This is an organization that prides itself on building through the NFL draft, and they’ve been very effective dating back to 2005.
Outside of all-world defensive tackle Justin Smith, the scouting department has cherry-picked all of the components that make this team a perennial title contender.
A forgotten star from Penn State, a wunderkind pass-catcher from Texas Tech, a freakishly gifted athlete from Maryland, a college tight end turned first-round offensive tackle and a throwback hitter from Ole Miss have become key pieces on the team.
This is why the draft matters.
As a testament to the team’s general manager, Trent Baalke, and the job he's done in recent years, San Francisco has also unearthed a lot of complementary pieces in free agency that have been effective stopgaps and positive influences on the team.
But obviously, their bargain-shopping approach has had its ups and downs.
So, with the 2013 regular season nearly in the books, it’s time to take an early look forward at what the 49ers can do to scrounge up another epic offseason haul.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers has a cap figure of $8 million in 2014, which is the single-highest on the team that year.
There is little-to-no chance that Rogers sticks around to collect that money with the downslope of his game—the numbers don’t match up.
Sure, he’s helped this unit become a top-five pass defense, but he is certainly not its strongest link and he is expendable. No doubt San Francisco will look to get better for cheaper.
With the extension of cornerback Tramaine Brock, veteran cornerback Tarell Brown is also likely out of the picture.
Staying on the secondary, the 49ers will have found themselves in a real bind once again, perhaps forced to make a tough call.
High-caliber starting safeties are hard to come by. With Donte Whitner’s contract being up, this team may have to replace its second consecutive Pro Bowl safety in as many years.
That’ll be tough to do without much spare cash and a light safety class in a year where the team has other more pressing needs.
Continuing down the chopping block, let’s take a look at the offense.
The feeling is that wide receiver Anquan Boldin would like to continue playing with the 49ers next season but would have to agree to do so under a team-friendly deal. He was originally unwilling to give this type of deal to the Baltimore Ravens, prompting his trade to San Francisco in the first place.
Strong communication and a little give-and-take between the 49ers and Boldin could see to it that the team’s 2013 stat leader returns for another year, but for now, it has to be considered a bit of a long shot. It’ll just be too easy to take someone else in the draft.
The 49ers will likely put a number on Anquan Boldin, but it's doubtful they move much on it.
Mario Manningham’s deal is also set to expire upon the New Year, and with only 532 yards and just one touchdown over the past two seasons, it’ll be difficult for the front office to justify redoing his contract.
His impact was marginal and with Quinton Patton now in the mix, the offense may have its No. 3 WR of the future.
San Francisco also had far too much activity going on at the backup quarterback position this season, which could mean that they are not as comfortable with Colt McCoy since seeing him in practice sessions and the preseason.
With his contract being up, the 49ers will likely try to address the backup quarterback position again with a little more oomph.
Needs: WR, CB, SS, QB
The 49ers desperately need another fixture at wide receiver. After failing to acquire one under the new regime, this team might not hold back, trading up to solidify the position once and for all.
1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
A game-changer is what the 49ers should be looking at in the NFL draft.
It’s been three years under the new regime and the only thing holding this team back is the passing offense, particularly the wide receiver position. This would revolutionize the offense and put the 49ers on another plane of existence.
Adding Mike Evans helps San Francisco’s offense catch up to the defense, provides the team with leverage in contract talks with Michael Crabtree and gives Kaepernick all the weapons he needs to take this team on consecutive playoff runs for the next half-decade at least.
Since they've got the draft picks, why not do it?
Hey, Mike Evans got wide open again. That guy is always open. Always. It's science.— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) October 26, 2013
2. Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Like the stud from Texas A&M, Sammy Watkins is on the board because the 49ers have the ammo and team need that merits a move up for him in Round 1.
While he is the highest-rated receiver by many draft analysts, he might not be as complementary or diverse when it comes to playing opposite Michael Crabtree.
