San Francisco 49ers: Reassessing Draft Needs After First Wave of Free Agency
Unlike their actions in previous seasons, the San Francisco 49ers decided to get heavily active in free agency this offseason.
San Francisco's actions will certainly affect how general manager Trent Baalke approaches the 2015 NFL Draft. Additions like defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson help alleviate some of the pressing needs the 49ers had entering the new year.
But are these free-agent transactions enough to truly alter Baalke's strategy?
The 49ers will be armed with nine picks in the upcoming draft. Two of these are compensatory given the net loss of free agents a year ago. Overall, San Francisco holds the No. 15 pick in the draft and can still make a run at a key first-round player that it had on its draft board prior to free agency.
We will have to see if that's the case.
What are the 49ers' most pressing draft needs now that they have been able to add some impact talent? How will some free-agent departures affect what San Francisco will have to do?
No. 7: Backup Quarterback
San Francisco inked last season's No. 2 quarterback Blaine Gabbert to a two-year, $2 million contract.
The move essentially keeps the tandem of Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick continuous throughout 2015. So, why would there be a push to draft another quarterback?
There are some possible reasons behind this.
For starters, the 2015 quarterback class is awfully thin. It would be a worrisome thought if Kaepernick were injured and the 49ers were forced to throw in some seventh-round developmental protege.
Signing Blaine Gabbert to a deal on the first day of the new league year is a pretty big indictment of the QB market. Draft class, too.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) March 11, 2015
Gabbert will, at least, bring some continuity to the lineup.
Yet, this doesn't mean the 49ers should avoid another quarterback altogether.
A late-round flier at this position might be exactly what San Francisco needs. It would provide some added competition and some incentive for Kaepernick to ensure his role with the team as his contract continues to escalate beyond 2015.
No. 6: Tight End
The days of a one-two punch with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are a distant memory now.
Davis' production in 2014, or lack thereof, warrants enough concern on its own. The 30-year-old veteran posted the worst numbers since his 2006 rookie campaign and could very well be starting the downhill slide of his career.
Or he could rebound nicely.
It's a gamble the 49ers are willing to take after Davis survived notions that he could be a cap casualty given his lofty $6.967 cap hit in 2015.
Still, the 49ers don't exactly have a lot of amicable options behind Davis. Two-year veteran Vance McDonald has emerged as little more than an effective blocker so far.
The team did re-sign backup tight ends Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier to one- and two-year deals, respectively.
@4949centennial they just signed celek and carrier to new extensions. Will be a camp battle between those two and macdonald— Jay (@JayMoore52) March 9, 2015
Yet, these don't exactly seem to be long-term solutions to this potential problem.
Like the quarterback position, there isn't a lot of tight end depth to this year's draft class. Still, it wouldn't be a bad idea to prompt some additional competition at this position, which would provide insurance in case Davis' struggles continue and the incumbent backups don't amount to much.
No. 5: Offensive Line
It was almost a foregone conclusion that starting left guard Mike Iupati was going to depart via free agency.
He's gone now, having signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
In Iupati's wake, the 49ers are prepared to start either offensive linemen Marcus Martin or Brandon Thomas (redshirted in 2014). Martin sliding over from center to guard makes sense given the pending return of center Daniel Kilgore after his gruesome leg injury in Week 7 of the 2014 season.
Both Martin and Thomas were highly regarded collegiate prospects a year ago. But, as is the nature of such a transition, there remains a possibility that neither pan out at the NFL level.
Further complicating this is the fact that right guard Alex Boone is entering a contract year. Barring a contract extension, he'll be a free agent in 2016. It's hard to envision the 49ers paying him top dollar after the veteran sat out of training camp a year ago.
So a need has emerged to potentially fill this critical position.
Louisville guard John Miller is one possibility that could be had in Round 3 per CBS Sports. The same could be said of Alabama's Arie Kouandjio.
Whatever the case may be, this is a need San Francisco should address sooner rather than later.
No. 4: Running Back
Running back Frank Gore is gone.
San Francisco now has a significant void in the featured-back position. The hope will be that second-year pro Carlos Hyde can emerge as the No. 1 back with fellow runner Kendall Hunter serving as his primary backup.
But there remains the possibility that neither Hyde nor Hunter emerge as the legitimate threat the 49ers will need in what will likely be a run-heavy offense.
Hyde did average 4.0 yards per carry last season. But, if he starts, Hyde will be subjected to a much more demanding role in Gore's wake. Adding another bona fide ground threat would be a smart move for general manager Trent Baalke.
Thankfully, this year's draft class at running back is deep. There are a number of mid- and late-round options that could make up the difference and provide some different looks out of the backfield.
