SANTA CLARA — The third draft better be the charm for a 49ers regime anxious to get its hand-picked roster into the playoffs.
Thus far, lackluster drafts preceded 6-10 and 4-12 seasons under coach Kyle Shanahan. Injuries crippled those teams, as did a lack of play makers.
“In Year 3, that’s the big make-or-break year for everybody,” said left tackle Joe Staley, entering his 13th season. “It’s time to produce and we all know that.”
Depth, plus a starter or two, from this week’s draft must make the 49ers into the NFC West threat everyone thought they would be a year ago.
So here the 49ers are once again, holding the No. 2 overall draft pick, as they were in 2017 when Shanahan arrived as a first-time coach with his first-time general manager, John Lynch.
This, in reality, is not a make-or-break year for the Shanahan-Lynch regime, not with four seasons left on their contracts. This is, however, a pivotal draft to round out a roster for a legitimate Super Bowl run in 2020.
“We haven’t brought in the rookies, so there’s holes we’re still trying to fill,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said last week. “But it’s encouraging. Guys come back with a lot of energy this time of year and it’s exciting. It’s good stuff.”
Urgency certainly exists for the 49ers to avoid another sub-.500 showing, 25 years after the franchise’s last Super Bowl win.
The best picks that have produced in the Shanahan-Lynch era: tight end George Kittle (2017, fifth round) and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey (2018, first round).
The worst picks: linebacker Reuben Foster (2017, first round) and running back Joe Williams (2017, fourth round), neither of whom remain on the roster.
Their first and still-suspect pick: defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (2017, first round).
“We would’ve much preferred to have Reuben still playing here. So, of course you learn a lesson,” Lynch said. “If you don’t, like I said, shame on you. You work hard to try to identify what is the lesson that you learned. We know in-house what those lessons are. As to Joe, I think that was a pick, it didn’t work out.”
For this draft to go down as a clinching chapter in the 49ers’ return to relevancy, they can’t miss with their No. 2 overall pick. And the margin of error remains slim with only five other picks, pending probable trades for more action. Let’s handicap it:
TOP PICK: Defensive end
In the midst of Thursday’s drive-time commute, during the 5 o’clock hour inside the John McVay Draft Room, the 49ers brass get its turn once the Arizona Cardinals pick first.
Presumably quarterback Kyler Murray will go No. 1, or defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, or, gulp, the guy the 49ers need most, defensive end Nick Bosa.
Is Bosa a lock at No. 2? Probably the closest one to it. He is a great fit to play the bookend opposite newly acquired pass rusher Dee Ford. Bosa’s injury history (core-muscle surgery last year, ACL tear in high school) is a concern, probably more so than social media polarity. Bosa isn’t entering the NFL as an activist regarding race and politics.
Lynch sprung to Bosa’s defense this week and dubbed him a “great teammate,”
Williams is this year’s unrealistic portrait of an Aaron Donald clone, as if any defensive tackle can replicate the Los Angeles Rams’ bloodhound. Williams’ stock seemingly has shot up the further he’s distanced himself from Alabama’s National Championship loss to Clemson.
Speaking of Clemson, defensive end Clelin Ferrell hasn’t gotten much run among the electronic scouts (media who moonlight as draft pundits), and it’s not smart to overlook a national champ who totaled 27 sacks and 50 tackles for loss the past three seasons.
Fans likely won’t complain whatever defensive end’s name is called, as long as sacks come fast and across the line.
NEXT PRIORITIES: Wide receiver, defensive back
Picking No. 36 overall, the 49ers should have plenty of wide receivers slip to them after a defensive-heavy first round.
Shanahan’s prototype wide receiver seemingly is a 6-foot, refined route runner who separates at the line. Speed? Yes, please. Height? Not necessarily, but perhaps it’s time to change that.
Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry (6-foot-2, 228 pounds), Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf (6-3, 228), Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler (6-5, 227) and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (6-2, 225) pose big targets.
Those closer to the 6-foot prototype are Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown, Georgia’s Riley Ridley, Ohio State’s Parris Campbell and South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel.
But because the 49ers traded up to the second round last year for wide receiver Dante Pettis, perhaps their second pick this draft goes to a defensive back. After all, no interceptions by cornerbacks and only two by safeties merits a serious upgrade.
Taller cornerbacks that fit the 49ers’ profile: Washington’s Byron Murphy, LSU’s Greedy Williams, Michigan State’s Justin Layne and Kentucky’s Lonnie Johnson.
The 49ers haven’t committed long term to a free safety, so a high draft pick could bring competition against incumbents Jimmie Ward and Adrian Colbert. Options: Mississippi’s State’s Jonathan Abram, Maryland’s Darnell Savage, Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, Virginia’s Juan Thornhill, Washington’s Taylor Rapp and Alabama’s Deionte Thompson
DEPTH NEEDED: Tight end, punter, offensive line
If Kittle gets hurt, the 49ers should want better security than Garrett Celek and Ross Dwelley. Keep an eye out for Iowa’s Noah Fant, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger and Wyoming’s Tyree Mayfield.
Using a Day 3 pick on a punter seems quite feasible to replace Bradley Pinion, and possibly a kicker if the 49ers cut ties with Robbie Gould, who’s requested a trade over signing the $5 million franchise tender.
Quarterback and running back are the only spots the 49ers should not address in the draft. That said, more blockers to groom would be wise for an offensive line that returns all five starters.