive scheme.

Defensive Line:
If Emmanuel Sanders was still a 49er, the team could have easily used its Number 13 pick on a defensive lineman to replace Buckner. But he's gone and getting Deebo Samuel some starting help is now more important than getting Armstead someone else to help in the line rotation.

The defensive line is still in excellent shape, even with the loss of Buckner, and the 49ers' practice of reloading the line with a first-round draft pick every year, which has paid off big until now, can continue with Pick 31. Let's hope they don't go that route, but if the 49ers decide to select a defensive lineman at 13, there are a few great ones to pursue.

In the Discussion: At 6'5" and 325 lbs., South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw is going to be a nightmare for offensive linemen to block, and his game tape shows it sometimes takes two of them to keep him from collapsing the pocket. The same size as Kinlaw, Auburn's Derrick Brown is just as troublesome for opposing lines to handle. Both show quickness and athleticism for their size, but with the 49ers' D.J. Jones on the roster, there's some merit to selecting a lighter more position-adaptive player instead.

The Better Choice: At 6'3" and 254 lbs., LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson is an edge rusher who might fit well in the 49ers' system, where players are expected to shift inside and out, depending on the scheme. Chaisson is smart, fast and exceptionally agile, and could well be the disruptive force that Aldon Smith was for the 49ers once-upon-a-time. Chaisson could be the future replacement for veteran Dee Ford when the time comes, and there's a lot to be said for preparing for that sooner rather than later.

It's going to be up to Lynch and Shanahan to decide if they want to focus on shutting down the line of scrimmage or terrorizing the quarterback. If they decide to go big up front, Kinlaw might be the player. Other great options are Wisconsin's Zack Baun (Edge) and Oklahoma's Neville Gallimore (DT), both of whom are quick, athletic and relentless. Either would meld well with the rest of the 49ers' defensive line.

Offensive Line:
Yes, the 49ers can find great offensive linemen in the first round of the draft. But there are far more instances of the team finding its All-Pro linemen via the free agent market or through trade. Great offensive linemen are generally developed over the course of several years, and it's more rare that they make an impact right out of the draft. It's questionable practice then to throw a first-round pick at a player who won't impact the line significantly until two seasons or more later.

The 49ers do need to stabilize their line, but it needs to happen now, not three years from now. Shoring up the offensive line should be a priority for Lynch and Shanahan when they go window shopping in the mall of free agency. But the draft likely isn't the place. 49ers' tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley were first round picks, but there are historically more bad outcomes than good in taking an offensive lineman in the first round.

That said, the 49ers might just burn one of their two first-round picks on an offensive lineman anyway, and if they do, there are a few standouts.

In the Discussion: Alabama's Jedrick Wills and Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, both at 6'5" and 320 lbs., are powerful, tenacious and agile tackles, and it's likely either could be a starter with the 49ers very quickly. But it's quite possible both will be off the board when the 49ers' first turn comes up.

The Better Choice: Louisville's Mekhi Becton (6'7" and 369 lbs.) is a monster with huge reach and powerful moves. Because some teams may be hesitant about his towering size, he may drop below both Wills and Wirfs on draft day, but a close look at him shows he has considerable mobility and quickness despite his stature. If the 49ers insist on taking a new defensive lineman with their first pick, Becton could be the one.

Other prime options could be Georgia's Andrew Thomas and Houston's Josh Jones. Each might be behind Wills, Wirfs and Becton in technique, but both are powerful tackles with quick hands and feet and could become starters rapidly with some focused coaching.

The "Best Player Available":
As I've said, this is an option for some teams under certain circumstances, but it's not really a method that works well in the long haul, and certainly not for the 49ers right now. Adding another running back, linebacker or a backup quarterback to the draft slate when the team is already excelling at those positions is illogical and doesn't address more pressing needs. But odd things happen on draft day, and if the 49ers decide to go rogue with their first pick, there are some players who could be sound acquisitions.

Of safeties Grant Delpit (LSU) and Xavier McKinney (Alabama), and cornerbacks Kristian Fulton (LSU) and C.J. Henderson (Florida), at least two are almost certain to be around when the 49ers pick at 13. Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons or Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa could, by some draft day freakishness, still be sitting on the board at 13, but in that scenario, it's more likely we would see the 49ers trade down a few slots to get some second- or third-round value than take either of those two. With more compelling needs as already noted, it isn't a wise path.

The Bottom Line:
Whether or not wide receivers should be the first draft priority depends on who you talk to, and obviously the 49ers will put their faith in both Lynch and Shanahan to make the right call. It really comes down to whether the 49ers want to burn their top pick on a lineman, when there may be some great options via trade or free-agency, and how much weight they place on getting another defensive star to fill Buckner's shoes right away.

Holding two of the first 32 picks in the draft, the 49ers have plenty of room to maneuver without panicking. There is still tremendous talent that will be in play well beyond pick 30. Of the already mentioned players, receivers Laviska Shenault, Denzel Mims and Chase Claypool, offensive tackle Josh Jones, and defensive linemen Neville Gallimore and Zack Baun should all be available for selection at 31. That gives the 49ers tremendous latitude to make the right selections to fill at least two of their most pressing needs in Round 1.

The NFL draft can be exhilarating and discouraging, frustrating and immensely satisfying, all at the same time. Most especially, it seems for fans. But it's nice to know that the guys who brought you Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, D.J. Jones and George Kittle are in there handling things again this year.
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.

1 Comment

  • Rick Reulecke
    I always enjoy reading your articles! Very nicely put together piece right here! Thank you, it was very enjoyable to read!
    Mar 25, 2020 at 2:17 AM

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