The 2018 NFL Draft is approaching and the 49ers still have holes to fill. Mock drafts have had the 49ers taking many players for different reasons. From Derwin James to Roquan Smith, Denzel Ward to Tremaine Edmunds. Here, I’ll list my top-five big board players that may be there for the 49ers at No. 9, and I’ll explain why they are a fit.
As an added bonus, I will list guys I’d draft in the following rounds, so you can get a clear idea of the overall strategy and thinking.
5. Derwin James – Safety, Florida State
A safety? Yes. Derwin James is a versatile, impact defensive back. The 49ers do have Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert, who are both very talented safeties, but pairing James can make the 49ers defense that much more dangerous. In base situations you can have James play the slot position near the line of scrimmage. He’s good against the run, pass and can blitz. In nickel and dime situations, you can play James at the weak side linebacker opposite Reuben Foster – a huge upgrade over Brock Coyle in those situations. James instantly adds a playmaker and improves the overall talent of the 49ers defense.
Pick 59 - Anthony Miller – WR Memphis
Pick 70 - Darius Leonard – ILB South Carolina State
Pick 74 - Anthony Averett – CB Alabama
4. Denzel Ward – Cornerback, Ohio State
In the third round of the 2017 draft, the 49ers added 6-foot-3 cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who finished his rookie season on a strong note. When the off-season came, they were aggressive signing Richard Sherman to pair him with Witherspoon. But Sherman is coming off of two Achilles procedures. And that, plus his contract, leaves most thinking that both he and the 49ers are a tad bit concerned. Sherman isn’t expected to join the team until training camp and that’s if he can pass his physical.
The insurance plan and ultimate long-term solution to pairing someone with Witherspoon is in the draft. Denzel Ward doesn’t check all the boxes as far as the typical height and weight for the Robert Saleh defense, but at 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, and a 4.32 to go with, Ward has all the tools to be a shutdown corner. With his versatility to play inside, outside and any coverage, he’d be a great short- and long-term plan for the 49ers.
Pick 59 - Ronald Jones – RB USC
Pick 70 - Oren Burke – ILB Vanderbilt
Pick 74 - Colby Gossett – G Appalachian State
3. Harold Landry – Edge, Boston College
Tied for 26th in the NFL with 30 sacks, the 49ers have been one of the worst in the league at getting opposing quarterbacks to the ground. 34-year-old Elvis Dumervil led all 49ers in sacks in 2017. That’s not good. The 49ers have added interior rushers the past three drafts. An experiment with Arik Armstead at Leo ended with him being placed on injured reserve after 1.5 sacks in six games. DeForest Buckner has been able to get solid pressure up the middle, but his efforts have mostly gone unnoticed with nobody screaming off the edge.
That’s where Harold Landry comes in.
Landry in 2016 collected 16.5 sacks. An injury-plagued 2017 season had his production way down, leaving most to question his worth. Experts say he needs to develop more pass rush moves but if the 49ers can add an elite rusher with his type of bend coming off of the edge, former first-round picks Buckner and Solomon Thomas should reap the benefits of that.
Pick 59 - DJ Moore – WR Maryland
Pick 70 - Sean Welsh – G Iowa
Pick 74 - Kevin Toliver – CB LSU
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick – Defensive Back, Alabama
Is he a safety? Is he a cornerback? Is he a linebacker? Fitzpatrick is whatever you need him to play, and does it all at a high level. Fitzpatrick comes from a similar scheme, mainly playing the “star” position (slot) for Alabama. He spent time at cornerback and safety, as well. He does a lot of the same things that James does but is more of a cover guy where James is more of an enforcer, a la Kam Chancellor.
Adding Fitzpatrick gives the 49ers a terrific cornerback on the outside – and when Richard Sherman returns, a great slot that stays on the field in base situations, and one who’s a playmaker. And right now, the 49ers need as many of those as possible.
Pick 59 - Leighton Vander Esch – ILB Boise State
Pick 70 - Frank Ragnow – G Arkansas
Pick 74 - Dorance Armstrong – Edge Kansas
1. Quenton Nelson – Guard, Notre Dame
This is obvious. He’s arguably the best player in the draft and the 49ers have struggled to solidify the interior of the offensive line. With Pro Bowler Joe Staley and Trent Brown on the outsides, the 49ers looked to add Shanahan-scheme-fit guys to the interior. They started by signing top center Weston Richburg to a big contract during the free agency period. They also added Jonathan Cooper. But with the depth of defensive linemen in the NFC West, that won’t be enough. So Nelson makes the most sense.
He's bigger than the typical Shanahan-scheme-fit guard, but still very athletic. He has a mean streak too. He finishes his blocks and has no issues reaching the next level. The 49ers just gave Jimmy Garoppolo $74 million dollars guaranteed, so protecting him should be the top priority. This applies not just in the passing game, but running game as well, where the 49ers struggled. Adding a guard of Nelson’s talent instantly makes this 49ers offense better.
Pick 59 - Carlton Davis – CB Auburn
Pick 70 - Jerome Baker – OLB Ohio State
Pick 74 - Josh Sweat – Edge Florida State
Which scenario do you find most fitting? Tell us in the comments and on Twitter.
Media courtesy San Francisco 49ers, USA Today Sports Images