The San Francisco 49ers are in win-now mode, and that could change their draft strategy.
In the Jim Harbaugh era, the Niners have been willing to trade back to pick up additional selections in future drafts. Now, with too many good players throughout the roster and not enough spots to keep them all, combined with a heightened pressure to win a Super Bowl, general manager Trent Baalke may look for quality over quantity.
That means trading up whenever possible.
San Francisco has six of the draft's top 100 picks and 11 selections overall. After losing Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in free agency, cornerback is a need that will be addressed.
Of course, another star wide receiver could take the 49ers offense to a level of efficiency unseen since the days of Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
Here's how I think the Niners should use their arsenal of draft picks.
Trade up in first round for Kyle Fuller or other top CB
In the last four draft classes, three cornerbacks have been taken in the first 27 picks. This year, that trend is likely to continue.
Justin Gilbert is destined to be drafted in the first dozen picks. The 49ers should only consider him if he falls into the teens and they don't have to sell the rest of their draft to get him.
Assuming Gilbert is gone early, the Niners have the option of trading up for Darqueze Dennard or Kyle Fuller. If they can find a trade partner that only wants a first-rounder and a third-rounder like they did last year, they should pull the trigger and select Fuller (though it may take a second and first to move up 10-plus slots in this year's draft, let's assume the Niners make this deal happen by trading the No. 77 pick and No. 30 pick).
The other option is to wait until the 30th pick and hope Fuller, Jason Verrett or Bradley Roby is available.
There's risk with that strategy, because they all could be gone by then.
What about drafting a wide receiver, you ask?
There are two reasons a cornerback selection makes more sense.
First, defensive back is a bigger need. The Niners have two Pro Bowl-caliber wide receivers already, whereas their only reliable option at cornerback is Tramaine Brock.
Second, the wide receiver class is deeper than the cornerback class. The 49ers will still get an instant-impact wideout if they wait until the second round.
Trade up for top WR available with first second-rounder (Robinson, Bryant)
Craving a receiver with size after missing on Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin? Jordan Matthews (6'3"), Allen Robinson (6'3") and Martavis Bryant (6'4") are all potential second-round options.
To put it simply, it's a loaded wide receiver class.
Harbaugh told CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco in March that he wants one more dynamic receiver to help out Kaepernick.
"Let’s get another really good option besides Anquan, besides Michael, besides Vernon," Harbaugh said. "There were times in the 2013 season where his (Kaepernick) options were just get it to one guy."
Of the aforementioned wideouts, I'd prefer Bryant or Robinson. Bryant is a raw mixture of speed (4.42 40-yard dash) and size who could be a third cornerback's nightmare.
The Niners could give the 56th pick and a fifth-rounder to trade up a few spots just to secure one. That being said, they're so many quality choices that they're likely to get a guy they like with the 56th pick.
Take top interior lineman with second second-rounder (Yankey, Jackson, Martin)
This is where things get tricky. Should the 49ers draft two wide receivers in the first two rounds and let them compete with Quinton Patton for the No. 3 role?
Maybe they should take another cornerback, especially if they're concerned about Chris Culliver's potential suspension and future (Culliver is currently No. 2 on the CB depth chart).
Aldon Smith is in a contract year. But after drafting Corey Lemonier last year, the Niners seem to have enough depth at the linebacker position.
So, the most logical spot might just be offensive guard.
Mike Iupati is entering a contract year, and the 49ers are going to have a hard time keeping him when they also have to re-sign Smith, Crabtree and Colin Kaepernick.
If Stanford's David Yankey or Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson is available, one of those should be the pick. Also, if the Niners aren't set on Daniel Kilgore starting at center, they could take USC's Marcus Martin as his backup. If none of the three are available, the Niners could always go with the best player available and consider taking a center or guard in the third round.
Select potential redshirt talent with one third-rounder (Easley, Thomas)
Wide receiver, cornerback, defensive tackle, outside linebacker and safety are all options in the third round.
At this point, I have the 49ers without their first third-rounder in the trade up for Fuller. This leaves San Francisco with pick Nos. 94 and 100.
With the first third-rounder, the Niners could target players with medical red flags. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted, Clemson tackle/guard Brandon Thomas and Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley fit the bill.
If Easley is available, this pick is a no-brainer. The Niners are in good shape on the defensive line this year with Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Tank Carradine, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddie, but the long-term future of Smith, McDonald and Dorsey is in doubt.
If the 49ers don't take an interior lineman with their second-rounder, Thomas might be the pick. Moving Thomas, a tackle in college, to guard is the same strategy San Francisco employed with Alex Boone. The results have been superb.
For this article, we'll say the Niners get lucky and end up with Easley. The raw DT could be a star under the tutelage of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.
Snag top linebacker available with other remaining third-rounder (Skov, Smallwood)
Ideally, the linebacker the Niners select in the draft will have some pass-rushing potential. Because once NaVorro Bowman, who is ahead of schedule, via Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle, in his recovery from ligament damage in his left knee, comes back, a linebacker will have a much better chance getting quality playing time on the outside.
Shayne Skov spent some time at Stanford lined up as an outside linebacker. He played most of his snaps at inside linebacker as a senior and recorded 5.5 sacks.
Connecticut's Yawin Smallwood had eight sacks in his last two seasons combined. He was also a terrific run defender, recording more than 100 tackles in his last two seasons.
Either would give the 49ers more depth at inside and outside linebacker.
Take top defensive back with fourth-rounder (Loston, Bailey)
A safety or cornerback would make sense in the fourth round.
Fuller, Brock, Culliver, Perrish Cox, Eric Wright and Chris Cook will be competing for spots on San Francisco's 53-man roster in training camp. As long as the Niners don't cut Culliver, they don't need to add another CB to the fold.
Safety isn't a big need, but the drop-off from Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid to the backups is pretty significant.
Strong safety Craig Loston, Reid's teammate at LSU, and Syracuse free safety Dion Bailey are not lacking any athleticism. They both have a reputation for big hits.
Either one could help out on special teams as a rookie and potentially take Bethea's spot a couple of years down the road if needed.
Rest of picks
I have the Niners trading their fifth-rounder to secure Martavis Bryant or Allen Robinson in the second round. If they don't lose this selection, I think picking a quarterback is in play.
The Niners watched San Jose State's David Fales and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas work out in March, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. Either could be the pick in Round 5 or Round 7.
As for San Francisco's two other seventh-rounders (assuming one of the three is a quarterback), it's all about providing competition at spots that need it. Once again, wide receivers and cornerbacks could be targeted.
The 49ers have to find a starting-caliber player at cornerback and a threat at wide receiver in the 2014 draft. The rest of the picks can be used for depth and future starting roles.
With Fuller, the Niners may finally have the shutdown corner they've been lacking. Just imagine how good San Francisco's defense would be with a cornerback of Richard Sherman's talent? Fuller may not reach that level, but he's destined to be a quality No. 1 CB.
With Bryant or Robinson, opposing teams would have all sorts of trouble matching up with the 49ers in three-wide receiver sets. And if the rookie receiver is an instant success, the Niners could let Crabtree walk and focus on Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Iupati extensions.
Trading up twice in the first two rounds isn't a common practice, but it's something the 49ers must consider to get the best player available at their two biggest positions of need.