Up until a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like the 49ers were destined for a top-two pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, where they would likely select a quarterback. Things changed recently when the front office pulled off a jaw dropping deadline deal with the New England Patriots for fourth-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo. And all they gave up was a single second-round draft pick, of which they had two anyway.
Now, here sit the Niners, who have seemingly settled the QB position, the most important position they had to address – and they still have a top-three pick and plenty of top-end draft capital available. Not to mention over $100 million in cap space that’ll enable them to clear up a few positions even before the draft.
So, as far as flexibility goes, it’s as good as it gets for the 49ers.
Using the Fanspeak draft simulator with its most recent rankings, I pieced together a mock with a retooled strategy catered to build around Garoppolo.
The following midseason mock considers the strengths and weaknesses of the 2018 free-agent class. It considers the performance of the 49ers this season by position group. It takes into account potential re-signings by general manager John Lynch, as well as players the team may allow to walk, or even release. It does not consider drafts head coach Kyle Shanahan was involved in prior to the 49ers.
Also – while you can also expect these player rankings and selection spots to change before the draft, in some cases drastically, this provides a general idea or rough round-by-round guide of the new direction the team may go with Garoppolo in the building and the kind of damage they could do next April. They'll also have more picks to play with, so feel free to envision some of these selections as trade-ups if they don't quite jive with your own projected round of X or Y player.
The 49ers 2018 draft class
Round 1: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
With this first selection, the 49ers could trade out of the Nos. 1-3 range, pick a second-rounder back up and also get the best player at their biggest position of need, which is guard. Nelson, arguably the best lineman in the draft, is that player. Not only is he elite physically, he is so fiery, and so advanced from a mental and technical standpoint that he instantly takes this O-line up a tier, improving both the run- and pass-game. The Niners offense also gets some bite back to it, like they had in the days of Mike Iupati. This pick overall supports the investment in Garoppolo, as well as Carlos Hyde or whoever the 2018 running backs may be, enabling them the most. No player in the draft impacts the 49ers' offense the way Nelson would, making him top-five worthy.
Round 2: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
The 49ers’ new regime traded perceived No. 1 CB Rashard Robinson to the Jets shortly before the deadline. While rookie Ahkello Witherspoon stepped up in his place, the team still desperately needs another corner, and Ward looks to be one of 2018’s best. Though not the tall prototype, he’s an alpha athlete that is a natural at the position. Bringing a refined game and outstanding physical ability—he can hit and claims to run a 4.2—Ward instantly upgrades the secondary, providing them with a potentially special cornerback in a division with hard-to-cover receivers. His presence would also provide a leader on the back end and alleviate the building pressure on the front-seven investments.
Round 3: Roquon Smith, LB, Georgia
If you've watched any of his snaps, it's clear Reuben Foster looks very much like an NFL superstar and worthy heir apparent to NaVorro Bowman — but he has struggled to stay on the field. All year, the first-rounder from Alabama hasn’t been 100 percent. That said, the Niners not only need a running partner for Foster, but a high-caliber player that can take over if these injury issues continue. That’s where Smith comes in. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound patrolman from Georgia projects as another defensive centerpiece. Smith is all over the field and arrives at the ball with force. He could command the defense if need be. But if all works out, the 49ers could have the second coming of Willis & Bowman.
Round 3: Deontay Burnett, WR, USC
Garoppolo needs someone threatening to throw the ball to for the long-haul. And even though Pierre Garçon is a great veteran to have in the building, the 31-year-old didn’t finish this season due to a neck injury and certainly won’t be around forever. The 49ers require another starting-caliber wideout. Burnett, the acrobatic playmaker from Southern California, looks like he has the tools to be successful at the next level. The 6-foot junior is a fluid athlete that consistently finds ways to get open and seems to make spectacular grabs every Saturday for Sam Darnold. And the results are showing, as Burnett is on pace to break 1,000 yards receiving and reach double digit scores, both career highs. Because he’s so hard to cover and so reliable as a pass-catcher, he may find instant success in the NFL.
Round 4: Braden Smith, OG, Auburn
The addition of Nelson in Round 1 is great, but the 49ers need to remodel the entirety of the interior offensive line, and bring in better depth as well. Smith is a great play here. He’s an intelligent, experienced All-American lineman from the SEC with position versatility. If right guard and former first-round pick Joshua Garnett can get healthy and live up to expectations, Smith can start at center between Nelson and Garnett. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder can also fill in at guard if one goes down. In just two draft moves, the 49ers could quickly become a bully in the trenches.
Round 5: Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
Position aside, Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley has been the talk of the draft. It’s the reason a lot of other running backs haven’t been getting their due. Wadley is among those less talked about players. Nevertheless, he is a very tough, talented and elusive runner from a hardnosed conference. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Wadley has the frame to hold up in the NFL as a featured runner. And at the same time, if Hyde were to stay, his shiftiness and pass-catching skills would be complementary right away. Wadley would provide an element the 49ers currently do not have and insert another playmaker on offense. There’s also the possibility of him taking the bulk of the snaps eventually.
Round 6: Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
The 49ers haven’t had size on offense since the recent influx of freak receivers, but they get some here with the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Seminoles deep threat. Tate’s numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but his breakout season this year was more or less stunted with the Week 1 loss of starting quarterback Deandre Francois. Still, his career averages tell a story that aligns with the physical specimen that he is (15.6 YPC and 11 touchdowns on 51 receptions). Tate could continue to develop with the 49ers and perhaps emerge as a long-term starter opposite Burnett.
Round 7: Cameron Dillard, C, North Carolina
A recent grad transfer who started 19 games at center for Florida, Dillard joined North Carolina for his final season of eligibility following a season-ending knee injury in 2016. He’s an experienced starter that could help the 49ers flush out the old interior offensive line, making players like Laken Tomlinson and even Daniel Kilgore expendable. At 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, the 49ers could take advantage of his unorthodox college course and continue to develop Dillard as a versatile interior offensive lineman.
Round 7: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
More depth and viciousness at inside linebacker – frankly, this defense can’t have enough of it as they attempt to transition away from the weak squad that gets bullied up front every week. Evans, a former teammate of Foster with the Crimson Tide, would be a great fit for this defense and for coordinator Robert Saleh, who loves violence from his players. Evans has flashed as a heat-seeking missile in the middle of the field. And with his quickness, he can offer the defense a pass-rush element. His lack of production may cause him to fall in the draft, but if the 49ers can get Evans mid-to-late Day 2 or even early Day 3, they’d improve their defense.
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