Ranking the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Needs to Address in the 2014 NFL Draft
As each day of the offseason passes, the needs of the once-draft-rich and roster-flush San Francisco 49ers seem to grow.
Off-the-field actions and telltale signs provided by the team's transaction wire have painted a picture of what general manager Trent Baalke might be prioritizing in this year's NFL draft. There are clear holes, as well as positions that can clearly be enhanced by a talented prospect. But at this point, we find ourselves asking which spots will take precedence over others.
The following will provide a rundown of San Francisco's draft needs, counting down to its No. 1 priority in May.
No. 5: Interior Offensive Line
As soon as the new league year began, the 49ers reshuffled the offensive line company, from the starters to the backups. Most notably, Jonathan Goodwin, the starting center of the last three years, saw his contract expire. There has been no contact between him and the team since.
All the while, Daniel Kilgore, the 2011 fifth-round pick and versatile backup, received a contract extension that would put him in position to stay on the roster and compete for a starting job at center. And while this is a promising strategy by the 49ers front office, there are a lot of uncertainties.
Things happen in football. Players don’t work out and injuries occur.
Honestly, if either were to happen with San Francisco in regard to Kilgore, it’d be in quite a bind. The 49ers urgently need a contingency plan, which is why another highly rated guard/center should be in play in this draft. It is a position they have to address, especially with the uncertain future of Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati, who is entering a contract year.
No. 4: Safety
Over the past two offseasons—this one and last—the 49ers have been in a position to completely retool the defensive backfield. Most notably, they’ve had to replace not one, but two All-Pro safeties that followed the money in free agency once their contracts were up.
On the bright side, the new regime has been able to identify and hand-pick its safeties of the future.
Last year, when LSU’s All-American thumper Eric Reid supplanted Dashon Goldson, it turned out to be an upgrade. The same might prove true as the 49ers seek out a successor for Donte Whitner. They did bring in two-time Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea, but he is a run-of-the-mill player—one nearly the same age as Whitner (28) who could also lose his gig to a talented rookie.
With that being the case, the 49ers should make Bethea earn it.
It’s likely they target a player like Deone Bucannon of Washington State or Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois to push the wily old vet in training camp. Frankly, the 49ers sort of need outstanding safety play in a passing league, especially when they run into all those dynamic aerial teams in the playoffs every year.
No. 3: Wide Receiver
Entering the offseason, this was perhaps the No. 1 position the 49ers would be targeting in the 2014 draft. It was going to be a luxury more than anything. They had the flexibility to go after a blue-chip receiver in an attempt to become a more dynamic scoring unit, which would complete a heady defense.
Unfortunately, this position has taken a back seat with all the offseason activities.
But even still, they have Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin who, barring unforeseen circumstances, will play a full season together as the No. 1 and No. 2 WRs. Behind them is the tantalizing Quinton Patton, who many draft experts believed had starting ability once he arrived on the NFL scene.
If they can all stay healthy, this is a strong top three. Not to mention, the 49ers just added veteran wideout Brandon Lloyd to compete.
In all likelihood, San Francisco will still target a receiver in the early rounds of the draft. Round 1 is still a possibility too, but it seems like less of a sure thing. In a deep class, the organization may just decide to stock up on a couple low- to mid-round prospects with complementary skill sets and big upside.
After all, they’ve got time to develop players with a corps of wideouts in place, at least for 2014.
No. 2: Outside Linebacker
This wasn’t even in San Francisco’s top five needs when the offseason began.
The club had two outstanding starters, with a gifted pass-rush specialist behind them, as well as an overachieving veteran special teamer. However, things do change, even in the offseason, and outside linebacker has now skyrocketed to the top of the list. Reports have circulated that All-Pro sack artist Aldon Smith will not play in 2014 due to accumulating legal matters.
Added to that, the 49ers’ possible deferral of his fifth-year option may also reveal the team’s intentions for the long term, according to CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco. The beat reporter told 95.7 The Game that if San Francisco passes, it may show they’re through.
They can’t depend on him off the field, and they’ll be prepared to move on.
Moreover, Maiocco said that he’d expect the 49ers to use one of the six picks they have in the top 100 on a rush linebacker. Possibilities include Auburn’s Dee Ford, Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence and Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, to name a few. As you can tell, they have options.
No. 1: Cornerback
The dire need for cornerback is 100 percent set in stone.
It would take even more extreme circumstances than the ones we’ve seen this offseason for that to change, which is not likely unless there’s a “Sharknado” that hits the Bay Area before training camp, taking quarterback Colin Kaepernick and tackle Joe Staley with it.
At cornerback, former starters Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are gone, now cast in silver and black across the bridge. On top of that, the man they were depending on, Chris Culliver, also finds himself tied up in some legal matters. This is a complete mess filled with uncertainty and risk.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock, who started less than a full season last year, is the only familiar name ready to go for sure. That being the case, the 49ers could stand to add up to three corners in this coming NFL draft—and maybe a fourth if they decide to take on an injured prospect like Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin.