We are now at T-Minus 13 days to the 2015 NFL Draft. From the intrigue surrounding prospects like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Amari Cooper, to teams like the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns, there’s no telling the kind of drama we will see on Night 1 in Chicago.
But I’m not here to talk about that – at least, not right now. I’m here to talk about what the San Francisco 49ers are going to do.
The 49ers – a franchise essentially left in shambles after the great coaching purge of 2015, and a team down on its luck after losing many key players due to free agency and retirement. It’s been doom-and-gloom for this organization ever since the new year began – but it all may start to turn around, what with San Francisco holding the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, and nine picks overall.
Granted, the Niners have a bevy of needs – including, of all things, the linebacker position, with the unexpected retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland – but it also gives them a bevy of options if they decide to stay put at the No. 15 spot.
And the Mock Draft gurus have reflected that penchant for variety. From defensive line to wide receiver, the 49ers could select just about anyone – or do just about anything – with that pick. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the possibilities:
1) Select a defensive lineman. This seems to be the sexy choice for most mock drafts recently. With Justin Smith’s retirement decision up in the air, and potential replacement Darnell Dockett coming off of an ACL injury, it’s a pick that makes the most sense – and Oregon’s Arik Armstead has been a popular projection for the 49ers. Other options include Texas DT Malcom Brown and Washington NT Danny Shelton, all of which are either rising or are projected in the top half of the first round.
My Take: I can’t argue with the logic, here – especially with the need for an elite defensive tackle in the long-term for the 49ers. I’ve heard Shelton, especially, could be a difference-maker as early as year one.
However, as of right now, the 49ers have 10 defensive linemen on their roster – and they aren’t all slouches. Besides Smith and Dockett, there are still names on the current roster that can potentially make an impact: Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Glenn Dorsey, just to name a few. And don’t forget – the 49ers meant for Carradine to be a difference-maker for the D-Line when they drafted him in the second round of the 2013 draft.
This is not necessarily a position that is threadbare for the 49ers – especially for a coaching staff built by head coach Jim Tomsula that should (hopefully) be make it a significant strength for the defense. Grabbing a defensive lineman here, in that case, might be jumping the gun – despite what the experts think.
2) Select a wide receiver. If the first pick for the 49ers were decided via social media straw poll, I can almost guarantee that “wide receiver” would win by a landslide. After all, with the consistent underperformance of the team’s passing offense, many believe that just one dynamic weapon at the WR position will make all the difference. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are expected to be the main wideouts in 2015, but the former will be 35 in October, and a dynamic successor will be demanded by the fan base. Prospects like West Virginia’s Kevin White, Louisville’s Devante Parker and Oklahoma/Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham have been talked about most for the 49ers.
My Take: I can’t argue with this desire, either. After all, if the Niners have a young, dynamic weapon in place to go alongside Torrey Smith, they could be set at the position for the next four years, at least. And while some detractors would only point at GM Trent Baalke’s track record at picking up wide receivers in the first round (I’m looking at YOU, A.J. Jenkins), it should not dissuade the front office from picking one up this time around.
However, I would understand why Baalke and Company would shy away from a move like this, two weeks from now. After all, they did sign Smith to a five-year, $40 million deal for just this reason – he has the speed and skill to be the deep-threat, “separation” wide receiver QB Colin Kaepernick has been lacking. Not to mention the fact that he already has four years under his belt, and a camaraderie with a fellow former Ravens WR in Boldin.
Furthermore, the 49ers could get lucky in bypassing receiver on Day 1. Whether they trade up to earlier in the second round, trade up to late in the first, or stand pat, there is always the possibility that Green-Beckham – plagued with character issues that left him without a school in 2014 – could fall into the second round. If he is there, it is very possible that the 49ers would swoop him up.
3) Select a cornerback. With the departures of the team’s top two cornerbacks (Chris Culliver to Washington; Perrish Cox to Tennessee) this offseason, one would speculate that they would be in the market for an elite prospect in the secondary. As another glaring need in the eyes of draft experts, mock drafts have the 49ers taking prospects like Washington’s Marcus Peters and Michigan State’s Trae Waynes at the 15th spot.
My Take: I have been a proponent for the 49ers beefing up their secondary ever since the rise of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom.” The need for talented cornerbacks, I believe, has usually been an issue with the defense. Selecting an elite prospect to compete with the current roster of CBs would certainly be a decision I could get on board with.
Then again, I’m reminded of the young talent the team already has. Second-year CB Dontae Johnson, at 6’2 and 200 lbs, already has shown the potential to be a very effective CB of good size and strength for the secondary, down the road. CB/SS Jimmie Ward was drafted last year to be an ideal replacement for Carlos Rogers at the nickel cornerback position. And while he struggled in his rookie season, he was injured for most of 2014, and did not get a chance to showcase all he had to offer.
