The 2017 NCAAF season fully gets going this weekend, which means the 49ers scouting department’s season also starts.
As the team continues its rebuild for the future, they’ll be looking to have as impactful a first-round next year as they had in 2017. And they have the means to do it. The 49ers have six draft picks in the first four rounds, including two seconds and two thirds. If they see a franchise player they must have, the expectation now is that Paraag Marathe will be on the phone. So, nobody is off limits.
The following is a list of projected 2018 first-round talents that could be on the 49ers’ radar this college season. Mind you, these are just a handful of names that will be the topic of many conversations behind closed doors in Santa Clara, but they’re all likely candidates for the team’s first-round draft choice next year.
This list largely takes into account the 49ers’ glaring holes on the roster and the importance of the positions in which they need to address.
Derwin James, S, FSU
James is a superstar at the safety position. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, he’s a leader and All-American at FSU now, and he looks like a top-end first-rounder with All-Pro upside at the next level. James is everything you want in a safety.
To paint a picture, he is a long 6-foot-3, 220-pound defensive back that has linebacker presence but an ability to cover ground and make plays on the ball. He’s a freak athlete that knows how to play the game, which is why he is the No. 1 player in the country, according to Sports Illustrated. If Jimmie Ward can’t stay healthy or perform in a single-high role this year, or both, James could be the main target of the draft for the 49ers in 2018 due to how essential the deep safety is in Robert Saleh's defense.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Most are quick to be dismissive of the idea of Jackson being the quarterback for Kyle Shanahan—some even scoff and say he’s in fact not a QB at the next level, he’s a receiver. But the reason Jackson should be included here is because he’s actually a very smooth thrower. While he has room to grow, he’s a player that’s had many amazing passes, shown incredible competitiveness and won games with his arm. That’s quarterbacking. The fact that he can run and cut like that distracts people, and it's a trait that stereotypes him.
But if he continues to ascend as a passer, he has a chance to be remarkable, making a potential pairing between Jackson and Shanahan a scary thought for teams around the league, starting with the NFC West.
Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
Sutton is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound true No. 1 receiver, one who racked up 76 receptions for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. His talent and that season made him a top 15 prospect in last year’s draft, a scout told Bleacher Report. Think DaVante Parker plus an inch. The 49ers haven’t had a player like this. Pierre Garcon, while good, will be 32 years old next season, and other than him, the 49ers are very undersized and without a cornerstone at any offensive skill position.
Sutton would immediately give San Francisco’s passing game an identity and provide a big-time weapon for Shanahan.
Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
General manager John Lynch has repeatedly said the 49ers are actively searching for a “franchise quarterback,” and it’s possible they see one in Allen. He’s got the makeup and could really develop into something under Shanahan’s tutelage. Allen stands tall in the pocket at 6-foot-5, 233 pounds. He possesses a cannon of an arm, he’s athletic, he has a competitive style, he has experience in a pro-style offense, but has accuracy issues, is undisciplined and takes risks. If he pans out, Allen could be a stud in the NFL.
His ceiling weighed against that of Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard, and it’s entirely possible Shanahan makes Allen his project and potential QB of the future. And on Wednesday we learned Allen’s dream team is the 49ers. “I grew up a Niners fan . . . so it would be easy for my family to commute there,” the Wyoming product said on Adam Schefter’s podcast. “Obviously, they have a long, storied tradition of great quarterbacks. It’s my favorite team, man. It’d be kind of a dream come true to play for them.”
Connor Williams, OT, Texas
The Consensus All-American tackle is one of the best offensive linemen in college today, and is likely the first or second one off the board in 2018. While he’s an offensive tackle, and not an interior lineman, which the 49ers greatly need, depending where they are in the first round, Williams may be too good to pass up. And the team’s future is unclear at the position with Joe Staley, 33, and a talented but inconsistent Trent Brown. In reconstruction of the offense, they could use the best building block they can find for the O-line, period. Williams is elite, and should continue to dominate in 2017.
Tarvarus McFadden, CB, FSU
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound corner is hands down one of the best players in the nation—and not only athletically, but from a production standpoint. McFadden recorded an NCAA-high eight interceptions in 2016, and backed that up 14 passes defensed. The Seminole likely becomes an All-American and consensus first-round pick after this season.
While the 49ers have Rashard Robinson in place as their top cover man, and now a promising CB2 in rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, they don’t really know what they have in either. Their seasons could impact how much value Lynch and the front office place on the cornerback position in 2018. Another train of thought is you can never have enough great corners. And with this front seven in tip-top shape, sinking a first-round pick into the secondary could be what brings this defense back to elite standing.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Ahh, Rosen. Well it was a given that’d he’d be on this list. People have been bowing down to the Bruins quarterback like Wayne and Garth since Rosen’s freshman year. That season he completed 60 percent of his passes, threw for 3,669 yards, 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The following season was cut six games short due to injury. But he’s back, and he could be primed for a big year.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said the 6-foot-4, 200-pound quarterback has “the purest throwing motion I’ve seen in a long time.”
Rosen could come in ready to play, and under Shanahan, reasonably be groomed into a top-10 or 15 quarterback. With a QB like that on board to complement an up-and-coming defense, the 49ers could soon bloom into a regular contender.
Editor's note: The most likely player as of now to go No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft appears to be USC quarterback Sam Darnold. He was omitted from the list because the 49ers are not likely to out-tank the Jets, or even Browns, which could prevent San Francisco from acquiring him.
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