Outside of sharing on the live broadcast with Locked On 49ers or the post-draft talk on the 49ers Web Zone Podcast, I wanted to process the draft before giving any official impressions of the 2018 class.
Initial takes are reactionary and tend to be wrong. Having not been in the room with John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan for the last three-plus months, and without knowing the internal feelings of the 49ers front office and all the information they have, it’s tough to—within seconds—understand their exact reasoning for every pick.
Shock was built in to a lot of these selections. Some still don’t understand it. I tried to organize my thoughts in this guide.
The makeup and strategy
The 49ers in the 2018 draft, from my seat, added a real layer of immediate and long-term contributors in all three phases.
They reinforced the D-line and the secondary; they emphasized special teams, boosting their return game and kickoff coverage game to win field position; they invested in protection and weaponry for Jimmy Garoppolo; they kicked up the rushing attack; they added a starting linebacker; and they found potential heirs to Joe Staley, Richard Sherman and Pierre Garçon. It was a diverse draft, with some risky upside picks mixed in on defense, too.
But overall San Francisco might’ve come away with a Pro Bowl tackle, a WR1 for Garoppolo (and maybe the NFL’s next great return man), and the finishing pieces to its own “No Fly Zone.” If it works out like their first draft, this could be a very effective wave of new talent.
Questions (and answers)
Drafted multiple players who within the last calendar year incurred a season-ending injury.
With edge being a top need, ignored perceived top-ranked players Arden Key, Josh Sweat, Marcus Davenport and Harold Landry when they had multiple chances to take one of them.
Didn’t find an upgrade at guard over Laken Tomlinson/Jonathan Cooper or a safety net in case Josh Garnett doesn’t work out.
Tarvarius Moore in the third round, 95th overall, with the players on the board and given that the 49ers were already deep at safety. And if he’s converting to cornerback, which it sounds like Moore might be, it’s his beta position at the moment.
I didn’t think there were a lot of moves by the 49ers that could be justifiably questioned, or not answered by someone who could see the flipside of things. I dialed it down to these four head scratchers, and you could make sense of all of them.
They drafted Kentavius Street, who tore his ACL in a pre-draft workout, but it seems the 49ers could be giving Arik Armstead one more season after picking up his option. They’re deep on the line, and can afford to make this pick. It’s also 2018, so while ACL is a scary acronym to fans, Street should return from injury. And when he does, it could be a game-changing addition to the front seven, as Street was one of the freakier players in this draft.
The 49ers also drafted safety Marcell Harris, who is coming off an Achilles injury. The tear happened before the 2017 season, so he should be ready for camp. This also kept a good player on the rise under the radar, since he missed his final season at Florida. Harris was one of the hardest hitters in the SEC, and could be a special teams ace as soon as Week 1 of his rookie year. For a sixth-round pick, that’s actually great value. Realistically they couldn’t expect to get much else there.
With edge going unaddressed, reflect on Lynch and Shanahan’s first go-around in the 2017 draft. While the 49ers needed a QB at the time and entered with the No. 2 overall pick, they didn’t take Deshaun Watson or Mitchell Trubisky, and that worked out. Sometimes teams are built out of order. And if they didn’t love any of the Leo options in this draft long-term—as in they truly did not believe in one them, and didn't want to commit a pick versus what they already had in Cassius Marsh and others—then they shouldn’t have spent a pick just to spend a pick.
This reflected strength as a front office, internal belief in what they’re doing, and a three-dimensional way of building. Not to mention, Street has a chance to be "the guy" starting in 2019.
As for the guard situation, well, bummer. Either someone didn’t fall to them that they liked and/or they like Garnett’s 2018 prospects, and what could come out of a deep competition at camp between multiple name journeymen and host of 2017-18 UDFAs. Having a strong LT-C-RT situation should also mask lackluster guard play a bit.
Finally, Moore is a project at defensive back, but an incredibly gifted one at that, and he could very well emerge as a cornerstone for the 49ers. He's 6-foot-2 with 33-inch arms and ran a 4.32 at the Southern Miss Pro Day. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein had Moore as high as Round 2, so this also wasn't a reach for the 49ers. He has the potential to be a future star at cornerback, and they've had success evaluating the position thus far.
Moore should be a fun project for defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, coordinator Robert Saleh and seasoned vet Richard Sherman.
Best value pick: Richie James, WR, Round 7
Richie James, the Middle Tennessee State receiver they took with their last pick in the draft, was a unanimous late-round steal and a dream fit in San Francisco. He’s an incredibly explosive and versatile player that has the potential to be a game-breaker in this offense. He’s just a big play waiting to happen, either by beating his man deep or by means of YAC.
Shanahan probably loves that he’s got reliable hands, he’s aggressive at the catch point, he’ll block, he can line up anywhere, and he can handle both receiving and rushing duties. James is also a candidate to return punts and kicks. He no doubt adds a true third offensive chess piece, joining Kyle Juszczyk and Marquise Goodwin.
Not only should James make this 2018 roster, but I think he’s a threat to take snaps from the vets as a rookie – he’s really that talented. And if he lives up to his potential with Shanahan and clicks with Garoppolo, he could be their most dynamic WR, and they got him with the 240th selection, almost undrafted. It’s way early, and the odds are against him, but James is looking like the best value pick.
