Biggest Questions the San Francisco 49ers Must Answer over Draft Week
The San Francisco 49ers answered an important offseason question by exercising the 2015 contract option on Aldon Smith. This is a wise procedural move by the 49ers, as it ensures Smith will be under their control through 2015, however it does not obligate them to keep him.
ESPN.com reports that the 49ers now have until March of 2015 to make their final decision on Smith and his $9.75 million contract. The contract is only guaranteed if Smith sustains an injury in 2014 that affects his availability in 2015.
The 49ers can still cut or trade Smith anytime before March of next year, without being obligated to honor the contract. This enables San Francisco to see how Smith behaves over the next year and also enables the 49ers to see how Smith's legal situation unfolds.
With the draft coming up later this week, there are still several important questions the 49ers must answer. Let's take a closer look at five of the most important decisions the 49ers and general manager Trent Baalke must make.
Question No. 1: What Is the 49ers' Biggest Need in the Draft?
The San Francisco 49ers have some needs they must address in the upcoming draft, but the two most important are a starting cornerback and a wide receiver with speed.
With their first pick in 2013, GM Trent Baalke traded up to get Eric Reid. This was an excellent move, and Reid looks like an impact safety who will be prowling the 49ers' secondary for the next decade.
The 49ers are extremely thin at cornerback and as much as it would be nice to have a game-breaker at wide receiver, cornerback is the primary need.
The 49ers lost starting corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in free agency. In addition, Chris Culliver is coming off an ACL injury that cost him the entire 2013 season. There's no telling how Culliver's knee will hold up or if he will have the same speed and explosiveness.
Culliver's also dealing with legal issues stemming from an arrest this spring and a suspension could be forthcoming.
The 49ers' other cornerbacks, Eric Wright and Perrish Cox are ideally suited as nickel or dime backs, not starting corners.
Former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook signed with San Francisco as a free agent. However, Cook was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league last year and needs to improve substantially before he can be considered a starting option.
Youngsters Darryl Morris and Dax Swanson are totally unproven.
Tramaine Brock is the only proven starter at cornerback the the 49ers' roster that doesn't have any questions surrounding him.
With the emphasis on passing offenses in recent years, a good team needs four solid cornerbacks, plus a couple more role players. Injuries are also a factor, so it is imperative that Baalke and the 49ers fortify the cornerback position.
Question No. 2: Can the 49ers Get the Impact Cornerback They Need?
There are several good cornerbacks available in this draft. However, the two that stand apart from the rest are Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard.
The 49ers will undoubtedly need to trade up to secure one of these two players. Gilbert is a tremendous athlete with excellent speed. He ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine. He has virtually unlimited upside based on his athleticism.
NFL.com reports that Gilbert, who played his college ball at Oklahoma State, is a top-15 pick and is the most talented cover corner in the draft.
Dennard is the more polished of the two players, although he is not quite as athletic as Gilbert. Still, the former Michigan State Spartan is a smart, gifted player, a strong tackler and excellent press-man corner.
NFL.com reports that Dennard "brings intensity, confidence and competitiveness to the corner." Dennard had an outstanding senior year at Michigan State. He won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top collegiate defensive back in the country.
It is imperative that Baalke trade up to select either Gilbert or Dennard.
If the Niners stand pat with the 30th overall pick, the players who could be available include Kyle Fuller, Jason Verrett and Bradley Roby.
These are all good players, but each has a longer way to go to be a surefire NFL starting cornerback. There are also some injury concerns, especially for the undersized Verrett.
Question No. 3: Will the 49ers Select a Wide Receiver in Round 2?
Heading into the 2014 season, the 49ers have Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin locked into the starting lineup at wide receiver.
Behind these two, Quinton Patton and Brandon Lloyd will battle for the third receiver spot. Kassim Osgood should make the team based on his outstanding play on special teams. And, Jon Baldwin, who did little to impress in 2013, also will battle for a roster spot.
If the 49ers trade up to get a top cornerback, they will likely lose their own first-round pick, plus the early second-rounder, number 56 overall. That drops them back to the 61st overall selection, but there should still be plenty of talent available in a very deep wide receiver class.
In addition, with three third-round picks, the 49ers could also leverage one or two of those to move up again.
The top receivers, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks are not likely to last until Round 2.
The 49ers could be looking at Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams, Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson or Martavis Bryant.
Benjamin is an intriguing prospect. He has excellent size at 6'5" and 240 pounds. He just finished his sophomore year and may need a year or two to develop.
Adams has been flying a little under the radar. However, the Fresno State prospect has good hands, runs good routes and simply produces. The only knock on Adams is that he lacks elite-level speed. In his two seasons as a Bulldog, Adams caught 233 passes, for 3,031 yards and 38 touchdowns. He is also a Bay Area kid, having grown up only a few miles from the 49ers' new stadium.
It would be a wise move for the 49ers to fortify the wide receiver position in this draft. Crabtree will be a free agent following the 2014 season, and Boldin will turn 34 in October.
Question No. 4: What Is the Plan If Aldon Smith Is Suspended?
Aldon Smith is mired in legal problems and there is a strong chance he gets suspended by the NFL. There is also the possibility that Smith could also be jailed.
The 49ers need a contingency plan to move forward if Smith is out for an extended period of time. It is possible that GM Trent Baalke will select an outside linebacker in the upcoming draft.
Adding a pass-rushing linebacker in the draft also gives Baalke and the 49ers some insurance in the event they decide to trade or waive Smith.
However, in 2013 when Smith was in a rehab center for substance abuse problems, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier proved that they can handle the job. The two linebackers complement each other quite well. Last year, he veteran Skuta played more in the base defense, while Lemonier played more on obvious passing downs.
Question No. 5: After CB and WR, What Is the Next Key Position to Fortify?
It is almost a given that cornerback and wide receiver are the two biggest areas the 49ers must focus on in the upcoming draft.
However, there are other needs that should be fortified. Strong safety, center and defensive end are also areas of concern for Baalke and the 49ers front office.
The 49ers lost strong safety Donte Whitner and replaced him with Antoine Bethea, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. However, the 30-year-old Bethea is coming off a mediocre year, and his age means his upside is fairly limited.
In addition to strong safety, the 49ers can use a center. Jonathan Goodwin was not retained due to his age and high salary. The 49ers will give reserve lineman Daniel Kilgore the first chance to win the job. Nevertheless, Kilgore could face competition, depending on whether or not Baalke is targeting an interior lineman in the draft.
The other area of concern is along the defensive front. Justin Smith is still very good, but he will be 35 years of age in late September. The other starting defensive end, Ray McDonald, will turn 30 at the start of the season. Second-year end Tank Carradine missed all of his rookie season because of a knee injury. He's back and will be counted on to spell Smith and McDonald from time to time.
After the 49ers take their cornerback and wide receiver, what they do next will have a major impact. Based on the current state of the 49ers roster, it is my belief that they should select a strong safety to bolster that area of weakness.
Deone Bucannon out of Washington State would be an excellent selection at that position. If the 49ers can get him in Round 3, what would be ideal. However, they may need to trade up into the mid-to-late second round to get Bucannon.
The bottom line is the 49ers' 2014 draft is be extremely important. Baalke must focus on bringing in as many impact players as possible.