As the college football season nears its end, several NFL teams will be looking to the future with only four games left to play in 2013. While the San Francisco 49ers are in the thick of the playoff race, the organization is also loaded with draft picks and staring at critical upgrades for next season.
The 49ers are in good position to lock up a playoff berth, currently finding themselves in the final Wild Card spot with an 8-4 record. A playoff run will put the 49ers out of the top 20 for the 2014 NFL Draft, but this team will have plenty of opportunities to make a splash come draft day.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the 49ers are currently in line for 13 selections in this year's draft, including six in the first three rounds. However, one of these third-round picks is a projected compensatory selection based on the loss of safety Dashon Goldson in free agency.
San Francisco also entered last year's draft with an abundance of picks, using them to both move up for targeted players and to acquire additional picks for 2014. As seen in the table below, GM Trent Baalke kept the phone lines running in the early goings:
|Trade Partner||Round||Pick(s) Dealt||Pick(s) Received||Players|
|Dallas Cowboys||1||No. 31 and 74||No. 18||Eric Reid (S)|
|Tennessee Titans||2||No. 34||No. 40 and 216; 2014 third-round selection||Tank Carradine (DE)|
|Green Bay Packers||2||No. 61 and 173||No. 55||Vance McDonald (TE)|
|Green Bay Packers||3||No. 93 and 216||No. 88||Corey Lemonier (LB)|
With so much ammunition entering this year's draft, it's safe to assume that the 49ers will continue with the status quo established in 2013.
Simply put, this is a team with established talent at several positions, despite a few concentrated weaknesses. The 49ers don't really need 13 rookies at the end of the day, even if they could somehow fit them all on the roster.
However, with so many trade chips available, where should the 49ers set their targets in 2014?
It's easy to argue that wide receiver is the top priority in San Francisco after the debacle of a passing game that has trudged through most of 2013. Injuries have taken their toll on this unit, but current wideouts Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham are both also free agents after this season.
On the other side of the ball, top cornerback Tarell Brown and starting safety Donte Whitner are faced with expiring contracts after 2013 as well. That could leave half of this season's starting secondary in another uniform next year.
This has all been reflected in recent mock drafts, including that of B/R's Tyler Brooke. Brooke matched the 49ers with Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews. In addition, SB Nation's Dan Kadar has the 49ers selecting wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU, while Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated settled on TCU cornerback Jason Verrett.
It should also be noted that these picks are made with the 49ers' current draft position, which would stand today as the No. 26 overall pick.
While both positions should merit an early pick, the 49ers should ultimately select a dynamic wide receiver with their first selection.
Potential 2014 WR class: Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee, Mike Evans, Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham all Rd1 guys— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 3, 2013
A trade for Watkins would likely have to be a blockbuster, as most mock drafts have the speedy receiver off the board within the first 10 picks. While this is a dream scenario to add field-stretching ability to the offense, it may take more than Baalke is willing to give up.
A more realistic candidate could be Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans, who is more physical than Watkins but lacks his game-breaking speed. Otherwise, Lee and Matthews could likely be had without moving up too far, if at all.
The 49ers offense has clearly lacked enough weapons in the passing game, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick could benefit greatly from adding Watkins or Evans to his arsenal.
Paired with Michael Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis and rookie receiver Quinton Patton, the 49ers would finally force defenses to respect the pass. Should either Boldin or Manningham also return in a contributing role, this type of addition could truly put the offense over the top.
Baalke should use his other early selections on a cornerback or safety based on the ultimate fate of Brown and Whitner. Any first-round trade should still leave the 49ers with at least three picks throughout Rounds 2 and 3, which could net a valuable contributor at either position.
Of course, Baalke will also likely utilize some of these picks for extra leverage in 2015.
The draft process is just heating up as the college championships and bowl games begin to play out. While specific players will rise and fall throughout the evaluations, there's little doubt that the 49ers should stick to their usual draft game plan to bring home an impact rookie.
With that in mind, it'd be wise to have your popcorn ready for the early picks this May. The Red & Gold have the ability to make their big splash at any time, just when the moment is right.
All contract and free-agency information according to Spotrac.com. Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. To talk 49ers or NFL, reach out on twitter by following @smeaton49.