Yes, he is a bit faster than Evans and more powerful at the catch point, but Watkins being four inches shorter doesn't quite provide that size element the 49ers have been missing. If they moved up and had their pick of the two, the Clemson superstar might actually come second.
Besides, Watkins is a surefire top-10 draft choice, out of San Francisco’s reach, whereas Evans is likely to be in trade-up range in the early-to-mid teens.
3. Jarvis Landry, LSU
NFL lead writer and draft guru Matt Miller has mocked LSU speed-star Jarvis Landry to the 49ers on a few occasions, including in his latest projections piece.
This is the most realistic selection that Trent Baalke could make, as it makes a lot of sense when it comes to their draft philosophy and the type of wide receivers they value in this offensive system.
Landry is a full-grown man at wide receiver, bearing a likeness to former teammate and New York Giants wide receiver Rueben Randle, whom the 49ers should’ve selected in 2012 over A.J. Jenkins. San Francisco needs a pro-ready receiver like that and LSU churns them out on an assembly line.
This could very well be the pick.
I'm watching the Auburn-LSU game on DVR…LSU WR Jarvis Landry is a monster! Love his size, quickness, strength and hands.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) September 23, 2013
4. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
In terms of strategy, the 49ers can also sit tight near the end of Round 1 and still nab their guy.
Or they can potentially move up to the front of the second round and take the best wide receiver available after Day 1. If they do either, there is a chance that player is Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews.
At 6’3”, 205 pounds, he is a big dependable receiver that can climb the ladder and make contested catches.
For the 49ers, this makes sense because it finally gives them that element where they can play basketball on the goal line. Matthews would enhance the offense by enabling them to do new things in the air.
5. Davante Adams, Fresno State
The 49ers have shown their proclivity for natural-looking wide receivers that know how to get open and have good body control.
That’s what A.J. Jenkins should’ve been and what Quinton Patton looks to be. Next in the line of esteemed prospects fitting that mold is Davante Adams of Fresno State.
He is as natural as they come.
What separates Adams from the aforementioned receivers is at 6’2”, 212 pounds, he has the size and strength to power through and snatch the football. As a rookie, he’ll be ready to go. Strong hands, pull-away speed, leaping ability and the mentality of which he high-points the ball also makes Adams the total package at receiver.
Wrapped up Mountain West preview. Fresno State WR Davante Adams is a star. Got complete package: speed, strength, leaping ability.— Dan Greenspan (@DanGreenspan) July 2, 2013
The 49ers are not spenders in free agency, and more than that, they will likely prioritize the re-signing of Michael Crabtree. It is very unlikely they sign another one on the open market.
Unrealistic, but let’s talk about it.
During his time with the Denver Broncos, Eric Decker has proven that he can attack every inch of the gridiron.
He makes big grabs, scores touchdowns and gets the tough yards after the catch. He is an all-around receiver that could be a strong complement to Michael Crabtree, and by being in San Francisco, he’d be a lock for an increased workload.
This offseason, Decker will be coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Broncos, totaling 20-plus touchdowns and counting.
Odds are the 49ers do not pony up the dough for Decker or any of the receivers listed in bold below.
If Decker does decide to leave Colorado, the 26-year-old hot commodity will be looking to squeeze the most out of free agency. Like many other big-name free agents, it’ll be about dollar signs.
James Jones, Green Bay Packers
The San Jose native and Spartans alum has had a decorated pro career with the Green Bay Packers, functioning as a slot receiver for a good part of his career.
With injuries and changeover at the position, James Jones was asked to step over these past two seasons and responded by posting 1,427 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 26 starts.
The Packers would like to see him stick around and perhaps finish his career with the organization.
If he decides to see what’s out there, the 49ers may want to explore this option, seeing as how he doesn’t have the household name that would stipulate a multimillion-dollar deal.
If James Jones wants to return home, start on game day and compete for a championship, this is an option.
Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders could be a hit-or-miss to re-sign with the team, seeing as how they will be in rebuilding mode and just recently extended his fellow pass-catcher in Antonio Brown.
Much like James Jones, Emmanuel Sanders is a better player than the league buzz would indicate.
He isn’t very big but he’s a proven commodity that can work the middle of the field as well as the boundary.
So if the 49ers are looking for value, Sanders could be a way to go. And given the similarities in style and market value, this would very closely resemble the free-agent signing of Mario Manningham in 2012.
Other Draft Fits/Lower-Tier Free Agents
Devin Hester, Jerome Simpson and Jacoby Ford, as well as Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State), Allen Robinson (Penn State), Donte Moncrief (Ole Miss), Devin Street (Pittsburgh), Brandon Coleman (Rutgers) and Dri Archer (Kent State).
Seeing as how the 49ers may need more than one starter, and one that's NFL-ready, they may have every intention of picking high here.
With holes to fill, they’ll likely be surveying the first and/or second rounds for talent. So everybody is on the table.
1. Jason Verrett, TCU
The TCU Horned Frog is one of the top cover corners in the upcoming draft and a playmaker to boot.
In three seasons, Verrett tallied 160 tackles (10 TFL), nine interceptions and 41 pass deflections.
As a senior, his 14 defended passes were first in the Big 12 and seventh in the NCAA. The year before, he had an amazing 22 breakups, which led all of college football.
Jason Verrett is a stud, and the 49ers should take him if they can get their hands on him.
TCU's Jason Verrett stands a shade over 5'9 and is currently in 180's. Light feet, can change directions and plays ball in the air well.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) September 11, 2013
2. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan St.
The physical Darqueze Dennard is another one of the highly coveted first-round prospects at cornerback this year, checking in at 5’11”, 197 pounds.
He’s been the key cog in the Spartans defense, racking up 56 tackles and leading his team with four interceptions and eight pass breakups as a senior.
With the way he excels in press coverage, Dennard is more than capable of stepping into the 49ers' lineup and contributing as a top-three corner.
I'm a huge Darqueze Dennard fan. Was an Alfonzo Dennard fan as well. Press corners are fun.— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) November 2, 2013
3. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma St.
Justin Gilbert is a little of a longer-bodied corner, as opposed to Verrett and Dennard.
At 6’0”, 200 pounds, he is built just like Chris Culliver was coming out of South Carolina. Gilbert has that same impressive cover ability and overall athleticism that can really make him an asset at the next level.
In his senior season of a sharp four-year career, Gilbert finished with six interceptions for 109 yards and two defensive touchdowns.
He also returned kicks his entire career, ending with 2,653 return yards and a whopping six touchdowns. Mark this one down as a true-to-life playmaker.
CB Justin Gilbert showing off that length and aggressiveness at the catch point. Why he's in the top-40 discussion #NFLDraft— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) December 7, 2013
4. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
You have to like a top-rated cornerback who plays for the fastest team in college football in a conference that spits out top-end running backs and receivers.
In two years starting for the Ducks from 2011-2012, Ekpre-Olomu got in on 141 tackles and pulled in three interceptions.
The All-PAC-12 first-team selection is a bona fide first-round selection that may fall into San Francisco’s lap if they’re lucky.
5. Bradley Roby, Ohio St.
Physically, there might not be a cornerback in this draft class more well-equipped to take on the pro game (4.39 40-speed, via CBS Sports), but Bradley Roby is certainly a player that could benefit from some hard coaching.
At the end of the day, he may have the highest ceiling of all the corners listed here.
For most of his career, he staked his claim as one of the better defensive players in college football.
In 34 games played, Roby’s 173 career tackles, eight interceptions, two pick-sixes and seven tackles for a loss just go to show the all-around contributor he can be.
There is no refuting that Roby is extremely gifted, carrying all the potential in the world to emerge as the cornerstone of an NFL secondary.