Prospect backs like T.J. Yeldon and David Cobb are both Round 3 options per CBS Sports, and the addition of either could be exactly what San Francisco needs as illustrated in the above video.
The 49ers will continue to rely on their running game barring a complete rethinking of their offensive approach under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst.
No. 3: Cornerback
The last three remaining needs could all vie for the No. 1 need in San Francisco this offseason. Perhaps general manager Trent Baalke will simply take the best player available when the 49ers' number is called?
Cornerback has emerged as a pressing need given the free-agent status of veteran defensive backs Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.
This tandem combined for nine interceptions in 2014 and helped the 49ers defense rank No. 5 in the league with just 3,531 passing yards allowed.
The retirement of linebacker Patrick Willis and the release of wide receiver Stevie Johnson creates a little more cap space in which the 49ers can work. Re-signing a player like Culliver wouldn't be out of the question.
But will it happen?
One note on Culliver - I wouldn't discount the 49ers interest in retaining him. Few CBs left on market. Could get interesting— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) March 12, 2015
Yet Baalke and the 49ers haven't shied away from tabbing defensive backs early in recent drafts. Safety Eric Reid was picked up in Round 1 of the 2013 draft. Fellow defensive back Jimmie Ward followed in the same round a year later.
Will San Francisco follow the same path again in 2015?
Let's assume the 49ers wait until Round 2 to target this need. A good fit would be Connecticut corner Byron Jones as described in the above video. CBS Sports lists him as a Day 2 target, and he could come to the 49ers with their second pick in the draft.
This need could be ranked higher. But one cannot overlook the pending return of a healthy Tramaine Brock along with promising young players like Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker to round out the cornerback position in 2015.
No. 2: Wide Receiver
Common speculation would have led most of us to believe that the 49ers would take one of the talented first-round wide receivers with their first pick in the draft.
This could still be the case.
But free-agent acquisitions have shifted this pressing need to an extent.
Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson were inked to new deals in San Francisco.
The need to add playmaking wideouts to the roster was apparent during last season. The 49ers didn't have speed on the outside. And veteran wideouts Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd were going to hit the free-agent market.
Additionally, the team parted ways with wide receiver Stevie Johnson given his hefty 2015 scheduled salary.
So, there was a need to find some upgrades here either via free agency or through the draft. Yet, adding Smith and Simpson doesn't necessarily solve everything.
First, 34-year-old veteran wideout Anquan Boldin is entering the final year of his two-year deal. It's hard to speculate whether or not he'll be back after this season. Second, Simpson has plenty of off-field issues that could make him little more than a training-camp experiment.
Despite Smith's five-year, $40 million deal, the 49ers could be looking for an impact, long-term addition at this position.
This could still happen in Round 1 with the No. 15 pick. Yet it's also feasible to see general manager Trent Baalke make his move on Day 2.
A player like Michigan's Devin Funchess could be a feasible Round 2 option. His 6'4", 232-pound frame is a likable attribute, and he would help solve some of the 49ers' red-zone woes.
No. 1: Defensive Line
Yes, the 49ers should go defense first in the 2015 NFL draft.
There is enough reasoning behind this thought. And the focus should be up front along the defensive line.
San Francisco could be on the verge of losing two critical defensive ends from its starting roster that began the 2014 season.
Defensive end Ray McDonald is long gone. And fellow DE Justin Smith is still pondering retirement per 49ers.com.
The 49ers do have some immediate options regardless of Smith's decision. Two-year veteran end Tank Carradine looked solid towards the end of last season when he finally started to receive regular playing time. He'll have a shot to start in head coach Jim Tomsula's defense this year.
San Francisco also signed veteran defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a two-year, $7.5 million contract. This also solidifies a unit that was rather beleaguered a season ago.
But Dockett is 33 years old and coming off a missed season in 2014 due to a knee injury. Can he replicate the performance that earned him so many accolades with the Arizona Cardinals? On top of that, will his age finally start to creep up on him?
He certainly isn't the long-term answer.
San Francisco has a long history of relying on its defensive line to create the necessary pressure up front. This negated much of the need to have an elite crop of cornerbacks, which is why that defensive back position isn't ranked higher.
We'll see if that continues under new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, but one cannot stress the importance of having a reputable defensive front.
The 49ers could have some enticing Round 1 targets to address this position. Kentucky defensive end Alvin Dupree is a talented pass-rusher. Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown is also an enticing possibility. And Brown has a more than worthy reputation off the field per CBS Sports.
Whoever the target may be, the 49ers have the need to get younger along the defensive line. Doing so will help them retain a necessary defensive dominance.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of OverTheCap unless notified otherwise. Supplementary draft information courtesy of CBS Sports.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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