The loss of Justin Smith for several weeks made apparent their lack of depth along the defensive line. Injuries have decimated their wide receiving corps for the second straight year. Less obvious but just as important, they are thin at the defensive back position. Both safety positions and cornerback are areas they would like to increase their depth at in the event of injury or the loss of Dashon Goldson to free agency this offseason.
In the first round last year San Francisco chose wide receiver A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois, and he has been completely non-existent this season. I would assume San Francisco would not like to take another first-rounder who not only does not suit up for most of their games but also contributes virtually nothing on the days that he does make the active roster.
With that, the following five players are prospects the 49ers could take in the first round and who could provide immediate contributions, whether as a starter or a backup who earns significant playing time.
Margus Hunt is a player who has slowly crept up most people's draft boards the last few weeks of the college football season, especially after a dominant performance against Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. Hunt has freakish athletic talent at the defensive end position and the size to match.
At 6'7" and 280 lbs., Hunt has the size and wingspan to wreak havoc on offensive linemen with his outstanding burst off the line. He comes with some question marks, having only taken up football in 2009 after impressing Southern Methodist University coaches with his extraordinary speed and athleticism. He is also 25 years old, which might limit his value given how raw his skills still are at such an advanced age for an NFL rookie.
But his sheer physical talent is something to behold and it may be enough to get him on the field as part of a rotation along the defensive line, particularly in obvious passing downs.
With a reported time of 4.74 seconds in the 40-yard dash and an 82" wingspan, he has the speed and strength that could give offensive linemen nightmares and the length to present problems for quarterbacks when they drop back to pass or take off running.
Of all the players on this list, he has the least experience but the most upside. For a dominant defensive line that doesn't need someone to step in as a starter but could definitely use some viable depth, Margus Hunt could be a perfect fit for the 49ers.
I almost went with Dion Jordan out of Oregon in this spot, but upon further review I settled on Alex Okafor. Okafor reminds me of a slightly bigger, longer version of Aldon Smith. He has similar size and height (6'5", 265 lbs.) and he has much of the same surprising power that Smith has displayed. Okafor has consistently shown the ability to bull rush larger offensive linemen and he has the speed to go around them as well.
With Parys Haralson expected to return from a torn triceps in time for next season, the 49ers might not need Okafor to step and be an immediate starter. But if he were to fall to the 49ers, he could very well wind up as the 2013 version of Smith—a converted defensive end playing the outside linebacker position in passing situations where his vast array of pass-rushing moves and his unique athleticism can be taken advantage of.
Okafor doesn't have the size to play the 3-4 defensive end position but he certainly has the physical talent and the tools required to play the outside linebacker position in a 3-4, much like Aldon Smith. The combination of these two players rushing from the edge on third downs could give opposing offenses nightmares for years to come.
Tavon Austin is the most dangerous wide receiver available in a draft that is mostly devoid of big-time playmakers at his position. Austin is undersized at only 5'9" and 175 lbs., but he has electrifying speed (4.38 in the 40) and can play out of the backfield, lined up out wide or in the slot. He can also return punts and kickoffs.
The 49ers could use someone like Austin on the field to complement Michael Crabtree. Also, Austin can line up as a running back much like Green Bay's Randall Cobb or Minnesota's Percy Harvin. This ability alone makes him an extremely good fit for the 49ers.
Paired with a creative offensive mind like Jim Harbaugh and the pistol offense run by Colin Kaepernick, Austin has the potential to create massive mismatches all over the field for the 49ers. Add in his off-the-charts punt return abilities and Austin could fill several voids for the 49ers. Ted Ginn, Jr is not expected back next season and LaMichael James, as good as he has looked returning kickoffs, is simply not ready to return punts yet.
Austin also has the speed to take advantage of Kaepernick's ungodly arm strength, in a mold similar to DeSean Jackson or Steve Smith. With no guarantees that Randy Moss will be back or that Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham will return from knee injuries with the same speed they had prior to blowing out their ACLs, it would behoove San Francisco to add speed at wide receiver.
As good as A.J. Jenkins might end up being, San Francisco couldn't hurt themselves by adding more depth at what has been a problem area the last two seasons.
Why not kill three birds with one stone and fill a void at punt returner and wide receiver, and put a potential matchup nightmare on the field who has the versatility to excel in the pistol offense out of the backfield as well?
I don't expect the 49ers to take an offensive lineman in the first round, but if most of the other players on their radar are not available by the time they pick, it wouldn't surprise me to see them snag Cooper out of North Carolina.
Cooper has uncanny foot speed and athleticism at the guard position, and while the 49ers are pretty set at guard with Alex Boone and Pro Bowler Mike Iupati, Cooper has the physical ability and the experience as a four-year starter to play center in the NFL. Daniel Kilgore may not be the long-term answer at the position for the 49ers and Jonathan Goodwin has been good but not great for them there. He is also 34 and not getting younger.
Cooper has shown excellent run- and pass-blocking skills and plays with the sort of physicality and mean streak that has become a trademark of the best offensive line in football.
Given the importance of the offensive line to the 49ers' success on offense, depth here is a must and Cooper could easily provide quality as a backup at both guard and center in his first year, if not outright take the starting spot from either Boone or Goodwin. Long term, he could be the center for the foreseeable future as well.
Xavier Rhodes out of Florida State is a big cornerback in the mold of Richard Sherman or Brandon Browner of the Seattle Seahawks. At 6'1" and 217 lbs., he brings a load at a position not known for big hitters. He is good enough right now to replace Perrish Cox as the fourth cornerback in nickel and dime packages and he might be able to press Carlos Rogers, who has clearly lost a step, for playing time as well.
But what makes him a good fit for the 49ers is his tackling ability. This is a defense whose calling card is the way it tackles, and Rhodes is an excellent tackler. He has good speed for his size and matches up very well with taller physical receivers.
He needs some work in the technique department and has a tendency to get a little over-aggressive at the line of scrimmage, which makes him vulnerable to quick slot receivers (an area the 49ers have struggled with at times this season).
But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio certainly has shown that he can use coverages to mask certain deficiencies from his cornerbacks and take advantage of their strengths. For this reason, Rhodes could be a very good fit within a very good secondary.