Free agency was seized by the 49ers as the club landed its top two priorities in athletic center Weston Richburg and do-it-all running back Jerick McKinnon, both big upgrades for the offense. Even before legal tampering opened up, the team was also able to court and sign All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who was released by Seattle.
With these transactions by John Lynch, some of the team's needs in the upcoming 2018 draft changed, while others were reaffirmed.
Based on the signings, as well as their remaining needs and the makeup of this draft class, we were able to put a mock board together projecting who the 49ers benefit from most in the first round.
5. Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia
Athleticism and scheme compatibility may put Wynn high on Shanahan’s wish list, and thus high on the 49ers’ board. What Wynn showed at the Senior Bowl was he has some of the best footwork of any offensive lineman in this draft. It’s one reason he was so successful running inside and outside zone for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, concepts that are heavily rooted in Shanahan’s offense. Guard also remains a top position of need with the Niners not being in on one in free agency, and Wynn looks like a special one.
So, there’s a package of first-round talent, team need and player fit. They're very compatible. And while a bit high for No. 9, Wynn could be a trade-back option for the 49ers, and a fixture on the O-line as Joe Staley puts the finishing touches on his career.
4. Derwin James, S, Florida State
Though safety is not a need, James sneaks into the top five as a best player available, and one that is tailor made for the 49ers' defense. He is elite, versatile, rare, and a perfect fit for the box safety role in Robert Saleh’s scheme that, with the seeming departure of Eric Reid, only has talented yet oft-injured Jaquiski Tartt on the depth chart. If added at No. 9 overall, James would instantly be the 49ers’ best pass rusher, and fills in as a heat-seeking tackler in the potential absence of Reuben Foster. When he's on his game, he’s a defender that looks inescapable.
Because James is elite, a fit and a defensive centerpiece, this is not out of the question.
3. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
The 49ers have a potentially great CB pairing, but of them, one is entering his 30’s and the other only has nine career starts. Ward is likely to be among the best, if not thee best player on the board at No. 9 overall. And with CB being a position that can improve now and use a succession plan post-Sherman, this pick makes sense. Ward is one of the few blue-chip prospects in 2018, and one that could come in as a versatile player who can man the boundary and the slot, working mostly inside before transitioning into a full-time role outside once Sherman's run in San Francisco is up.
2. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
Denzel Ward could easily be No. 2 on the board here, but Smith gets the edge because this is a deeper class for corners than it is for linebackers; the 49ers already added Sherman and have Ahkello Witherspoon; and because linebacker is a more at-risk position heading into 2018 with the circumstances surrounding Reuben Foster. Adding the Butkus Award winner from Georgia would ensure the 49ers have a general in the middle of the defense no matter what happens, and it positions them to potentially have an elite linebacking corps for the next half decade.
1. Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame
Nelson is here and not Bradley Chubb due to the way NFL teams value EDGE vs. interior OL. It seems more likely that Chubb is scooped up amidst the early run on quarterbacks, and Nelson winds up as the one that falls. If so, imagine the Notre Dame mauler wedged between Joe Staley and Weston Richburg, paving the way for new RB1 Jerick McKinnon. That unit alone could power a productive offense, so it would be a heck of a way to complement Jimmy Garoppolo.
This pick also makes sense as Garoppolo needs a long-term protector and bodyguard, especially when he’s seeing Aaron Donald at least twice a year. Keeping the QB healthy and upright is a top priority, or else they're back to square one. Nelson brings attitude, insurance to the franchise, a pocket for the quarterback, and perhaps an unparalleled rushing attack and screen game.
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