Why the San Francisco 49ers Absolutely Must Trade Up in the NFL Draft

Nicholas McGeeContributor IApril 1, 2014

Safety Eric Reid, the first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, center, holds up a jersey with head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, and general manager Trent Baalke during a news conference at the team's training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, April 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu

The San Francisco 49ers possess one of the best rosters in the NFL, and are in position to improve that personnel further in this year's draft.

San Francisco has 11 selections through seven rounds and possesses six of the top 100 picks.

Last year saw the 49ers move up in the draft, trading up from number 31 to number 18 to snag free safety Eric Reid in a move that proved astute as the former LSU Tiger enjoyed an outstanding rookie season in 2013.

And with so much ammunition in the 2014 draft, there is good reason to suspect that San Francisco will repeat that move and trade up from No. 30 overall to boost its roster with at least one top prospect.

San Francisco is expected to move to boost its cornerback depth after losing Tarell Brown to the Oakland Raiders and opting to release Carlos Rogerswho has since signed with the Raiders, the team announced (h/t Dan Hanzus of NFL.com)to save salary cap space.

Meanwhile, head coach Jim Harbaugh revealed, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, that the 49ers are looking for a third wide receiver to "get open and make plays."

In a deep class for cornerbacks and receivers both of those needs can be addressed via the draft, but here I analyze why the 49ers absolutely must trade up in order to do so.


The choices

Let's begin by having a quick look at the 49ers' choices in the draft.

As I mentioned San Francisco has six of the top 100 picks, which gives it plenty of flexibility to add to its already superb squad.

Two of those selections are in the second round, one of which was acquired in the trade that sent quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs, and three are in the third round with the 49ers benefiting from a trade with the Tennessee Titans in the 2013 draft and a compensatory selection awarded to make up the loss of safety Dashon Goldson prior to last season.

Therefore the Niners conceivably have enough choices to trade up in the first round and then use some of their third rounders to move back into the second.

Further down the board San Francisco has a pick in both the fourth and fifth round, none in the sixth and three in the seventh and final round.


Roster Depth

The 49ers may feel the need to add pieces at the cornerback and receiver positions, but away from those two spots there are few areas of concern.

In the trenches San Francisco has one of the best offensive lines in football and, while the Niners could use depth along the defensive line, the presence of a healthy Tank Carradine, a second-round pick a year ago who missed the entirety of his rookie season, is likely to be a boost to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit.

At quarterback, Blaine Gabbert figures to be the backup to Colin Kaepernick ahead of any potential draftee, and the talented trio of Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore is expected to compete for time behind Frank Gore.

Inside linebacker may well be an area where the 49ers look to add a draft prospect following the devastating injury to starter NaVorro Bowman in last season's NFC Championship.

The safety position was solidified as former Indianapolis Colt Antoine Bethea was brought in to replace the departed Donte Whitner, although San Francisco may aim to draft a player to develop behind the veteran.

But the fact remains that the 49ers are a deep team with few glaring needs, meaning that they are unlikely to have the space on the roster for a high number of rookies and can instead favour quality over quantity.


Severe issues at cornerback

However, cornerback has developed into an area needing improvement to one of considerable concern for the 49ers. 

Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver were anticipated to be the starters in 2014, but that situation may well be subject to change following an off-the-field indiscretion from Culliver.

As per KTVU.comCulliver was arrested March 28 in San Jose, Calif., on felony hit-and-run and weapons charges.

Chris Culliver's arrest could affect the 49ers' draft plans.
Chris Culliver's arrest could affect the 49ers' draft plans.Mark Humphrey

It remains to be seen what action the 49ers will take following this news, but Culliver's alleged offences add more uncertainty to the one position where San Francisco perhaps lacks true quality.

Brock earned a four-year extension in November with his outstanding play in 2013 and is more than deserving of the starting job in 2014.

Perrish Cox was re-signed to a one-year deal after playing well towards the back end of last year and making his first career postseason start in the Wild Card Round win over the Green Bay Packers.

Eric Wright has also been brought back on a one-year contract, while Chris Cook will hope to make an impression following his move from the Minnesota Vikings.

However, both Wright and Cook have question marks hanging over them: Wright is coming off an injury-plagued 2013 and Cook arriving after four subpar years in Minnesota, during which time he failed to record a single interception.

The 49ers already had a hole at the nickel cornerback spot, but the revelations surrounding Culliver have now made the need at the position even more pressing. San Francisco may be best served by executing trades to secure maybe even two quality corners who can come in and contribute right away.


Lack of cap room

Perhaps the primary reason why the 49ers will not be able to use all of their draft picks is that they simply do not have the salary cap room available to do so.

According to Spotrac.com, San Francisco has under $4.2 million in remaining cap room, although it will gain an extra $5.1 million in cap space and $6.25 million in real savings from the decision to release Rogers (per Rotoworld).

Rogers was designated as aj June 1 cut, meaning that those savings will not take effect until June 2.

But, even with the money earned from cutting Rogers, the 49ers draft plans will be heavily dictated by their cap space, with prospective contract extensions to key players likely to come into consideration when San Francisco make their selections in May.

Harbaugh recently described tying down Kaepernickwho, per The Boston Globe's Ben Volinis seeking a contract in the region of $18 million per yearwith a new deal as a "high priority."

Additionally the likes of Gore, receiver Michael Crabtree, offensive lineman Mike Iupati and linebacker Aldon Smith are all free agents after next season and are also candidates to receive extensions.

Simply put, the 49ers cannot afford to part company with all of those players, making trading up even more essential as San Francisco aims to trim its salaries on rookies, retain the core of an outstanding roster and add quality in key areas of need.


The Targets

As I indicated earlier, San Francisco will probably target top-level talent at the cornerback position, which could easily be secured by moving up in the draft.

Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard are arguably the top two corners in the draft and have been projected to go in the top 10-15 picks by a number of draft analysts.

Darqueze Dennard may be a target for San Francisco.
Darqueze Dennard may be a target for San Francisco.AJ Mast

CBSSports.com's Pat KirwanSports Illustrated's Doug Farrar and NFL.com's Mike Huguenin all have Gilbert and Dennard going in the top 15, so the duo would be within reach only if the 49ers choose to deal their way up into the first half of the first round.

TCU's Jason Verrett, an aggressive, slightly undersized corner who could work perfectly at the nickel spot, may still be available at No. 30 overall, although San Francisco could consider rising a few spots to ensure it gets its guy.

From a receiver standpoint Clemson's Sammy Watkins has been touted as a top-five pick and was described by NFL draft guru Mike Mayock, per Fansided's Josh Sanchez, as "one of the best receivers of the last decade."

Watkins is likely to be too expensive for San Francisco, however, Texas A&M star Mike Evans is a possibility should the 49ers decide that receiver is their top priority.

There is plenty of depth at the receiver spot in the draft and prospective playmakers such as Fresno State's Davante Adams, Penn State's Allen Robinson and Donte Moncreif from Ole Miss may all still be on the board if San Francisco wishes to use its plethora of third-round picks to jump back up.

The 49ers are just a few pieces short of a Super Bowl title and, with a deep draft class at their two primary needs, plenty of ammunition and a need to save cap space for extensions to key players, it is utterly essential that they trade up in the draft to secure the prospects that could well bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy to San Francisco.


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