Ranking San Francisco 49ers' Top 5 Draft Needs
The 2013 NFL season ended about four quarters and one confetti shower earlier than the San Francisco 49ers had hoped. While the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos square off in Super Bowl XLVIII, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke will be mapping out the path to next year's championship game.
For a team with several expensive contracts to dole out, any significant improvements will most likely have to come through the draft. Luckily for the 49ers, they happen to possess 13 draft picks in 2014.
With six projected picks in the first three rounds, the 49ers will also have plenty of room to target quality players through draft-day trades. Much like in 2013, Baalke could net both immediate contributors and future projects with this abundance of selections.
The 49ers are obviously built to win now, but salary-cap restrictions could force them to move on at several key positions. Based on 2013 performance and upcoming moves, five particular areas stand out as positions of need for the future of this franchise.
It's clear that the 49ers want to get back and finish the job in 2014, and smart picks in these areas can help get them there.
Honorable Mention: Left Guard
The 49ers have a star-studded list of expiring contracts over the next two seasons, including left guard Mike Iupati. While Iupati's contract status after 2014 is up in the air, his presence for next season will keep the guard position off of this list for now.
The caveat here is seeing lucrative extensions reached with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and linebacker Aldon Smith. These key starters also see their current deals run out after 2014, which would leave Iupati as an odd man out in this scenario.
With several picks to spare, the 49ers could be well served selecting a guard in Rounds 4 or 5 to groom for a year as a contingency plan. Prospects in this range include Furman's Dakota Dozier, Florida's Jon Halapio or Brandon Linder of Miami (FL).
Each of these prospects bring NFL size to the table, which at least sets up a fallback option in case of Iupati's eventual departure.
No. 5: Backup Quarterback
With Iupati's status still up in the air, the lowest spot on this list will go toward finding a capable backup for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick possesses a unique ability to produce yards through the air and on the ground, which would leave the 49ers in a tight spot without him. If the young signal-caller were to miss a start or two with injury, a quality backup could mean the difference between making the playoffs and watching them from home.
With current backup Colt McCoy entering free agency and a carousel of names at the No. 3 spot, the 49ers would be wise to invest a mid-round pick in a good fit for the system. A mobile quarterback with experience would make sense, so as to not drastically alter the game plan.
Clemson's Tajh Boyd, a fifth-round prospect according to CBS Sports, would seem to fit this profile. As a redshirt senior with good speed, Boyd would also find himself with time to work with San Francisco's coaching staff on his inconsistencies in the passing game.
Should he slip to the middle rounds on draft day, a player like Boyd could be well worth the flier.
No. 4: Center
For the past three seasons, veteran center Jonathan Goodwin has been in the middle of one of the NFL's best offensive lines. Though Goodwin was honored by his teammates with the Ed Block Courage Award in 2013, his age and price tag could soon lead to his departure.
The soon-to-be free agent commanded a $3.1 million cap hit last season and is in the twilight of his career at 35 years of age. Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area recently listed offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney as in-house candidates to replace Goodwin.
However, with so many picks at their disposal, the 49ers could also bring a rookie center into the fold. At a position that can usually be waited on come draft day, the 49ers could find a good value with a later pick.
While Florida State center Bryan Stork stands out for his Rimington Trophy and All-ACC honors during his senior season, CBS Sports' Rob Rang offers some caution and a Round 3-4 evaluation:
[Stork is] much thicker and stronger in his upper half than lower and struggles gaining movement at the point of attack as a result. Possesses just average body control when blocking on the move, too often failing to land and sustain effective downfield blocks.
If Stork fails to catch Baalke's eyes, San Francisco could also target Colorado State's Weston Richburg or Tyler Larsen of Utah State between Rounds 3 and 5. This section of the draft would allow the team to find a quality center for the future who could compete or contribute right away.
No. 3: Safety
Baalke hit a home run with his selection of LSU safety Eric Reid in the first round of 2013, but he may have to fill the other starting safety spot in this year's draft.
Pro Bowl strong safety Donte Whitner's contract is over in San Francisco, and it won't be cheap to retain his services. Though his coverage has improved, Whitner is still more of a physical presence with a penchant for drawing penalties for illegal hits, justified or not.
If the 49ers are unable to afford Whitner going forward, they'll have to look into a relatively weak class of strong safeties in the 2014 NFL draft. The CBS Sports big board has no players at the position going in the first round, but this could actually work in the 49ers' favor.
Even if the team trades up to target an elite prospect in Round 1, the 49ers should still be left with selections in the second and third rounds. That would leave San Francisco with a shot at players such as Washington State's Deone Bucannon and Ahmad Dixon of Baylor, who are projected to go at this point.
While Bucannon is slightly bigger with better measurements, Dane Brugler's review of Dixon for CBS Sports suggests that the Baylor product is a more complete player:
[Dixon is] extremely fast downhill and loves to get his hands dirty in the run game...Excellent size/speed athlete with the fluidity and natural speed to cover the entire field, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and in the deep half of the field. Works hard to shed blocks to make open-field stops and is a physical tackler. He is confident in coverage to jump routes and aggressively go after the ball.
With a hard-hitting mentality in the run game and range in coverage, Dixon would seem to fit the bill for the 49ers' defensive plans.
No. 2: Cornerback
The San Francisco secondary will continue to be uncertain at the corner spots, despite cornerback Tramaine Brock's contract extension in November.
Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Eric Wright are both entering free agency, although Wright could likely be retained for a reasonable rate. Veteran corner Carlos Rogers could also be cut due to his respective $8 and $9 million cap hits over the next two seasons.
The 49ers could very well jump to target a player like Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert in the middle of Round 1, given their trade assets. CBS Sports' Rob Rang praises the 6'0" cover man for his quickness and ball skills, as well as his ability as a kick returner.
However, in a deep class of cornerbacks, Baalke could be better served waiting on several prospects who should be available in the second round, such as Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner or Bradley Roby of Ohio State. Roby's 4.39 time in the 40-yard dash will turn some heads, but Rang raises questions about his size and coverage abilities.
In any scenario, however, the 49ers should be expected to target a quality cornerback in the early goings of the 2014 NFL draft.
No 1: Wide Receiver
As red-zone issues continue to plague the 49ers, very few things could complement the offense more than a big-bodied target in the red zone. Even if wide receiver Anquan Boldin is re-signed for 2014, the veteran is 33 and will need to be replaced some time in the near future.
The 49ers also list both Boldin and fellow receiver Michael Crabtree at just 6'1" on the official roster, which means there's a size void in the team's passing attack.
The perfect solution for this conundrum would be Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans, the 14th-ranked player in the draft according to CBS Sports. While the 49ers are slotted to select much later in the first round, the team is well equipped to jump forward and pluck the 6'5" target.
Evans reeled in 69 passes for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns in his final collegiate season, displaying a willingness to fight for jump balls in the red zone. This style of play could do a lot to cure what ails this squad in the final twenty yards of the field.
In a similar mold, Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin could provide another trade target, projected to go slightly after Evans in Round 1. After a season that featured 54 catches, 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, the 6'5" Benjamin could also serve as a red-zone threat for San Francisco.
Whichever direction they choose to go, the 49ers will have their best chance at a true physical specimen by trading up in the first round. Both Evans and Benjamin provide that offensive threat, and one of them could likely be had with the trade assets that the 49ers have stockpiled.
The needs in the secondary are pressing, but the 49ers have managed to maintain a high level of defensive play with many different contributors. With defensive coordinator Vic Fangio still in the fold, the faith should be there that he can produce results once again.
On the flip side, the 49ers offense has consistently underachieved, falling short in the red zone time and time again. After ending each of the last two seasons on a failed end-zone throw, a move for a blue chip receiving prospect could finally put San Francisco over the top.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has come along fast, but the young signal-caller would benefit greatly from additional weapons. The 49ers' lack of receiving depth unquestionably hindered his development in the early going this season, and that issue cannot repeat in 2014.
Before these issues cost the 49ers yet another season, it's time to change their fortunes with a game-changing offensive talent.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Tom's season continues on Twitter at @smeaton49.