Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Draft Grades for the 2021 NFL Draft: Part 1

May 1, 2021 at 4:30 PM

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The San Francisco 49ers' 2020 NFL season was arguably the most disappointing season over the last decade purely due to the high expectations the team had set for itself by making the Super Bowl the season prior. The underwhelming season was primarily plagued with injuries in addition to holes on the roster that were neglected in the 2020 offseason.

However, the Niners started the 2021 offseason with an underrated free agency period during which they were able to retain most of their free agents, including Trent Williams, Jason Verrett, Kyle Juscyk, Jaquiski Tartt, and more while bringing in key role players in Alex Mack and Samson Ebukam. Even after this successful signing period, the 49ers needed more depth and starters at specific holes at quarterback, offensive line, cornerback, and safety, all of which they attempted to address during the Draft.

Let's take a look at their 2021 selections and evaluate just how successful the 49ers were at improving their roster.

Round 1: Trey Lance, QB (North Dakota State)

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San Francisco's third slot in the first round caused arguably the most speculation and coverage in the past month, for good reason. The rookie would land on a contender and replace veteran Jimmy Garapolo, a quarterback who has been increasingly injury-prone, mistake-prone, and seemingly lacked the natural ability to truly take the Niners to the next level.

With this pick, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan decided to stake their bets on strong-armed North Dakota State QB Trey Lance. Lance played one full season at the D-1-AA school against mediocre competition while throwing for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns with a remarkable 0 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, showing his two-way prowess.

Lance is an extremely gifted athlete, likely the best among all of the highly touted quarterbacks in the draft. This attribute lets him extend plays with his legs, a weapon Kyle Shanahan seldom possesses in his arsenal. The NDSU star also demonstrated incredible football IQ and processing speed at the college level as he called his own protections at the line of scrimmage, went through his progressions and reads efficiently, and threw next to no interceptions, showing off his elite vision of the field and astute decision making.

The only downsides to drafting Lance at the third pick seem to be his inconsistent accuracy, which can be improved with an elite coaching staff, the lack of competition he faced in college, which certainly can be concerning, and a lack of experience.

However, considering that Shanahan has finally committed to a quarterback he is confident in and the fact that Trey Lance has one of the highest ceilings in the draft makes the pick a very good one.

Grade: A-

Round 2: Aaron Banks, OG (Notre Dame)

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Among the many overlooked problems in the 2020 campaign was the unstable offensive line. Though Trent Williams is potentially the best lineman in the league, he only played 14 games this past season and was not able to cover up the rest of the poor OL play as he was still shaking off the rust from sitting out the entire 2019 season. Laken Tomlinson and Justin Skule both had unsatisfactory years and gave up too many quarterback hits that ended up causing deteriorating quarterback play through a plethora of injuries. Daniel Brunskill's improvement as an interior offensive lineman was certainly welcome, but it was not still not enough. To solve these issues, San Francisco signed Alex Mack to bolster the center position, still leaving two vacancies at the guard positions.

The Niners addressed one of these roster holes by drafting Aaron Banks, a guard from Notre Dame. Banks is regarded as a mauling, skilled, and extremely physical lineman who uses his wide base and strength to keep up with strong and quick pass rushers. He has outstanding length to get his hands on the defender as well as a strong grip to maintain placement on the rusher once he has hand position. He's experienced at left guard but can play either guard position and showed off his durability in college by making 31 consecutive starts before his career at Notre Dame ended.

Banks does, however, have some weaknesses that cause concern. He is more of a run-blocker than pass-protector, something that may not be the best archetype for a guard who has to protect a rookie in Trey Lance and a less mobile quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. Furthermore, Banks may need to work on hand placement and body placement at the next level in order to stop an NFL caliber pass rusher.

Overall, this is definitely a solid pick for San Francisco because of its obvious need at the position and Banks' potential to be a good starter right away. But with other guards like Wyatt Davis and Quinn Meinerz who fit the more specific need still on the board, there might have been room for improvement.

Grade: B

Round 3: Trey Sermon, RB (Ohio State); Ambry Thomas, CB (Michigan)

Trey Sermon

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This is the first pick by San Francisco's front office that may be a little perplexing at first glance. The 49ers' running back room is already very crowded with solid running backs such as Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., and Wayne Gallman. Adding yet another running back to this group makes me question how many snaps each one will get as well as how much the Niners will actually pass the football this season.

Trey Sermon, a star running back from Ohio State, rushed for an astounding 870 yards on top of 4 touchdowns while playing just 8 games in his breakout season in 2020. Even these great numbers don't give justice to truly how good he was last season. Sermon is a violent, physical runner who has the natural ability to carry an offense as a bell-cow back. In a must-win game against Northwestern, Sermon carried a lackluster passing offense to victory by gaining 330 yards on the ground. In this game and throughout the season, the running back showcased elite agility and cuts, while also breaking tackles and dealing with contact exceptionally. Even more, the RB's length, height, and overall catch radius make him a prime candidate for the short pass and screen game.

However, there are some notable weaknesses that many point out when discussing Sermon's NFL potential. His 40-yard speed comes out to be 4.6 seconds, he has a significant number of focus drops, and he has a notable injury history. Personally, I don't find speed to be much of a problem due to his physicality and elusiveness and he still moves blazingly fast at short distances, more than well enough for a running back.

Trey Sermon is definitely a great NFL talent, but due to the loaded running back room already, drafting yet another one with a third-round pick, a premium slot, may not have been the best option considering other pressing needs at safety and slot receiver.

Grade: B

Ambry Thomas

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One of the biggest holes on the 49ers roster was its lackluster cornerback room. Though Jason Verrett certainly had a breakout season, he is already 29 years old and has a very long injury history dating all the way back to the 2015 NFL season. Now, after a very successful Pro-Bowl caliber campaign, he will likely demand much more than his $5.5 million salary next offseason. In case that they are not able to retain him, the 49ers are only left with Emmanuel Moseley and Dante Johnson as their starting corners, which makes for the worst starting tandem in the league.

DeMeco Ryans' solution to solving this secondary problem is drafting Ambry Thomas, a 6'0'', 191-pound cornerback from Michigan. Thomas opted out of the 2020 college football season due to COVID concerns, but he still flashed enough upside and strengths to warrant a selection in the third round. When last seen, in 2019, Thomas earned third-team All-Big Ten honors while producing 7 pass defenses on top of 3 interceptions. The cornerback is fast, running a 4.37-second 40-yard dash, and quick-footed, making it easy for him to stay with a receiver. He does a nice job with body positioning while playing outside corner and uses his above-average length to disrupt passes and cause chaos for pass catchers. His competitive attitude has been praised by coaches and teammates and makes for strong intangibles at the CB position.

Two potential issues at the NFL level right away could be his lack of experience playing corner, as he only started one full season at Michigan, and his tendency to give up a decent number of in-breaking passes up the middle, both of which can be addressed with playing time at the next level and a good defensive backs coach, both things San Francisco will supply the young defensive player.

Thomas also has extensive experience playing special teams, especially at kick returner, a welcome addition to mostly below-average return play in 2020. Considering his physical and mental strengths and versatility, Ambry Thomas stacks up as a steal of a draft pick. If he didn't miss the 2020 season, he most certainly would have been at least a Day 2 pick.

Grade: A

The first half of San Francisco's draft culminates in one of its best performances in recent history, a great sign for a team that is looking to contend as soon as this year. Stay tuned for the second half and full draft grades coming soon.
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.


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