49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, along with general manager Trent Baalke, will enter the 2013 NFL Draft in strength boasting 14 picks.
The San Francisco 49ers could not be in a better position right now.
Coming off their close loss in Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens, the 49ers entered the offseason retaining one of the top-ranked teams in the NFL. San Francisco still possesses most of its young talent following the Super Bowl, the likes of which include quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebackers Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis, and offensive playmakers Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
Their offensive line is great. The defense is strong. There are relatively few holes for the 49ers to worry about.
The 49ers then traded quarterback Alex Smith to Kansas City, followed by a trade for the venerable wide receiver Anquan Boldin from Baltimore.
San Francisco was mostly quiet during the opening days of free agency. The team did suffer the loss of some of its talent, including safety Dashon Goldson and tight end Delanie Walker, but it was able to bring in potential playmakers as well. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and safety Craig Dahl will hope to compete for top spots on the 49ers' depth chart.
While other teams around the league were making splashes in free agency, San Francisco had no reason to get caught up in the often-overpriced bidding wars associated with the "frenzy." The reason is simple.
Those picks are nearly double the amount most other teams have entering the draft. San Francisco's general manager Trent Baalke is a genius for being able to bring in so many picks for a team that is already laden with talent.
Yet, the 49ers' talent and depth creates a situation for Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh. San Francisco does not have 14 holes on its roster that it needs to fill via the draft.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat columnist Grant Cohn expands on this:
It would be a waste for the 49ers to keep all 12 of their draft picks, plus the three compensatory picks which can’t be traded, for a total of 15 [now 14] selections, because there is no way all of those players could make the Niners’ roster or practice squad.
Instead, the 49ers' best interest would be trading up with their multitude of picks to get players they want, but who they feel will not fall to them at their current draft slots.
Comcast SportsNet's 49ers insider Matt Maiocco agrees. He states, "The 49ers will not use all of those...picks. They will package some picks to move up. I also expect them to trade a pick or two to move back to next year's draft, too" (csnbayarea.com).
Considering its options, San Francisco is likely to move up in the draft and shake things up to a very large degree. It has firepower with 14 picks, and there are a number of teams that will be looking to broaden their drafts, potentially by trading away a first-round pick.
Here are five prospects that the 49ers may be interested in trading up for in the 2013 draft.
Center Travis Frederick is expected to be a late-second-round pick.
Travis Frederick, Wisconsin
Height: 6' 4"
Weight: 312 lbs.
The 49ers do not have a lot of need on their offensive line. They really only have one position that they could upgrade. At 34 years old, incumbent center Jonathan Goodwin is likely entering his twilight years. He is also in the final season of a three-year, $10.9 million contract.
Given the existing strength of the 49ers' offensive line and their needs on defense, it is reasonable to assume that San Francisco is going to be defense-heavy during this draft. Yet, San Francisco also would like to keep its offensive line as potent as it was last season. With that said, bringing in a top-tier center would fill a need the 49ers will have in the near future.
It is possible that San Francisco might trade up for highly ranked center Barrett Jones out of Alabama, but Jones is coming off of foot surgery, and the lingering effects may hamper his development at the NFL level. In addition, the price in draft picks may be too high for the 49ers.
Instead, the 49ers may want to consider Frederick.
Mel Kiper Jr. has Frederick listed as the top center coming out in this year's draft. That is something pretty special, combined with the fact that Frederick has chosen to forgo his senior season at Wisconsin.
Frederick is a smart football player, something that Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers coaching staff would enjoy. He is athletic for his size and does not make many mistakes. He declared for the NFL draft after his junior year, and playing underneath Goodwin and spelling him from time to time would allow him to grow at the NFL level.
The 49ers would love to see their offensive line remain one of the most dominant in the league, and Frederick would help ensure that.
With San Francisco holding the second and 29th picks in the second round, it is possible to see Baalke move up towards the middle of the round, especially if Jones is drafted early.
Justin Hunter, Tennessee
Height: 6' 4"
Weight: 196 lbs.
The 49ers solved some of their needs at the wide receiver position by trading a sixth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for Anquan Boldin.
