The 49ers’ draft position in 2018 has changed. They’ve been winning games with new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and are no longer a sure thing for a top-3 or even top-5 pick. And, most people could agree, this back-end season success and where it's stemming from is worth the slight drop.
Right now, their first pick in the draft is No. 3 overall, but with the Titans, Jaguars and Rams left, that could change.
So, with the variable change in the draft and the variable change at quarterback, there is a different way to evaluate how the 49ers build from here. Now that we’ve seen what the team looks like and can look like with Garoppolo under center, we can better understand what it needs to take yet another leap next year.
Using B/R analyst Matt Miller’s updated and very early rankings as of mid-December, I’ve assembled a seven-round mock that was actually simulated on Fanspeak. The picks are based on recent developments, team needs, and taking the best player available at the time.
Round 1, Pick 3: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
The Niners desperately need a quality guard, and Nelson just happens to be among the best lineman in the draft, on offense or defense. He's a rare top-5 player at an increasingly important position. The 49ers would basically have the boulder from Indiana Jones with Kyle Shanahan controlling it with a joystick from the sideline. He protects the franchise, No. 10, and would take the run game to another level. To me, no player in the draft impacts the 49ers’ offense the way Nelson would, making him top-5 worthy.
Round 2, Pick 26: Hercules Mata’afa, EDGE, Washington State
He’s going to be a riser, and may land in the top 20, but with him being there in Round 2, this was easily the best pick for the 49ers. The defense is in dire need of some outside pass rush, and Mata’afa is perhaps the fastest, most explosive and most violent defensive lineman in the draft. And the production is there. Over three years with the Cougars, he racked up 44.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks, with 9.5 of those sacks coming in 2017. At long last, Robert Saleh gets the Leo he needs to put the finishing touches on this defense. And similar to the pick before him, Mata’afa’s presence will do wonders for other players on his side of the ball.
Round 3, Pick 3: Dante Pettis, WR, Washington
Pettis is an established receiver, and his offensive style reminds me of a slightly shorter Jordy Nelson. He possesses savvy route running ability and good body control, he makes a lot of really athletic grabs, and does damage after the catch. As a rookie, Pettis could play all the receiver spots, and grow into a WR1 with Garoppolo, providing a potential successor to Pierre Garçon. And added to which, Pettis brings explosiveness to the return game, having brought back nine punts for touchdowns over his U-Dub career.
Round 3, Pick 8: Josh Sweat, EDGE, Florida State
When it comes to EDGE talent, the 49ers are bare on both sides. They’ve been relying heavily on 33-year-old Elvis Dumervil, who has been playing well, but won’t be around forever. That said, it makes sense to take a second outside defender with the ceiling to be a primary point of pass rush – that’s Sweat. The FSU pass-rusher has first-round ability, but with his meniscus injury and the talent in this class, he’s likely to tumble. If available, he could be a steal at this spot, as Sweat would round out a line with Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner and Mata’afa. The 49ers potentially create a top-3 defensive line here.
Round 4, Pick 32: Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
I'll just come out and say it: Wadley reminds me of Shady. He is one of the better movers and shakers at the tailback position in this draft. And Wadley has been using that style to produce in a conference with some tough defenses. He's racked up 2,746 all-purpose yards and 25 total touchdowns in the Big 10 over the past two seasons as Iowa's featured back. It speaks well to his potential at the NFL level. Wadley could be a great complement or even replacement for Carlos Hyde.
Round 5, Pick 10: D.J. Reed, CB, Kansas State
In the fifth round, the 49ers land an All-Big 12 and All-American cornerback in Reed. He is a playmaker type in the secondary, having picked off seven passes over his sophomore and junior seasons at Kansas State. He'd bring an element that's been missing from the 49ers defense. They could also count on him to engage ball carriers and help in run support, as Reed tallied a whopping 121 tackles over his last two seasons. But at 5-foot-9, 188 pounds, he may be best suited as a nickel, a position he can thrive in.
Round 6, Pick 3: Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State
There was an opportunity to grab another offensive lineman here, particularly a center, but it was too hard to pass on James, who if he is still somehow here in the sixth round, would be a no-brainer. He is an out-of-this-world playmaker with great speed, cut-ability (that also translates into slick route running), and some decent high-pointing skills. Being a 5-foot-9, 176-pound small school product is the reason he may be available here, though. Still, all Shanahan needs is traits, and Garoppolo has shown he can spread the ball around. James could be dynamic in San Francisco.
Round 7, Pick 3: Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia
Wynn was named a second-team All-American and first-team All-SEC by AP, and even selected to Pro Football Focus’ All-SEC first-team, for what it’s worth. He played left tackle in his final season, and Georgia went on a tear with him in that spot, winning 12 of 13 games. Wynn was a bright spot on a unit that dominated the line of scrimmage. Over his career, he started in 38 games at both tackle and guard, so he's versatile, and it's clear he was always one of Georgia's best linemen. At 6-foot-2, 299 pounds, Wynn projects as a swing tackle or even a potential starting guard for the 49ers.
Round 7, Pick 25: Garret Dooley, LB, Wisconsin
Linebackers are always good bets in the late, late moments of the NFL draft. There is always a chance they find a niche on special teams, and maybe develop into a solid backup, or even more. Dooley played solid football for Wisconsin, racking up 78 tackles and 9.5 sacks over his final two seasons, with 6.0 of those sacks coming in 2017. The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder could conceivably come in, have a competitive camp, and earn a roster spot.
Media courtesy South Bend Tribune, Getty Images, FSU Athletics, AP Images, K-State Collegian, John Paul Van Wert, State Journal