General manager Trent Baalke and his staff have made it be known the defending NFC champions will draft for the best talent available and not necessarily for need. That puts a number of positions in play in the early rounds. Expect the 49ers to fill all these areas before the offseason is over either through the draft or free agency. Baalke will also have a sharp eye on the future and look to add address potential needs before they become glaring.
49ers 2013 Draft Selections
Round 1, Pick 31 (31)
Round 2, Pick 2 (34) - from Kansas City
Round 2, Pick 29 (61)
Round 3, Pick 12 (74) - from Carolina
Round 3, Pick 31 (93)
Round 4, Pick 31 (128)
Round 4, Pick 34 (131) - compensatory
Round 5, Pick 24 (157) - from Indianapolis
Round 6, Pick 5 (173) - from Philadelphia via Cleveland
Round 6, Pick 12 (180) - from Miami
Round 7, Pick 31 (237)
Round 7, Pick 40 (246) - compensatory
Round 7, Pick 46 (252) - compensatory
Here is a list of six needs in ascending order of importance:
6. Running Back
The 49ers have a solid group at running back, but Frank Gore is coming into his ninth season and it might be time to start thinking about the long-term future of the position. Gore has continued to remain highly productive the last two years by rushing for a combined 2,425 yards. But at some point, all good things must come to an end and it might behoove San Francisco to begin looking at replacements.
But the backfield is lowest position of priority on this list because of the players that are already there. LaMichael James made a solid impression after being activated for the final quarter of the regular season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry while contributing heavily in the return game. James figures to become the primary kick and punt returner with the departure of free-agent Ted Ginn Jr. His touches are likely to increase drastically as Greg Romans finds ways to put the ball the hands of one of his most explosive big-play threats. Pairing James in the backfield with Colin Kaepernick in read-options sets became very difficult to defend late in the year.
Kendall Hunter is returning from an Achilles injury suffered in a November game against the Saints and is expected to be available for the start of training camp. The former fourth-round pick was a nice change of pace from Gore and was used almost exclusively in misdirection and outside runs before getting hurt. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Hunter is more of an every-down back than James, while James is more of a big play threat. But neither is a great inside rusher that can wear down a defense late in games.
Anthony Dixon was the team’s fourth running back for the majority of the year, getting mostly short-yardage and goal line carries. Dixon was considered an underdog to make the team out of training camp in 2012, but performed well enough on special teams to earn his roster spot. If the 49ers draft another running back, he will likely push Dixon to get his name on the depth chart.
If San Francisco does draft a running back, it will likely come in the mid or late rounds. They will be looking for a back in the mold of a bruiser that can carry the load. Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State), Montee Ball (Wisconsin), Christine Michael (Texas A&M), Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina), and Stepfan Taylor (Stanford) are all possibilities.
Lattimore might be the most intriguing name of the group. He’s rehabbing from major reconstruction surgery after tearing almost all the connective tissue in his knee, but he’ll still likely get drafted and remain on the inactive roster for most of the season. He likely wouldn’t play in a game until 2014, but if he’s ever able to fully regain his physicality, his ceiling might be as high as anyone in this year’s draft, making him a good value pick, potentially.
5. Wide Receiver
The 49ers’ wide receiving corps should be drastically improved heading into 2013 with the addition of Anquan Boldin to pair with Michael Crabtree. But after those two, the rest of the position is up in the air. Mario Manningham would be the clear No. 3 receiver, but he’s coming back from two knee ligament tears that might cause him to miss the majority of training camp. Kyle Williams is also coming off an ACL tear and still has plenty to improve upon.
San Francisco spent its 2012 first-round pick on A.J. Jenkins, who dropped the only pass thrown to him in the regular season and didn’t contribute in the playoffs. After getting drafted, it was reported Jenkins was out of shape and struggling adjusting to rigors of the pro game.
Jenkins vowed to come back a different player and spent this offseason working out with Kaepernick in Atlanta. While he’s still looking to make his first catch as a pro, there isn’t reason to believe he won’t become a productive player. But he will have to prove himself in camp and might have a new draft pick or two to compete with.
The 49ers brought in free-agent Marlon Moore, who played in Miami for the last three seasons. He figures to contribute mostly on special teams and compete to get on the field with the offense. The other receivers on the roster are Chad Hall, Joe Hastings and Ricardo Lockette, who are all battling for roster spots.
Boldin is in the last year of his contract and might not last beyond the season with San Francisco. That means there’s a chance the 49ers could add a receiver early in the draft if they find one to their liking to come in and battle for the No. 3 job right away.
Cordarrelle Patterson (Tennessee), Keenan Allen (California), and DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson) are some players the team could go after in the first few rounds that fit the mold of a big, physical receiver. Tavon Austin (West Virginia) is the hot name at the position coming into the draft, but the 49ers might not want to invest the picks it would take to move up in the first round to get the undersized receiver.
