The 49ers — like every other team in the NFL — are at the combine.
And given that the Niners’ stated goal in free agency is to keep the band together, it puts all the more onus on the team to draft well come April. After all, that’s the route where the 49ers can most significantly upgrade their roster ahead of the 2020 season.
So… what exactly are the Niners looking for at this combine?
More draft picks
The 49ers do a good job of keeping their true intentions under wraps — something previous regimes couldn’t do. As such, we have no reliable reads on what the Niners plan to do with pick No. 31 in the draft.
But seeing as the Niners don’t have any glaring holes on their roster, the most logical option is to trade it for more draft picks this draft and perhaps next to acquire more depth and high-ceiling, low-floor prospects.
The Niners do not have any picks in the second, third, and fourth rounds in this year’s draft. So considering their success in the later rounds of the draft and their hit-or-miss track record with top-50 picks, it will likely behoove the Niners to move off of No. 31 and take a few more spins on the prospect wheel.
What could the Niners net for pick No. 31?
Lucky for us — though unlucky for them — the 49ers were on the other end of that equation in 2017, when they traded up to No. 31 to select Reuben Foster. The deal — made with the Seahawks of all teams — cost the Niners picks Nos. 34 and 111. It was a nice little haul for the ‘Hawks.
Last year, the Rams traded away pick Nos. 31 and 203 to Atlanta for picks Nos. 45 and 79.
It’s reasonable to expect that the Niners could net two Day Two picks with the No. 31 pick and perhaps a late-round sweetener. (The Niners have three picks after No. 190.)
Moving out of the first round would also save the Niners come cash, as rookies are paid on a sliding scale. That’d be a big plus for the Niners considering their salary cap crunch. Trading out of the first would also remove the possibility of a fifth-year option — the extra year for first-rounders is commonly considered a win for teams, but it can create tough, costly decisions after a player’s third season.
Perhaps the Niners fall in love with a player that’s available to them at No. 31 — all options are on the table — but prudence is rarely unrewarded. The Niners would be wise to move out of the first round and pick up a Day Two pick or two in the process.
Whether or not the 49ers make a move with pick No. 31, you should expect them to select a secondary player earlier than they did in last year’s draft, when their first pick of a defensive back (a massive position of need going into that draft, too) was cornerback Tim Harris at pick No. 198.
The Niners could go with a safety, seeing as free safety Jimmie Ward is a pending free agent (we’ll see what happens there) and starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt will be a free agent at the end of next season.
They could also look at cornerback. Don’t tell Richard Sherman, but he’s 31 years old and will be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season. On the other side, neither Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Mosley have separated themselves as the team’s clear No. 2 corner. In the slot, K’Waun Williams is poised to be a free agent after this season.
Behind that core five (or six), are unproven youngsters in safeties DJ Reed, Tavarius Moore, and Marcell Harris, and the aforementioned Tim Harris.
Of course, secondary players are near martyrs in this pass-happy era of the NFL, and there’s a marginal correlation between draft position and success at the NFL level at that position. You could convince me that the Niners have decided at there’s a market advantage in not selecting secondary players early in the draft.
But whether the Niners are targeting a secondary player early or not, it’s clear that San Francisco will need to select someone from the defensive backfield in this draft.
Interior offensive line
There’s no guarantee that starting right guard Mike Person remains with this team for the 2020 season, as his $2.5 million salary for next year could be cut without penalty and Dan Brunskill is arguably a better option at the position.
Shanahan has made it clear in his career that he believes in paying centers and tackles but not guards.
But seeing as the Niners need to improve their interior pass protection, I’d expect them to select someone along the interior offensive line in April.
After all, the draft is the best route to acquire cheap but theoretically effective labor.
The Niners re-structured Weston Richburg’s contract — he’s with the team for the foreseeable future, but his backup, Ben Garland (who performed admirably in Richburg’s stead) is a free agent. His March could be interesting — the Niners might not have Richburg to start the 2020 campaign.
I imagine a player who could play as a depth guard this year and perhaps slide to center in a pinch in his rookie year — and perhaps take over the starting job before the end of his first contract — would be highly attractive to the Niners.
The Niners have numbers along the defensive line, but that four-man unit has proven to be the most important one on the field outside of quarterback — it’s the identity of the team.
As such, the Niners can never have too many options there.
San Francisco has found impressive value at the position, but with good play comes good pay. If the issue isn’t pressing this season, the Niners’ depth is likely to be tested in the years to come. New blood could help alleviate some of those tough decisions.
Given the Niners brass’ rhetoric at the NFL Draft Combine, I don’t see this as a massive need for the 49ers.
It’s still a need — don’t get me wrong — but it might be low on the priority list.
San Francisco is unlikely to move on from Dante Pettis and Marquese Goodwin is — according to Kyle Shanahan — not going to be cut. A trade is possible — Goodwin wasn’t on the team plane to the Super Bowl, a serious peculiarity — but the Niners might be better off holding onto him for another season.
With Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd likely returning to the fold in 2020 and San Francisco looking to bring back Emmanuel Sanders (and the veteran unlikely to land a long-term, big-money deal from other teams), the Niners could return as many eight receivers from last year.
Of course, that’s not to say that they couldn’t upgrade from a player like Dante Pettis (who is unlikely to be cut, given his contract, or traded, given his poor play) or Richie James, but given that the Niners carry five wide receivers on game days — and went with four active wideouts in the Super Bowl — it wouldn’t shock me if San Francisco didn’t take a receiver in this year’s draft.
Best available player
But the Niners might take a wide receiver, or a quarterback, or a defensive end, or a linebacker. The team is in the enviable position of not needing a rookie to start for this team going into 2020 — this year’s NFL Draft is all about depth, and while some positions could use an injection of depth more than others, the Niners would be wise to simply take the player that they believe could best help their team over the course of that first contract.