And with 49ers' secondary coach Ed Donatell, who knows what he could become.
If the 49ers are going to sign any cornerbacks in free agency, they’ll be looking for rentals.
Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins
Former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes has had an outstanding season with the Miami Dolphins.
He’s done everything and then some to earn a new deal with the team, which he may wind up getting in the offseason. That being said, cornerbacks have not commanded a lot of money on the open market recently.
Since that is the way it has been trending, and seeing as how coach Joe Philbin is not eager to shell out big deals, there is a chance Grimes is lowballed and looks for okay money for a contender. After all, he is 30 years old. If the 49ers can pick him up for a year, they should.
Tracy Porter, Oakland Raiders
27-year-old Tracy Porter is set to be a free agent, and since his career has already seen him become a bit of a journeyman, he might not mind signing a deal with a contender after playing 2013 with the Oakland Raiders.
Not to mention, moving just across the bay wouldn’t be too much of a hassle either.
As a route-jumper, Porter would complement the technicians the 49ers currently have at the cornerback position.
Infusing a little more playmaking ability into that secondary is just the kind of impetus they need going forward. On top of which, the pick-six machine can become a more sound player under secondary coach Ed Donatell and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts
Much like his brother, it was a bit of a slow start to his career.
But since being acquired by the Indianapolis Colts, Vontae Davis has really come into his own. Whether or not the Colts prioritize his retention is a mystery, but if they don’t, this is another avenue the 49ers can take to shore up the position.
If Davis has any desire to join his brother’s team and fill a need on a contender, he can sign with the 49ers as a third or fourth CB.
He won’t be an upgrade from Tarell Brown, he is not better than Tramaine Brock and it’s also probable that Eric Wright returns next year to some capacity.
This is unlikely but interesting in theory.
Brandon Browner, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks corner Brandon Browner will be 30 years old in 2014, which is even when two-time All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha fell off.
It’s a tough position to play well late in one’s career. Nevertheless, we’ve seen Browner play much better football recently, so there is no reason to believe he’s done yet.
But there might not be a ton of takers for Browner as far as giving him the type of free-agent money he’d like to see as a Pro Bowler.
On top of his age, he was suspended in 2012 for violating the league’s performance drug policy and is currently being reviewed for another drug-related allegation, which he is appealing.
If Seattle doesn’t bring him back for whatever reason, the 49ers should weasel in and see if they can get Browner at a premium. Baptize this guy in red and gold.
At 6’4”, 221 pounds, he is a big physical cornerback that can not only take away a wide receiver, but also make plays on the ball.
In the past three seasons, Browner has amassed 10 interceptions and set an NFL record in return yards in a single season with 220 back in 2011.
Other Draft Fits/Lower-Tier Free Agents
Zack Bowman, Corey Graham and Quentin Jammer, as well as Loucheiz Purifoy (Florida), Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) and Marcus Roberson (Florida).
Anticipating the complications when it comes to retaining Donte Whitner, as well as having more pressing draft needs, the 49ers are going to have a tough time making sure they have a reliable strong safety for 2014 and beyond.
1. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
The 6’0”, 205-pounder from Central Texas has played in 46 career games for the Baylor Bears, tallying 277 tackles, 13.0 for a loss, one sack, four interceptions and 15 pass breakups.
Needless to say, it was a prolific career for Ahmad Dixon—one that saw him roam the entire field as a defensive standout.
Though his technique needs work, and he could be more consistent, Dixon has the necessary range to be effective in coverage. Virtually the same was said about Eric Reid coming out of LSU, and he has yet to allow a touchdown in his entire rookie season. Dixon could benefit from this coaching staff.
He’s also a demon in run support, which this team likes. If Donte Whitner is not retained, this could be who the 49ers target early on Day 2.
Baylor SS Ahmad Dixon reminds me a lot of Jon Cyprien. Big hitter, playmaker and very aggressive coming up.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 9, 2013
2. Deone Bucannon, Washington St.
Cougars’ Deone Bucannon is the slightly larger of the two safeties here, checking in at a dense 6’1”, 215 pounds.
