It’s been a while since I’ve written about the San Francisco 49ers. That’s probably good news, considering how most of the offseason news has ranged from disheartening to horrifying (other than the Torrey Smith signing). They started their offseason program this week, which if nothing else should give the players some time with the semi-new coaching staff while allowing the personnel department to gauge how deep they are at each position.
With that in mind, here’s how I’m ranking the team’s draft needs, starting with the spots where they’re set and ending with the most problematic positions on the roster.
Andy Lee is the one guy on the team who might outlast Jed York. Lee was sixth in average punt distance but only 15th in net average, which is probably more of an indictment on the 49ers’ coverage units than Lee’s leg.
In fantasy football it’s dumb to draft a kicker before the final round, and when we draft against our friends we’re usually talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of the 15th round. The NFL Draft only has seven rounds. Drafting a kicker makes little to no sense, ever.
Daniel Kilgore will be in the mix if he recovers fully from the broken leg he suffered in October against the Broncos, and Marcus Martin has a chance to start even if Kilgore is 100%.
12. Nose tackle
Between Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams they should have a productive guy to plug in here. If neither player is available, they can use Quinton Dial.
11. Tight end
It doesn’t look like Vernon Davis is going anywhere, which means the 49ers believe he was either hurt last season or gave up on Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. They aren’t going to give up on Vance McDonald yet, although it’s pretty clear at this point that he wasn’t worth a second round pick in 2013. They re-signed Derek Carrier and Garrett Celek, too. As much as I think it would’ve been fun to cut Davis and draft Maxx Williams out of Minnesota, it’s not going to happen.
The most important position on the field ranks pretty low on this super-official list, but that has more to do with this year’s quarterback class than the 49ers’ actual needs, if that makes any sense. The 49ers are sticking with Colin Kaepernick this year, unless those trade rumors from before lead to a blockbuster deal in the coming months (doubtful).
Trent Baalke settled on Blaine Gabbert as a backup, and though Gabbert is not a viable candidate to push Kap, it’s really difficult to picture a scenario where the 49ers draft a quarterback in the first four rounds of this draft. If Baalke thinks a “QB of the future” exists, someone like Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty or Garrett Grayson could be an option, but big questions surround everyone in this class other than Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariotta. Actually, teams have reasons to be scared of Winston and Mariotta, too. This is an awful draft class for quarterbacks, which means the NFL is in trouble — out of the top eight quarterbacks in passer rating last year, five will be 35 or older next season.
9. Running back
They drafted Carlos Hyde last year so he’d gain 1,200 yards in 2015. If they don’t think he can do that, and they need more than Kendall Hunter, Reggie Bush and camp fodder, that’s a bad sign for Hyde. That said, history says Baalke will probably draft a running back in the later rounds because he has taken a running back in every draft since taking over for Scot McCloughan in 2010.
8. Defensive tackle
Since we haven’t heard anything in a while about Justin Smith, I’m going to assume for the purposes of this post that he’s staying. With Tank Carradine, Dial, Darnell Dockett and Tony Jerod-Eddie (who signed his tender two days ago) in the mix, any sort of need at this position is trumped by emergencies in other areas.
The Cardinals gave too much money to Mike Iupati, seeing as they need Carson Palmer to stay upright and Iupati is much better at blocking for running backs than protecting passers. But the 49ers’ top four guards are Alex Boone (fairly dependable, but coming off an up-and-down season after his holdout), Erik Pears (not exactly highly regarded for his work in Buffalo), Joe Looney (one bad year from being out of the league) and Brandon Thomas (one of Baalke’s patented ACL redshirt guys, who’s probably expected to start next year).
Antoine Bethea was a revelation last year, but his salary cap number skyrockets after this season. Eric Reid is a solid (and slightly overrated) player, but the concussions are a major concern — three have been confirmed over his first two seasons, but who knows what the actual total is. Jimmie Ward is an option here, but does he have the size and durability it takes to start every week at strong safety (his listed position)? Behind those guys: Craig Dahl and L.J. McCray. That’s why the 49ers can’t turn their back on this position, even after taking safeties in the first round in each of the last two drafts.
Not filling the “swing tackle” role with a solid player was one of the team’s biggest sins in 2014. They made the easy decision in cutting Jonathan Martin, but right now Pears is the next tackle up if a starter goes down. Anthony Davis’ health was the problem last year, but Joe Staley has started 114 games in his career. The 49ers need some insurance here.
4. Outside linebacker
Aldon Smith could end up with 20 sacks, but the 49ers can’t count on him until he puts together a productive, incident-free season. Ahmad Brooks seemed to be on his way out of town, but the 49ers probably need him at this point (which Brooks and his agent probably realize, which could make things interesting when Smith’s money goes back on the books in a few months and the 49ers need some cap space). Aaron Lynch looks like a player. Corey Lemonier looks like a bust. The 49ers could use another pass rusher.
The 49ers aren’t exactly stocked with elite corners, and Tramaine Brock was M.I.A. with toe problems in 2014. Brock goes into next year as the starter at one side, with Shareece Wright on the other unless something unforeseen occurs. The 49ers have some young, promising corners in Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker, and Chris Cook looked good last year in limited snaps before he went on IR. However, the best teams in football have elite corners and the 49ers don’t have anything close to a true No. 1. They also lost their top two corners from last year (neither Chris Culliver nor Perrish Cox is a true shutdown corner, but both were productive) to other teams, so signing Wright and calling it a day probably isn’t going to cut it unless one of the youngsters shows up this month and looks like a potential breakout star.
The 49ers signed a rare big-ticket free agent this offseason in Torrey Smith, but that doesn’t mean they’re finished. They still need targets for Kaepernick after losing Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd. Bruce Ellington is a nice player, but is he a No. 3 wide receiver? Quinton Patton didn’t just take a step backward in his second season, he took a flying leap. The 49ers may want to be a running team, but opposing defenses are going to stack the box on an every-play basis if they don’t add one more receiver (and this draft class has plenty of tantalizing wideouts).
1. Inside linebacker
Even assuming NaVorro Bowman is on his way to a full recovery and a dominant performance in Week 1 of the 2015 season, this position was gutted by the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. There’s been talk that Brooks could go back to his old position, but he was looking more like a down lineman than a middle backer last season — expecting him to lose enough weight to cover tight ends and running backs seems a bit unrealistic, especially at his age. Michael Wilhoite is an average starter, Nick Moody has done nothing to indicate he’s anything more than a special teams player, and Shayne Skov can’t cover. The 49ers were able to patch together an effective defense last year, in part because Willis played fairly well until Borland replaced him and made every tackle in sight. They might still sign Lance Briggs after May 12, but he’d be a one-year stopgap at best in case Bowman or Wilhoite got hurt. More often than not, the 49ers had the best middle linebacking duo in the NFL over the last five seasons — that’s probably an unrealistic goal now, but drafting a potential star at this position could help everyone in Santa Clara feel a lot better about Eric Mangini’s defense.