How draft simulations may inform 49ers' 2018 strategy

March 25, 2018

We're coming up on the 2018 NFL Draft, and the 49ers, who are looking to add another layer of NFL-level talent in a crucial follow-up year, need to finalize their draft plan soon, if they haven't already.

 

One action that might help is mock drafting. 

 

In preparing for the suspenseful all-or-nothing guessing game that is the NFL draft, teams run scenarios in which they'll be forced to make a split decision that ultimately impacts the course of the franchise. Whether it's simply choosing between two or more players on their board, weighing BPA vs. a need, or if they find themselves on the clock and wanting to move back, in these high-stress moments they have to recall and rely on the logic previously discussed in draft meetings.

 

[DESIMONE: Projecting 49ers' top five board for 2018 NFL Draft post-free agency]

 

These run-throughs also help to understand the makeup of the draft and how to proceed as to capitalize on the available talent. 

 

Courtesy of Fanspeak, and the information they pool from NFL media, we're closer to mocking less-intense versions of these simulations, and can at least find on average which players go in what rounds. Testing with multiple boards, from CBS Sports' to NDT Scouting's, we can get an idea of how the draft might shake out by looking at the patterns and common outcomes.

 

Here are some of the learnings from the simulations as it pertains to the 49ers' potential draft strategy.

 

Going guard early?

If the 49ers don’t land a guard in the first round, they may be in trouble. There’s Quenton Nelson, who’s likely gone before they pick, and then Isaiah Wynn, who could go as high as top 20 (but may be "too rich" for the top 10). Then there’s Will Hernandez, Austin Corbett and Braden Smith, who are all projected as mid first to early second round players, and are at risk of being scooped up before San Francisco’s second turn at No. 59 overall.


At that point, they may be out of the upper-echelon tier of guards, especially with Nelson getting the run started super early.

 

To get the best results, they could pivot and experiment by taking someone like Iowa center James Daniels, Michigan OL Mason Cole, or even Humboldt State tackle Alex Cappa, with the intentions of playing them at guard. But these three are more projection based.

 

In any case, the learning with this top positional need is that with this class of guards and their current projected spots, the 49ers may have to take theirs in the first round (no later than the second) in order to get a good one. It's currently their most at-risk position.

 

Running back is a low priority

This is a deep running back class that is a lot of fun at the top. And even while there’d be opportunities peppered in to take Ronald Jones or Sony Michel, the 49ers would be wise to hold off. They’ve got a very capable tandem already in Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida, and have two more mid-rounders from 2017 stashed in Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols.

 

A late-round pickup of Bo Scarbrough or Kalen Ballage—or ignoring the position altogether and taking on a priority free agent—wouldn’t be that big of a surprise.

 

49ers destined for gift at No. 9

An elite player will be there at No. 9 overall for the 49ers. No matter what board you use, a consensus top-five talent typically falls. And it’s because of the run on quarterbacks. Four teams inside the top 10 could take a quarterback (and eight teams in the top 15, meaning potential trade ups). It’s inevitable that a blue-chip prospect slides, and the Niners have to be prepared to choose from at least one or two of them when they’re on the clock.

 

[DESIMONE: Experts: Who's likely to fall to 49ers at No. 9 overall in 2018 NFL Draft]

 

Their decision could come from quickly evaluating some combination of Quenton Nelson, Bradley Chubb, Denzel Ward, Roquan Smith, Derwin James, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Saquon Barkley. This may also present them with an opportunity to trade back a bit and acquire more picks while still landing an impact player in Round 1.

 

Either way, this anomaly created by the 2018 QB class will greatly benefit the 49ers.

 

Targeted positions in mid-to-late rounds

The 2018 wide receiver and cornerback groups are also deep, and better yet, undefined in terms of consensus rankings. Teams are likely to have the most different-looking boards at those positions. This means the 49ers will likely be able to take one of their top targets and best fits on Day 2 or even Day 3 of the draft.

 

[CROCKER: Film Room: Why Bourne is not be overlooked as 49ers seek WR help]

 

Think of Trent Taylor falling to the fifth round in 2017. It’s likely Shanahan had a much higher grade on the 5-foot-8 LaTech receiver than most other teams did, but knew he could scoop him late due to perceived size limitations.

 

So, knowing they can unearth a receiver and/or cornerback later on in the draft that fits their filters in terms of both traits and scheme, the 49ers can confidently put more early-round emphasis on bigger needs like offensive guard and edge—position groups that are not quite as deep or ambiguous—and can even go with the best player available at certain selections.

 

Opportunities for steals

Several gifted 2018 prospects are plagued by questions, ranging from hearsay and circulating opinions to legit medical and off-field concerns. This could result in a handful of draft day falls, which the 49ers can capitalize on if they're willing and prepared.

 

Names like LSU pass rusher Arden Key, Texas cornerback Holton Hill, South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert (+),  Florida State edge Josh Sweat (+), Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (+), Florida receiver Antonio Callaway, and even recently USC running back Ronald Jones, all have flags on their profile.

 

Of course there's varying degrees of risk built in, but there's first-round talents and former five-star recruits in here.

 

The 49ers have to do extensive homework and be ready to make a decision if one of these talented players is on the board later than they should be. This is how they can try to make sure that this is not only a solid draft, but one in which they attempt to land one of the big “steals.”

 

 

 

Media courtesy AP Images, YouTube, Getty Images, USA Today Sports Images

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