Previously, Michael Crabtree had been the lone threat at the position thanks to injuries that forced fellow receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams to miss the remainder of the 2012 season.
The trade solves an immediate issue for the 49ers. Boldin is a great playmaker and will give Colin Kaepernick another legitimate weapon on offense. Yet Boldin will turn 33 during the season, and he is also in the final year of a four-year, $25 million contract. There are no guarantees whether Boldin will want to sign an extension with the 49ers after the year is over. At his age, it is questionable whether San Francisco sees him as a part of its long-term plans.
In addition, both Boldin and Crabtree are best known for their strength and hands. They are not necessarily known as being the best "speed" receivers. San Francisco has a need for a player who can stretch the field as a solid deep-ball threat, someone who can force the opponents' safeties to play back and open up room in the seam.
Justin Hunter fills that void.
Hunter had a terrific year in 2012 for the Volunteers. He had 73 receptions for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns (sports-reference.com). He possesses the height and speed to make excellent plays downfield, just as the 49ers need.
While Hunter is not the strongest receiver and lacks the ability to create yards after the catch, San Francisco could do worse things than trade up for him in the draft.
Slated to go in the second round, Hunter would fit in well, considering the 49ers' needs. While the 49ers do not have a pressing need at the position, trading up with picks might put them in a spot where drafting Hunter would be a no-brainer. Teams like the Chicago Bears may be looking at deepening their drafts with more picks. They also have draft slots ahead of San Francisco's 29th pick in the round.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock and CBS Sports' Rob Rang recently named some speedy wide receivers whom the 49ers might be interested in on draft day (via sfgate.com). Hunter was on that list.
The 49ers might be considering a number of other options at the position as they move towards the middle rounds, yet it would not be surprising to see a trade of picks for Hunter's services.
He fits their need.
David Amerson, North Carolina State
Height: 6' 1"
Weight: 205 lbs.
One of the 49ers' major weaknesses during last year's playoffs was their secondary, which was exploited by quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco.
San Francisco's secondary took another hit this offseason when Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson left the team via free agency, signing a five-year, $41.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 49ers still have the services of two very talented corners in Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver. Rogers, who had a phenomenal Pro Bowl season in 2011, fell off a bit last year. Culliver has a lot of upside to his game, and despite a forgettable performance in Super Bowl XLVII, the 49ers will continue to put a lot of faith in his capabilities.
Yet, the 49ers could benefit from another corner, especially considering upgrades (like the Seattle Seahawks' trade for wide receiver Percy Harvin) that are making division rivals' passing games that much more potent.
While Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant are poised to be drafted in the first round, San Francisco may elect to use high picks and trade-ups to address other positions, such as safety or defensive end. That pushes the need for a cornerback to the second round.
North Carolina State's David Amerson may be a suitable selection in this regard.
2011 was Amerson's best collegiate season. He totaled 12 interceptions and two touchdowns, the best in college football that year. Yet, in 2012, Amerson fell off, leaving questions about his consistency (sports-reference.com).
His struggles make Amerson's draft value drop a bit, but the 49ers are still targeting him.
The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows has reported that the 49ers met with Amerson prior to North Carolina State's pro day (sacbee.com). San Francisco appears interested in not only his talents on the field but also the positive work ethic he has displayed during his college career.
San Francisco also needs to land a big cornerback, and Amerson is a good fit.
Amerson would fill a need. Trading up into the middle of the second round would be a smart move to grab a player who can have an immediate impact in 2013.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro is one of the most prized safeties in the 2013 draft.
Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
Height: 6' 0"
Weight: 214 lbs.
The loss of Dashon Goldson via free agency hurt an already weak 49ers secondary.
San Francisco has tried to at least temporarily solve the problem by signing former Rams safety Craig Dahl to a three-year, $5.2 million contract, yet it is reasonable to assume that the 49ers are looking towards the draft to address a long-term solution at the position.
Fortunately for the 49ers, this year's draft class is filled with talented safeties, and San Francisco can be diligent to wait until it has the right circumstances to draft one.
