That's particularly true if they select at least once in the first round.
Wide receiver might be the deepest position in the class, and the Niners could use another dynamic pass-catcher, especially with Michael Crabtree entering his contract year.
After losing two starters, cornerback is the team's biggest position of need. The last time the 49ers drafted a cornerback in the first round was 2002 (Mike Rumph). Will they break their recent trend of waiting on cornerbacks—like Tarell Brown (fifth round), Chris Culliver (third round) and Tramaine Brock (undrafted)—and take one in the first round?
With Aldon Smith under contract for two more seasons, the 49ers don't need a pass-rusher. However, they wouldn't mind a versatile linebacker with NaVorro Bowman destined to miss part of the 2014 season as he recovers from a torn ACL.
Here is San Francisco's first-round big board as I see it:
|1. Sammy Watkins||WR||Clemson||3|
|2. Mike Evans||WR||Texas A&M||8|
|3. Jadeveon Clowney||DE/OLB||South Carolina||2|
|4. Khalil Mack||OLB||Buffalo||5|
|5. Kyle Fuller||CB||Virginia Tech||18|
|6. Justin Gilbert||CB||Oklahoma State||7|
|7. Jason Verrett||CB||TCU||20|
|8. Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||LSU||17|
|9. Allen Robinson||WR||Penn State||61|
|10. Brandin Cooks||WR||Oregon State||31|
|11. Bradley Roby||CB||Ohio State||32|
|12. Darqueze Dennard||CB||Michigan State||23|
|13. Aaron Donald||DT||Pittsburgh||11|
|14. Ryan Shazier||LB||Ohio State||37|
|15. Eric Ebron||TE||North Carolina||13|
The first four players are universal top-10 picks. The Niners would have to trade a lot of their draft capital to get one of them.
Assuming San Francisco doesn't have a blockbuster trade ready, cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Justin Gilbert and Jason Verrett are the players to watch. Each would likely start from the get-go if drafted by the 49ers.
Due to his size (5'9", 189 lbs), Verrett would make his living as a slot corner, though he has the potential to play outside as well. Fuller and Gilbert are tall and athletic enough to play anywhere from day one.
On athleticism alone, Gilbert is the best player. When you factor in intangibles and effort, Fuller might trump him.
Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson or Brandin Cooks would be a fine first-round pick, but is there a big difference between those three and Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Davante Adams, Martavis Bryant, Cody Latimer, Donte Moncrief, Jordan Matthews and Paul Richardson? Maybe the 49ers think there is. If so, by all means they should trade up to get their guy.
I don't think there is a big difference in talent between the 11 receivers I just listed. However, I see a big difference between Fuller/Verrett and Day 2 corners such Lamarcus Joyner and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
So, if the 49ers move up, I believe they will do so to take a cornerback. If they stay put and all of the top cornerbacks are off the board, they can select a wide receiver or the best player available and target an under-the-radar defensive back in the second round.
Day 2 Targets
I'm on the Pierre Desir bandwagon.
The Division II star cornerback is worth a shot if the Niners don't grab a defensive back in the first round.
Other second-round targets are wide receiver Martavis Bryant, BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, USC center Marcus Martin and Washington State strong safety Deone Bucannon.
Antoine Bethea signed a four-year deal this offseason with the Niners, but the contract is structured in a way that suggests he will be cut a year or two before the contract is up. If drafted by the Niners, Bucannon would have at least two years to learn the position before getting starter's playing time.
If the 49ers aren't convinced that Daniel Kilgore can man the starting center job, they might as well take Martin, the consensus best center prospect in the class.
Day 3 Sleepers
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee recently put together a list of players who had an ACL injury in the last season that's hurt their draft stock.
Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin and Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas are two of the more intriguing names on the list.
If the 49ers are planning on not extending/re-signing Mike Iupati, Thomas would make lots of sense. He could sit out this year and be ready to compete for a starting job in 2015.
Colvin may have been an early round pick before suffering a knee injury at the Senior Bowl. He was named to the All-Big 12 first team in 2012 and 2013.
The Niners could also look for depth at the quarterback and running back positions. Watch out for Oregon running back/kick returner De'Anthony Thomas and Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas.
Final Mock Draft
|23rd Pick||Jason Verrett||CB||TCU||20|
|56th Pick||Martavis Bryant||WR||Clemson||67|
|61st Pick||Deone Bucannon||SS||Washington State||69|
|94th Pick||David Yankey||G||Stanford||106|
|100th Pick||Travis Swanson||C||Arkansas||123|
|129th Pick||De'Anthony Thomas||RB/KR||Oregon||149|
|170th Pick||Shayne Skov||LB||Stanford||160|
With Justin Gilbert and Kyle Fuller off the board, the Niners trade up for Jason Verrett. Knowing the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers are in the market for a cornerback, the Niners move just ahead of them by giving up the 30th and 77th picks for the 23rd pick.
The Kansas City Chiefs, who are likely to take a wide receiver, are more than happy to move down for more draft capital knowing they'll get a talented pass-catcher with the 30th pick. They also don't want to see Verrett with the Bengals or Chargers, two AFC contenders.
In the second round, the 49ers take Martavis Bryant. The Clemson pass-catcher's combination of size and speed would be perfect for the 49ers, who aren't asking their No. 3 wideout to be a possession receiver.
Bryant only had 61 receptions in his collegiate career. The risk is he'll never develop into a consistent producer. However, his deep-threat and red-zone abilities trump those of every other receiver available in the second round.
With their top two needs handled, the Niners draft safety insurance by selecting Deone Bucannon. He'll be an immediate special teams contributor. He also gives San Francisco another option if Antoine Bethea or Eric Reid sustains an injury.
San Francisco adds depth to its offensive line in the third round. David Yankey could be a replacement for either Mike Iupati or Alex Boone down the road. Travis Swanson would back up Daniel Kilgore.
If all these players were available, who should the 49ers take?
In need of a kick and punt returner, it only makes sense for the Niners to select De'Anthony Thomas. He's more natural doing both than LaMichael James, who would get traded for a future draft pick or cut if the Niners make this pick.
In the fifth round, Jim Harbaugh gets a player he watched dominate in person. Shayne Skov had 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles for Harbaugh's 2010 Stanford team. Skov's experience playing inside and out would be valuable with NaVorro Bowman (injured) and Aldon Smith (potential suspension) possibly missing the beginning of the season.
This leaves the 49ers with three seventh-round picks. One will likely be spent on a quarterback.