Like Dixon, he also projects to be one of the top available prospects at the safety position this year.
In 36 career games, he built up quite a resume, racking up 270 tackles, 13 deflections and nine picks, per Draft Countdown.
The guy is a hitter but also has the hawking ability general managers drool over.
With Whitner being such an overall contributor and leader, it is good to know that Bucannon has the qualities of a defensive captain.
He plays a big game. In his senior year, No. 20 led the Washington St. defense in tackles (109), interceptions (5) and forced fumbles (3), via the team's official website.
If the 49ers need someone step in right away, Bucannon looks like a seamless fit.
The last time the 49ers had a need at strong safety, they found a solution in Donte Whitner, a free agent that was cast off by the team that drafted him.
Major Wright, Chicago Bears
This is San Francisco’s one realistic safety to target on the open market, seeing as how the position is fairly thin in the NFL and impending free-agent safety Jarius Byrd of the Buffalo Bills will be seeking a big-money deal.
Chicago Bears safety Major Wright has been one of that defense’s talented contributors on the back end for the past few seasons.
In three years starting with the team, Wright has piled up nine interceptions, three pick-sixes, three forced fumbles and 17 pass deflections.
There is a dynamic element about his game, which is uncommon as far as the strong safety position goes. They’re typically typecast as hard-hitters that don’t cover as well.
But Wright is a bit of a hybrid.
If the Bears re-sign quarterback Jay Cutler to that whopper of a deal he could be in line to get, it is possible that Wright falls through the cracks.
And as a playmaking strong safety, Wright would theoretically be a terrific partner-in-crime with blossoming star FS Eric Reid.
Be that as it may, the odds are the 49ers either find a way to re-sign Donte Whitner or look to replenish the position in the NFL draft. Wright isn't perfect.
According to @PFF's numbers, Major Wright's nine missed tackles are the most among all NFL safeties.— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) October 17, 2013
Other Draft Fits/Lower-Tier Free Agents
Ryan Clark, Antoine Bethea and Charles Woodson, as well as Craig Loston (LSU), Jimmie Ward (NIU), Isaiah Louis (Michigan St.) and Hakeem Smith (Louisville).
The 49ers will be looking in the middle rounds for a decorated quarterback that isn’t quite “franchise material.”
In their search for a backup (and possible future trade bait), a technically proficient multi-year starter from a tough conference might be a way to go.
1. Zach Mettenberger, LSU
Unfortunately for the LSU quarterback, he tore his ACL in his last-ever college game versus Arkansas, which may or may not hurt his draft stock, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN.
Prior to the injury, Zach Mettenberger was one of the more highly regarded passers, looking like a first-round pick, early Day 2 at worst.
He competed with the toughest defenses in college football and held up pretty well.
At 6’5”, 235 pounds, he is a strict pocket passer that possesses the prototypical size for the position. Coming out, comparisons could be drawn to big gunslingers like Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger.
In his last two seasons, Mettenberger totaled 5,691 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, going 19-6 in 25 starts with the Tigers.
In those games, the arm strength really stood out as well as his ability to read the defense and spread the ball around to his playmakers on offense.
If the injury impacts his draft stock, this looks like it could be a good fit for the 49ers. Here is what Matt Miller had to say about Mettenberger, pre-ACL.
Zach Mettenberger moving way up for me after finally having time to chart his SEC games. What's not to like? Should go top 15.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 23, 2013
2. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
First round or fourth round—people don’t know where to pin this guy.
He’s not very big (6'1", 225 lbs.), you can knock his delivery and so forth, but he’s played well very consistently.
In his career at Clemson, Boyd threw for 11,526 yards and 102 touchdowns, while rushing for another 1,000-plus yards and 25 scores. He is a prolific offensive weapon that could fit this 49ers offense like a glove. And if development is something he needs, then becoming Jim Harbaugh’s next protege couldn’t hurt.