Favorite pick(s): Kentavius Street (DL, Round 4), D.J. Reed (CB, Round 5)
It's easy to label him the ACL guy and move on to others that are poised to see the field in 2018, but Street is an exciting player the 49ers now have in waiting. He’s one of the few in this draft you'd say were made in a lab.
Street has superhuman strength, especially for how athletic a defensive lineman he is at 6-foot-2, 280 pounds. He notably squatted 700 pounds in the team’s weight room prior to his tear, and made SI’s list of top 10 freaks heading into the 2018 combine. But it's how it translates to the field that has the 49ers willing to wait for him.
He's a LB/EDGE/IDL that's built like Brandon Graham.
And if you understand this regime's eye for defensive line talent, and their ability to plug it in and develop it (seeing instant results from unspectacular prospects like Marsh, Sheldon Day, and Leger Douzable); and weave that thought process into the fact that they're willing to stash this mutant for the future, the curiosity about the next five years begins to overwhelm the buzzkill of not having Street in 2018 (as does the appreciation for the pick).
Nickel corners, like interior offensive linemen, were at a premium in this draft. And the 49ers nabbed a good one to squeeze between Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman, while providing immediate competition for K’Waun Williams. Kansas State’s captain D.J. Reed, who was two-time All-Big-12, tested incredibly well and his college numbers show shutdown qualities. The Niners got him in the fifth, too. Great value.
With his swagger, body type and versatility, he’s sort of a Jaire Alexander lite, the Packers’ first-round pick.
This is also the selection that perhaps completes the 49ers’ "No Fly Zone," giving them a defensive backfield of Sherman, Witherspoon, Reed, Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt. So, while many have been waiting for the front seven to take over given four consecutive first-round investments, the secondary is now a unit that has the potential to define this defense.
... Reed is also an electric return man.
Most important pick: Dante Pettis, WR, Round 2
Given that the 49ers traded up to premium-pick range for him in a deep receiver class—coupled with his potential in a Shanahan offense catching passes from Garoppolo and his off-the-charts ability as a returner—Dante Pettis has the potential to be the star of this 2018 draft.
As their early Day 2 selection, it seems Shanahan has big plans for Pettis, which could mean he sees the 6-foot-1 technician as a go-to after Pierre Garçon has departed. More than that, in San Francisco's situation, Pettis has a chance to be their best homegrown receiver since Terrell Owens. With the trade up, this looks to be far more about offense than it is special teams, which is what most thought of right away.
Pettis may also help the culture and identity of this new team. With his dynamic scoring ability and memorable plays, he could give Levi's Stadium some of the character its been looking for.
Most underappreciated pick: Mike McGlinchey, OT, Round 1
This one's easy. This was a pick that should've been celebrated right away, but because there was no pre-draft spotlight on him and since he's an offensive lineman, silence ensued when Mike McGlinchey's name was announced at No. 9 overall.
Yeah, yeah, they passed on Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick, but he's a safe pick; a Day 1 starter that'll be a franchise player and potential Pro Bowl offensive tackle for the 49ers, easing them into the next generation as Joe Staley's career winds down. And of course, it invests in the most important player on the roster, Jimmy Garoppolo.
With McGlinchey in house, Garoppolo is more likely to start 16+ games a year, he will have more time to pick apart defenses, and San Francisco overall will be much more efficient running the ball. So while he is underappreciated as a guy who doesn't score touchdowns or sack the quarterback, McGlinchey's selection has a massive ripple effect.
Most underrated pick: Fred Warner, LB, Round 3
This is probably the least-mentioned player in the top half of the 49ers' 2018 class. Yet, Fred Warner is very good; likely starting at linebacker and pitching in on special teams as a rookie; and his selection brings the 49ers into the next era of NFL linebackers, a generation that emphasizes coverage and versatility over big hits.
Also – one of the repeated questions heading into the draft was how the 49ers were going to prepare for potential Reuben Foster discipline, and Lynch and Co. were able to address it without a first-round pick.
Tough critics will say they didn’t get Week 1 starters outside of Mike McGlinchey, but Dante Pettis, Fred Warner and D.J. Reed are also going to be featured this year, and could be key building blocks for this new-era 49ers team. Moore and Street eventually, too, if they live up to their billing. Because of how spread out the talent is, this could become a very impactful class for the Lynch/Shanahan regime.
They have six, maybe even seven potential starters of their nine draft picks.
And as far as drafting players coming off injury or doubling up on the secondary, this was a reminder that the new regime is only entering the second year of a six-year commitment, and is building this team up from scratch and in their image. So, while they're undefeated with their new quarterback, they're not operating in win-now mode as much as they're trying to make the best decisions for the future.
NFC West notes
--Welcome to the division, Josh Rosen.
--I liked Rashaad Penny, but in the first round, with an offensive line like the one the Seahawks have and the talent they lost on defense, I just didn’t get it. Good player, but it hurt the potential of their final haul with an early reach like that at a position so deep. They made a nice pick with Shaquem Griffin, though – great value for what should be a good player.
--The Rams had a stretch where they picked up Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and John Kelly late. Those could be two featured players. Okoronkwo joins Wade Phillips’ nasty defensive front that already features Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, while Kelly, a stiff-arm machine, steps in as the No. 2 punch to reigning OPOY Todd Gurley.
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