If the 49ers do want to move up in the draft to grab a safety, they will have to consider Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas. CBS Sports analyst Rob Rang has Vaccaro going to the St. Louis Rams with the 22nd overall pick in the first round (cbssports.com). San Francisco needs a safety, and Vaccaro probably will not last that long in the first round, justifying a trade in draft picks to move up and select him.
There is a lot to like about Vaccaro. Aside from having a good body for the position, Vaccaro has great speed and football instincts, something that the 49ers coaching staff would enjoy working with. He also makes very few mental mistakes and has the uncanny ability to always be around the ball.
Vaccaro had 34 tackles and two interceptions his senior year and looks ready to make the transition to the NFL level (sports-reference.com).
If the 49ers were able to negotiate a trade of draft picks to acquire St. Louis' first-round pick, San Francisco would not only be picking up one of the most talented safeties in this year's draft but also thwarting a division rival by preventing his services from going there.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock is not sure if Vaccaro will last that long (via CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco). If the safety is available, however, it would be a brilliant move for the 49ers to make the transaction.
Sheldon Richardson, Missouri
Height: 6' 3"
Weight: 294 lbs.
The secondary is not the only concern for San Francisco's draft strategy.
49ers fans are well aware of how their defense performed both before and after Justin Smith was injured in Week 15 against the New England Patriots.
Smith's skills are invaluable to the 49ers defense, as he often draws two or even three blockers, thus opening up opportunities for teammates to rush the passer. When Smith went down and subsequently was not playing at 100 percent, the defense struggled.
A secondary is typically only as good as its defensive line allows it to be. If a pass rush is effective, the secondary can be made to look brilliant. If the pass rush is not working, weaknesses in the secondary are easily exposed.
The 49ers' playoff run was a case in point.
At 33 years old, Smith is not going to be around much longer. He is also in the final year of a six-year, $45 million contract, and there is no guarantee that San Francisco will bring him back after his contract expires.
The 49ers also suffered the loss of defensive tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois through free agency. The team attempted to fill the void by signing former Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who is a former first-round pick.
Yet, Dorsey may not be the answer for the 49ers' pass rush, an element of the defense that was so critical to their success the first half of last season.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article stating that San Francisco would be interested in drafting Florida's Shariff Floyd, a defensive tackle who is both versatile along the line and has the keen ability to rush the passer. Yet, Floyd's stock has risen considerably over the past few weeks, and it is unlikely that he will be on the draft board for long, even if the 49ers are interested in trading up to acquire him. Utah's Star Lotulelei is expected to be drafted shortly after Floyd.
That leaves a number of other options for San Francisco, one of whom is Sheldon Richardson.
CBS Sports analysts Rob Rang, Pat Kirwan and Pete Prisco all have Richardson being selected by the Carolina Panthers with the 14th-overall pick. Carolina could use some more draft picks, and the 49ers might be able to put together a package deal to acquire the talented defensive tackle.
There is a lot to like about Richardson. SEC linemen are highly touted throughout the league, and Richardson is no exception. He has the body for the position combined with tremendous football awareness, giving him the potential for a great NFL career.
Rang praised Richardson by noting:
[He] [c]loses quickly and with power, exploding into tackles and showing good hand-eye coordination to strip the ball away. [He] [s]tepped up his level of play against top competition (Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona State). [He] [h]as the size and athleticism of a future Pro Bowl defensive tackle. (via cbssports.com)
Those are the exact attributes the 49ers would be looking for in a player who will eventually replace Smith.
If drafted, Richardson would be able to play under the tutelage of Smith for at least one season. He could develop into a solid pass-rusher and an anchor on the defensive line, playing at either tackle or end. True, he only had one dominant season in college, but there is so much upside to his game that the 49ers would be smart to make that big acquisition.
There are questions surrounding his work ethic and off-the-field issues. However, the 49ers would be hopeful that their coaching staff and veteran leadership could assist Richardson in becoming an elite NFL lineman.
Given the probability that San Francisco will look to build up its defense with the 2013 draft, Richardson would be an excellent start. Last year, the entire 49ers defense centered on Smith, including the secondary. It is time to make that transition towards the next generation.
Richardson fits into that transition nicely.