Again, this team needs a capable No. 2 quarterback. If Tajh Boyd does not wind up being the Day 1 pick his ceiling says he’d be, the 49ers should keep him on the radar in the middle rounds.
Mr. @PSchrags on QB Tajh Boyd: "He will be a first round pick, regardless of whatever and whoever else you're reading." Very bold, sir— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) December 7, 2013
3. A.J. McCarron, Alabama
There have been a lot of mixed reviews on A.J. McCarron, which may be enough to keep him out of the first round.
Unfortunately, the amazingly talented team he led has masked a lot of the positive attributes he carries at the position. Still, it doesn’t mean he is not a good player.
McCarron passed for 8,243 yards in three years as a starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide, tossing 72 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. And, you know, there’s also those two BCS National Championships.
If he is waiting there in the third round, this might be a smart move by the organization to park him behind Colin Kaepernick. Not to cause a scare, but with the recent spike in injuries, combined with the distinct style Kap plays with, the 49ers need to have someone game-ready.
Best-case scenario, the 49ers never need McCarron to take a regular season snap and find themselves with a Ryan Mallett or Kirk Cousins type of situation where they have trade bait.
If we're talking about A.J. McCarron being the first quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, I'll just take a nap until May.— Matthew Fairburn (@MatthewFairburn) December 2, 2013
If the 49ers survey the open market for a backup quarterback again, they may want to emphasize experience and adaptability over all else.
There are a few names out there that could be strong fits to pair with Colin Kaepernick.
Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
Once and for all, Nick Foles axed the Michael Vick era in Philadelphia, stepping up in No. 7’s place.
The often-injured, multi-tooled quarterback is now 33 years old, and from what we can tell, is fresh out of comebacks.
With the new wave of passers in the league, including a flush upcoming draft class in 2014, there may be no place for Vick to start anywhere in the NFL. He must face the reality that his career as a starter may very well be over.
This is about the time that smart quarterbacks that want to keep receiving NFL paychecks embrace the role of a backup and mentor.
That being said, Vick, the dual threat of the 2000-decade, may have a perfect opportunity in the Bay Area. While he won’t be able to resurrect his own career, he will be able to keep it alive by working with Colin Kaepernick.
At first glance, it seems like a perfect marriage of mentor and protege.
With Kap, we’re seeing a player that needs to be quicker to act, using a balance of both his throwing and running ability.
While not the most accurate passer or protective runner, Vick was never shy to make a decision. By passing on his knowledge and experience, it could help Kap think less and react more.
Shaun Hill, Detroit Lions
Bleacher Report’s Michael Schottey went into great depth demonstrating why Shaun Hill is actually the NFL’s best backup quarterback.
In his study, Schottey points out the admirable career passer rating by Hill (85.9) as well as having nearly twice as many touchdowns as interceptions.
Longtime 49ers fans don’t need to be told that Hill was the closest thing to serviceable in the Mike Nolan era from 2005-2010.
If he leaves Detroit, he could potentially return as a veteran backup and it would be great for all parties involved. It improves the team’s bench strength at the QB position and adds another guy that was a good fit in this locker room.
Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars
Not a household name by any means, but Chad Henne can step into the lineup and play when he has to.
He’s done it his entire career and it may become his trademark when it’s all said and done. In six years for two different teams, he’s started 47 times and amassed nearly 12,000 passing yards.
While he’s thrown more career interceptions than touchdowns (eight more), Miami and Jacksonville aren’t exactly teams that excel at ball security.
He’s been thrown into the fire and has enabled the team around him to compete, which is all you can ask for in a backup quarterback.
Other Draft Fits/Lower-Tier Free Agents
Luke McCown and David Garrard, as well as Aaron Murray (Georgia), Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech), Stephen Morris (Miami) and Connor Shaw (South Carolina).