SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sitting in his home office on March 27, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch offered a look at what has become the new normal in the NFL.
Lynch provided a brief video of his setup as he prepares for the NFL draft, then made clear what already should have been obvious: This year’s draft is vital for the Niners if they are going to remain Super Bowl contenders.
My at-home war room is almost like I’m at the @SAPSports Performance Facility. Thanks to our IT and video teams + our scouts and coaches we’re ready for the #NFLDraft this week. #IGYB pic.twitter.com/ytuZKY9Bk4
— John Lynch (@JohnLynch49ers) April 20, 2020
“This draft is absolutely huge for us,” Lynch said. “There’s no excuses, no explanations. We’ve got to get our work done, albeit from home … We will be ready for that draft.”
In these, the strangest of days, the 49ers have focused their efforts on trying to keep their NFC championship team together. That’s where most of their salary-cap resources went in free agency, which likely will repeat for the foreseeable future. Which makes nailing this draft and finding affordable, productive players paramount.
Heading into the draft, the Niners’ biggest needs, in the short and long term, are at wide receiver, cornerback, safety and on both lines.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the first round of the draft could play out.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll operate under the assumption that the following players will not be available by the time the Niners make their first pick: quarterbacks Joe Burrow (LSU) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah and defensive end Chase Young, Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown and Clemson linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons.
Pick No. 13
Ideal scenario: No matter what else happens, the 49ers need the player they pick here to produce right away. Long-term fit is also important, but the Niners are in their Super Bowl window and can’t afford to take a player who won’t make a difference in Year 1. In looking at the potential players who could be available at this spot, the chance to land an elite offensive lineman or wide receiver might be too good to pass up. From those two positions, Alabama receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs look like the best fits.
ESPN’s Todd McShay ranks Jeudy as the fourth-best prospect in the draft, calling him “perhaps the most exceptional route runner I’ve ever seen coming out of college.” That ability and Jeudy’s skills after the catch make him a strong fit in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, though some scouts wonder whether Jeudy is as fearless on in-breaking routes as Shanahan would like.
That’s a problem Ruggs doesn’t have, and he also brings electric speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds) and better-than-advertised route running. Ruggs is only 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, but he would give an offense that had just three completions traveling 30-plus air yards last season (tied for 28th in the NFL) a dimension it doesn’t have and allow Shanahan’s offense to take another step in its evolution.
McShay ranks Wirfs as his No. 8 overall prospect and the best offensive tackle in the class. Wirfs is an extraordinary athlete at 6-5, 320 pounds who comes from a program that the 49ers have had success with recently. With left tackle Joe Staley nearing the end, Wirfs could start at right guard immediately and eventually move to tackle.
However, there is a strong chance that Jeudy and (especially) Wirfs will be gone by the time the Niners pick.
Five other possibilities:
CB CJ Henderson, Florida: Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams will be free agents after the season and the Niners could use more competition opposite Sherman anyway. Henderson is a top-tier athlete with good speed, though there are questions whether he’s physical and consistent enough.
DT Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina: With DeForest Buckner gone, Kinlaw could step right into his spot should he fall to No. 13. Kinlaw has drawn some comparisons to Buckner, though he’s more raw and would need some refinement.
WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma: Some view Lamb in the same class as Jeudy or even slightly above. He’s a game-breaker with the ball in his hands, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s too redundant with the Niners’ current receiving group.
OT Jedrick Wills Jr., Alabama: After Wirfs, Wills looks like the best fit among the top tackles because of his nastiness and physical approach to the run game.
Trade down: What happens if many of these options are off the board? What happens if a handful of them are still there and the Niners could add extra picks while still landing one of them? The Niners need more mid-round selections, so let’s not rule out the possibility of trading down with both first-round picks.
Pick No. 31
Ideal scenario: Trade down. The Niners aren’t scheduled to pick again after this spot until No. 156, which is all the way down in the fifth round. San Francisco needs mid-round capital, and in a draft that has a glut of 15 to 17 top prospects, the player they could get here won’t be much different than one they could get in the second round. In fact, the 49ers might be best served to move down multiple times, depending on how far a first trade would take them.
Five other possibilities:
DT Ross Blacklock, TCU: Blacklock would be a quick, penetrating replacement for Buckner, though he’s a bit smaller. He could be gone before this spot. The Niners are also intrigued by Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa.
OT Ezra Cleveland, Boise State: Cleveland’s athleticism and wrestling background make him an intriguing fit as an eventual replacement for Staley, though his lack of strength makes him more of a projection. Thus, he’s probably a more likely fit in the event of a trade down or two. Houston’s Josh Jones could also be an option.
CB Jaylon Johnson, Utah: A long, physical corner with speed and ball skills, Johnson checks the boxes of what the Niners like at corner.
WR Michael Pittman Jr., USC: In a deep receiver class, the big, physical Pittman might be a bit underrated, which could make him a target here or, even better, after moving back in the draft.
OL Cesar Ruiz, Michigan: One of the few plug-and-play interior linemen in this class, Ruiz’s best fit is at center, where he could eventually replace Weston Richburg (or do so right away as Richburg recovers from injury). He also could play right guard and would fit well in the Niners’ scheme.