Then there are two late-round selections from last year who have yet to see the field, but nonetheless show promise. Kenneth Acker showed promise last preseason before landing on injured reserve with a stress fracture in his foot; meanwhile, Keith Reaser is coming back from a torn ACL he suffered in 2013. Who’s to say the young foursome of Johnson, Ward, Acker and Reaser can’t mold themselves into the next great young CB unit?
4) Select an inside linebacker. As late as two months ago, this wouldn’t have even crossed the franchise’s mind about doing – even with Bowman still out with his horrific knee injury. After all, Patrick Willis was still in his prime, and Chris Borland was shaping up to be the kind of tackling machine that made Zach Thomas a Hall of Famer. And with Bowman set to return in the fall, the LB unit would rank among the best in the league. Then Willis and Borland retired, and the unit as a whole became a huge question mark. Beyond Bowman and the OLB/DE duo of Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch, no one really knows what this unit will look like come September. If the 49ers do target an ILB in the first round, the most likely prospects in their range would be players like UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, TCU’s Paul Dawson and Miami (FL)’s Denzel Perryman.
My Take: If I were GM, and in light of the retirements of Willis and Borland, I would want to show the fan base that the team would take a difference-maker at the position to make up for the massive loss in production. In that case, I would target Kendricks or Perryman – maybe, if I were feeling adventurous, I would also fortify the defensive end position by drafting a guy like Missouri’s Shane Ray if he fell to the 15 slot.
However, I could see many scenarios in which Baalke and Co. would pass on a linebacker in the first round – many of which involve addressing WR or CB. With that in mind, I could see the front office targeting a linebacker prospect with their first pick of Day 2: Dawson – 2014 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year – is projected to fall to Round 2, and has already met with the 49ers. He has the same build as a Willis or Bowman, and could be plugged into the starting lineup as early as Week 1. Then there is Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney, an All-American out of the SEC with tons of upside and ideal size for a 49ers ILB. If either is taken in the second round, it could be seen as a relative steal.
5) Select an offensive lineman. It’s no secret that, due to injuries and underperformance, the 49ers’ offensive line play may have been at its worst in five years during the 2014 season. Kaepernick was sacked 52 times last season – second only to Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles. The lack of pass protection led to a sub-par offense that couldn’t be masked by the running game nor their defense. With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise if the 49ers targeted an elite offensive tackle prospect if one fell in its lap at the 15 slot: For example, LSU’s La’el Collins, Stanford’s Andrus Peat, or Ereck Flowers of Miami (FL).
My Take: I’ve always believed the key to a good offense is a good offensive line. An elite QB and elite RB can’t operate effectively behind a sub-par O-line – it’s as simple as that. With that in mind, one would think that this would be my first choice – especially with the loss of elite OG Mike Iupati.
However, the acquisitions of USC tackle Marcus Martin and Clemson OT Brandon Thomas keep me hesitant in targeting an offensive lineman so early, this year. Martin may have struggled at the center position in his rookie season, and Thomas may not have seen the field due to recovery of an ACL injury before the 2014 draft. But, let’s face it: Martin was thrown to the wolves when he was forced to go under center last year. Furthermore, both were still considered elite prospects that fell to the 49ers in later rounds. The potential of those two getting better in the 49ers’ offensive system could still be huge.
Would I think the 49ers made a mistake if they took an offensive lineman with the 15th pick? Not necessarily. But with all the glaring needs the team faces in 2015, they must have faith in the “storage” picks they gathered in earlier drafts to develop into the prospects they can potentially be.
6) Trade down in the first round for more picks. This has been a staple for Trent Baalke on draft day for the past three years. It was how the 49ers have stockpiled picks over the years, and it will likely be a draft strategy again this year. A franchise must always prepare for a rainy day – one where they will need all the elite prospects they can get. And, even if that means sacrificing the potential of an elite prospect this year for the potential of multiple elite prospects down the road, then – according to this front office – so be it.
My Take: That would be a sound move – nay, a savvy business plan – if the team was rolling along with a stable coaching staff and rattling off 10 wins a year.
Unfortunately, because of what transpired at the end of the 2014 season, that just isn’t the case. Not this time.
This 49ers team, from a structural standpoint, may be at its most unstable since 2010 – that is, the last time Jim Tomsula took over as head coach. Because of this, the brunt of the blame for a sub-par year may fall on Baalke. After all, he is the one seen by many Jim Harbaugh supporters as the man who ousted him, and effectively ruined the team for the next decade. Unfortunately for him, he may not have a choice but to go all-in on a few major prospects that are there for the taking.
This isn’t to say that this is what I want to see from Baalke – I’m just saying that, due to the PR nightmare that was the ousting of Coach Harbaugh, Baalke has been backed into a corner. Whether or not it is a sound move for the franchise’s long-term success, it just might have to be done, for the sake of Baalke’s long-term prospect as general manager.