NFL Draft and 49ers Strategy

The NFL draft starts a week from yesterday, and it’s been months since the Philadelphia Eagles shocked the league, winning Super Bowl 52 over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots with back up QB Nick Foles at the helm, 41-33. Those two things combined mean one thing: we’ve seen oodles of draft takes, mock drafts and breaking news reports about which teams like which players and what such and such team will do with such and such pick, and at this point, the draft can’t get here any faster. While I had originally intended to create my own mock draft and analyze it in this space, two things are true: a) I’m not all that versed in college football, so my analyses would be surface-level and mostly repeats of what I’d heard others say and b) as noted, I’m all mock drafted out.

Furthermore, my main methods for draft intelligence comes via online games like First-Pick and FanSpeak, and they are unpredictable at best, fully wrong at worst (while still being remarkably fun). So while I’ve continued to play these games, essentially they brought me to the conclusion that I should be a little more general in my thoughts. Instead of my mock draft, I’ll explain generally what I think my beloved San Francisco 49ers, namely GM John Lynch and HC Kyle Shanahan, should do with the picks they have at their disposal for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Round 1, Pick 9

There are a lot of directions the 49ers could go here, especially if the QB rush is as heavy or heavier than expected. From there, you have to take into account both need, fit and positional value. While a player like Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson would be great in terms of need and fit, there’s a both a high likelihood that Nelson is gone by 9, and I’d argue that with Jimmy Garappolo’s quick release, guard isn’t as high on the need list as most people think, at least not enough to grab someone else who isn’t Nelson here. All the controversy surrounding last year’s first round pick Reuben Foster has many thinking that a sideline-to-sideline LB like Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds would make sense, but there’s a question of it this is too early to fix that issue when there are two larger problems: pass rush and outside pass defense.

This leaves the Niners with two options, so far as I’m concerned: Boston College EDGE rusher Harold Landry or Ohio State CB Denzel Ward. Each has his issues–Landry wasn’t as productive last year as he was the year before and Ward is a little undersized–but each presents the team with a huge upside, and one that would immediately improve the squad. The cornerback class in this draft is quite deep, however, while the edge class is decidedly not, so all things being equal, Landry is the way I’d go here.

Now that said, I’ve got one alternative idea here, and that’s trading down. Let’s say only three quarterbacks go in the top 8, leaving names like maybe Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, or Lamar Jackson available for teams at nine. It’s possible one of those teams, like Arizona, Buffalo or even the AFC champion Patriots could be interested in moving up to grab a QB they like. The Cardinals are at 15, and would like need to swap picks with the 49ers, as well as throwing in a 2nd rounder (47th overall) and maybe another pick, either this year or next, to get to 9. Buffalo already moved up to 12 from 21, but still have 22, and the pairing up 12 and 22 might work to get them to 9, and I quite like this trade (although I’d like to see an early in there, and the Bills only have a pick three spots before San Francisco). But my favorite might be the option that New England might be able to throw in there: either both their first round picks (23 and 31) or the 23rd and 43rd, with the possible inclusion of a 3rd/4th rounder in there to sweeten the pot, since the Patriots are coming a long way to get to nine. The best part of this trade is that it means the 49ers will have ended up getting Jimmy G for nothing, all so the Patriots can get another back-up QB/future starter. The downside to trading with New England is that it likely takes an edge rusher off the table, save for UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, but it certainly puts that position in flux until next year, whereas trading with the Bills might mean Landry is still there four picks later, making the switch very similar to the swindle John Lynch pulled on the Bears last year, moving back from two to three and getting the guy he wanted anyway.

Round 2, Pick 59

If predicting a first round pick is difficult, then choosing players after that first round is close to impossible. The Niners’ pick is late in round 2 (there are only five selections after theirs), making it even harder. It becomes even more difficult when you factor in potential trades like the ones I suggested above or others involving non-49ers teams. That said, this is the spot I’d choose to address the OG position if players are available–in my draft games, a name that came up often was Nevada OG Austin Corbett, who is projected to hang around into round 2, making him a good prospect for the Niners.

Most ideally, however, would be for the great depth at cornerback to have an impact on players, allowing certain talented CB prospects to fall to the 49ers late in the second. To that end, I’ve got my sights on Colorado CB Isiah Oliver, former teammate to current 49er Akhello Witherspoon, who has all the measurables to be a good fit in DC Robert Salah’s scheme. He could then learn from new Niner Richard Sherman and then become the second starter next to Witherspoon beyond that. In this scenario, the 49ers will have shored up their pass defense in the first two rounds, leaving things pretty open in the mid-to-late rounds.

Round 3, Picks 70 & 74

The Niners have two picks in quick order in the third, so I’ll handle them together, since the proximity of the picks allows them to do a lot of things here. For arguments’ sake, let’s say they’ve selected Landry and Corbett so far, leaving CB a pretty high need, as well as possible additions at WR, TE and RB, as well as considering linebackers to fill Foster’s hole and longer term answers at OT, with LT Joe Staley getting older and RT Trent Brown’s future up in the air.

The 49ers did work out Humboldt State OT Alex Cappa during pre-draft visits, but this might be too early for a player who might be a project over the next year or so. If he’s still there in round 4-5, though, he might be a good fit. This might be a good space to select a RB who can impact the passing game, like Oregon’s Royce Freeman or Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, or maybe a WR like Colorado State’s Michael Gallup or Memphis’ Anthony Miller, but either way, I think it’s high time to get some skill players for Shanahan’s offense. It doesn’t have to be in both spots, either, so they could be RB/WR at 70 and take a tackle or cornerback at 74. They should definitely take advantage of these two picks so close together, and make sure they get two quality, immediate impact players.

Round 4, Pick 128

Selection 128 overall is pretty deep into round 4, so I have an inkling that Lynch will have moved around to get closer to the front. For this pick I have one hope: CB Quenton Meeks out of Stanford. As was mentioned with Oliver, ideally Meeks doesn’t have to play at one of the outside corner spots right away, but instead can contribute on special teams and learn from Sherman, also a former Cardinal, and a player whom Meeks is often compared to physically. Meeks’ scheme-ideal size and high upside as a cover corner make him an ideal mid-round guy for the 49ers.

Round 5, Pick 143

Round 6, Pick 184

Round 7, Picks 227 & 240

If everything holds pat, the Niners will be more than halfway through their draft picks at this point, with four left. Rounds 5-7 are where things get interesting, so I’ll take them together. While the Niners got a great amount of production from their two 5th rounders last year–TE George Kittle (146) and WR Trent Taylor (177)–that is pretty rare. Even rarer for 6th and 7th round picks, although they did get solid snaps from DT DJ Jones (198), and great play from S Adrian Colbert (229). So ideally the 49ers are looking to stockpile at loaded positions in the draft–like CB–or are looking to add someone who is freaky good at one thing and maybe not so much at others. Take, for example, Devron Davis, cousin of former 49ers’ TE Vernon Davis, who would have a high upside because of his size, but could use some grooming for the next level. Another example is Florida State WR Auden Tate, who is freaky large (6-5, 225) and could be a red zone threat for the 49ers, or even taking a flyer on UNI WR Daurice Fountain, who excelled at the Shrine Game earlier this year. Whatever the position–be it cornerback, linebacker or offensive skill position–these players should be ones who can fill a specific role or have a high ceiling. Hopefully they’ll pan out. It’s those types of picks that set good teams apart from Super Bowl caliber squads.

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