The 49ers brass will have more than a few difficult decisions to make once the 2018 draft rolls around, ones that will inevitably be scrutinized by media and fans for years to come, especially if things go south.
As of now, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are still shaping the identity of this new team—their story isn't written yet and they want to get it right. And while momentum is in their favor, they have to hit on this draft to keep it going and capitalize on the new regime. In order to do this, they have to decide what they need most, who the best available players are, and what the best team-building strategy is, and then hope they're right.
Of course, they'll first address a handful of needs in the open market, ultimately narrowing the focus in the draft. But even now, it isn't hard to look at the team's performance, as well as what's set to be available in free agency, and gather which prospects may already be on the minds of Lynch, Shanahan and the scouting department.
With that said, the following ranks the top-five players the 49ers could select in the first round of the upcoming draft. This list comes down to one basic thought: which player most positively impacts this team the way that it is?
5. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Taking a running back in the top five or even top 10 is a little rich for my taste, especially in a class this chock full of talent. But the bottom line is the 49ers need offensive playmakers, and the Penn State product is one of this year’s best with the ball in his hands. If you’re picking a player you want to give touches to in the NFL with the hope of finding success, even if you’re starting from scratch as an offense, Barkley looks like a preferred choice.
He’s been a human highlight reel, displaying alpha genetics.
What the 49ers would be getting with Barkley is an ultra-talented player that can handle 30+ touches a game, as a rusher, receiver and returner. They haven’t had an offensive skill player or fear-inducing weapon they can lean on. He’d bring stability and fireworks to the offense, and the team could build around that, alleviating some of the pressure from Jimmy Garoppolo.
4. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Games are fought and won in the trenches, which helps to explain why the 49ers have just one win heading into December. The front five gets rolled every week—it’s easily the area most negatively affecting the team. Joe Staley aside, the offensive line cannot match up against any opposing front, consistently failing to protect their quarterback or make any kind of substantial impact in the run game. It's bad, and it needs to get fixed right away.
Enter Connor Williams, the All-American tackle from Texas.
A broad 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Williams comes readymade, looking like a franchise-caliber anchor any GM or coach could hope to mold their line around. He’s got it all; he’s big, he’s strong, he’s technique-driven and consistent. In San Francisco, he could slide in at guard right away, or even at right tackle, providing an upgrade over Trent Brown. Long-term, Williams would be the heir apparent to Staley at left tackle, who has left his mark on the 49ers and will be tough to replace.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
Versatility and an elite set of physical tools make Fitzpatrick one of the best defenders in the nation, and a contender for the Thorpe Award in 2017 as he wraps a nice career at Alabama. For teams looking for a fixture in the secondary, the consensus All-American DB checks all the boxes – he has the speed, length and quickness to cover, the size and strength to press and make tackles, and the coordination and hands to make plays on the ball. And he’s a highly instinctual player.
Fitzpatrick has All-Pro potential at two positions (CB and S), and can really play four for the 49ers (CB1, FS, box safety and nickel). Not to mention, he brings added value as a blitzer, which is an important wrinkle in Robert Saleh’s defense. If chosen, Fitzpatrick would ideally settle in as their single-high safety, though, using his combination of range and instincts to help the 49ers to solidify their backend.
2. Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State
It’s clear the 49ers are in desperate need of outside pass rush, and they’re unlikely to find it in free agency, no matter how much money they have. Unless Ezekiel Ansah or Demarcus Lawrence fall into their lap, this is a hole that’s going to have to be settled in the draft. The player that immediately comes to mind is Chubb, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year from N.C. State.
A 6-foot-4, 275-pound edge defender, he’s been an animal since he arrived in college, and he’s only gotten better. After breaking onto the scene with five sacks as a sophomore, Chubb has since posted back-to-back double-digit sack seasons for the Wolfpack, and also racked up 44 tackles for loss in that time, which was among the best in the NCAA. With his bend, strength and vast bag of tricks, he is a terror in the ways the league’s better pass rushers are.
Picturing him on the 49ers, Chubb would come in and put the finishing touches on a formidable line already made up of elite talents in DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, and yet still offering a complementary and much-need skill set. Right now, they have some semblance of a line, but they’re not dangerous yet. With Chubb, the 49ers can take that next step, and then everyone’s talents may be unleashed.
1. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
There isn’t a player more compatible with the 49ers’ needs than Nelson. And on top of that, he is an elite prospect, a rare guard that is garnering top-five consideration in the draft. This pick, to me, is staring them straight in the face, and could be as obvious a pairing between prospect and team as Eric Reid in 2013 or DeForest Buckner in 2016.
Their interior O-line situation is rough, and that's being kind. Laken Tomlinson has been as bad a left guard as there is in the NFL, and Daniel Kilgore just isn't cutting it at center. And now the 49ers have a potential face of the franchise they need to protect, in a division that houses Aaron Donald and an ensemble of Seahawks defensive linemen that puts games on their back.
From Day 1, Nelson can be the counter to that. He provides a clean pocket for the quarterback, and becomes a primary piece for Kyle Shanahan to engineer an effective run game behind.
Media courtesy 49ers, The Morning Call, Sports Illustrated, Getty Images, Icon Sportswire