4. Tight End
Losing Delanie Walker to the Titans means the team must find a way to replace one of the most versatile players on the 2012 roster. Walker was a great blocker and had enough speed to create mismatches with most linebackers. His hands were suspect at times, but he excelled at sealing the edges and was a key contributor on special teams.
The 49ers already have Vernon Davis locked up to a long-term contract, but will need to find a complementary tight end that could either be another pass catcher or excel as a blocker. Garrett Celek was the team’s third tight end last year and was used sparingly as a blocker. The team picked up former Seahawk and Cal Bear Cameron Morrah last week, but his addition likely won’t prevent them from drafting at the position.
The obvious name that many have linked to the 49ers is Stanford’s Zach Ertz because of his connections to Jim Harbaugh, but it’s unclear if the team would be willing to take a tight end that early. But at 6-foot-5, Ertz is a big target that could help create space for Davis down the field and be a nice target for Kaepernick in the red zone.
Other names to consider would be Gavin Escobar (San Diego State), Jordan Reed (Florida) and Travis Kelce (Cincinatti). The team could also elect to take Ertz’s former Stanford teammate, Levine Toilolo later on.
The 49ers struggled in the secondary late in the season and allowed an average of 335 passing yards in the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl. From a talent standpoint, the group appears solid, but got exposed once the pass rush began to struggle with injuries.
Corner is third on this list because of the contract situation of two players atop the depth chart. Tarrell Brown is in the last year of his contract and is due for a raise should the team look to bring him back for 2014. Carlos Rogers is due $6.25 million for 2014 and $7.25 million the next season, making him a possible salary cap casualty next spring unless both sides agree to restructure his deal.
Chris Culliver has appeared in all 32 games his first two years and was arguably the team’s best cover corner in the regular season. But his off the field issues are beginning to pile up after his comments at Super Bowl media day and are concerning from a public relations prospective. That doesn’t mean that Culliver is on the outs with the organization, but it’s clear the 24-year-old is still going through the maturation process.
Drafting a corner in the earlier rounds this year would allow the team to get a head start on developing the corner of the future to replace either Brown or Rogers down the road, if the team elects not to bring them back. But the position is crowded. Other names already on the team include Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox and Nnamdi Asomugha, who will all be battling for roster spots come August.
Players San Francisco could consider in the first few rounds are Xavier Rhodes (Florida State), D.J. Hayden (Houston), Johnthan Banks (Mississippi State) and David Amerson (North Carolina State).
2. Defensive Line/Outside Linebacker
When San Francisco’s front seven suffered injuries to Aldon and Justin Smith late in the season, it completely changed the face of the defense. The duo was well known for their two-man game that caused havoc for offensive linemen, allowing Aldon Smith to pile up an incredible 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons.
But depth became a problem once the players became hampered by injury. The pair would benefit greatly from fewer snaps in the regular season in order to stay fresh in the playoffs. Also, the team would be wise to find a potential long-term replacement for Justin, who will be 34-years-old in September.
Ray McDonald anchors the other line position and is a valuable player, but he also played a large numbers of snaps. The addition of Glenn Dorsey adds some depth to the position after losing Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois to free agency, but the team would love to add early round talent to either the line or outside linebacker to take some of the burden off the incumbents. And as the New York Giants have proven throughout the years, you can never have too many fresh pass rushers.
There are a number of names, both on the line and at outside linebacker, that the team could use in the first few rounds, including candidates the team could trade up for in the first round. Some names at defensive tackle include, Sheldon Richardson (Missouri), Sylvester Williams (North Carolina), Jesse Williams (Alabama), John Jenkins (Georgia), and Johnathan Hankins (Ohio State).
At defensive end, some players in play could be Bjoern Werner (Florida State), Datone Jones (UCLA), Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), Cornellius Carradine (Florida State), Margus Hunt (SMU) and Sam Montgomery (LSU).
Safety tops this list because it’s the only position on the roster where the team lost a player atop the depth chart, first-team All-Pro Dashon Goldson. The 49ers have been very selective when it comes to divvying out long-term contracts, and the club didn’t feel one was warranted for Goldson, who became on the game’s best safeties during his time in San Francisco.
But some believe Goldson was a product of having great players in front of him, allowing him the freedom to come up to the line of scrimmage and make plays. He was a heavy hitter, but struggled at coverage in times. Ultimately, San Francisco looked at this draft and decided signing Goldson to a lucrative contract would be too difficult given the team’s salary cap situation.
Safety is one of the deepest positions in this draft with plenty of names available for the 49ers to potentially target when they pick late in the first round and early in the second. But it’s very likely they will look to trade up to get the player they want in the first round.
Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) will likely be the first safety off the board given his production and well-rounded game. He might go earlier in the first round than the 49ers are willing to trade up to, which could lead to taking Matt Elam (Florida), Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International), Eric Reid (LSU) or D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina). Bacarri Rambo (Georgia) might be name to keep an eye on if the San Francisco decides not to take a safety in the first round.