Making sound draft predictions is almost an impossibility, especially when it comes to 49ers' general manager Trent Baalke. Nevertheless, this hasn't discouraged myself or any others who follow the league from taking a stab at it and attempting to dive inside the minds of the front office. So without further ado, here are my five projections for the 49ers 2015 Draft.
If you're expecting a wide receiver in the first round, prepare to be disappointed
Given the Niners' draft slot and Trent Baalke's pedigree (or lack thereof) for scouting wide receiver talent, I'm giving a virtual zero chance the 49ers spend a first rounder on a wide receiver. Yes, Anquan Boldin is ancient by NFL standards and in the final year of his contract, but he's still rock solid for 2015. Plus, the team nabbed Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson in free agency. Smith is penciled in as the No. 1, while Simpson's role could be anywhere from No. 3 WR to cut in training camp. The big question is what kind of value Baalke has assigned to Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington. If he thinks that the 49ers have some good potential there that was being hampered by Harbaugh's system, it almost guarantees a wide receiver doesn't go to SF in the first round. If he doesn't feel confident about either of those guys, that's the only way I see San Francisco pursuing a wide receiver. This also all depends on who's still on the board when the Niners select, of course. Which brings us to our next prediction...
Baalke stays true to form, trades down in first round
It's widely believed that the 49ers could very well be in no man's land with the 15th pick. The top talent could be gone and the guys left could very well be reaches in terms of valuation at that slot. With that said, and knowing Baalke's penchant to wheel and deal, look for the 49ers to trade back either into the late first round or early second, acquiring additional later picks in the process. At No. 15, you want an immediate starter and impact player. If the draft board isn't yielding that kind of talent, don't expect Baalke to deviate.
The trenches will be the early focal point
The vast majority of pundits and computer-chair scouts have the 49ers selecting Oregon defensive lineman Aric Armstead with that 15th pick, given the loss of Ray McDonald and the potential retirement of Justin Smith (if not this year, certainly next). And while that makes a great deal of sense, the 49ers do have depth on the line. Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey are two veterans returning from injury, Tony Jerod-Eddie just signed a tender, former 2nd round pick Tank Carradine will be in year 3, and Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett was brought over from Arizona. With that said, I think the 49ers look elsewhere with that first pick and address defensive line with either their second or third selection.
Offensive line takes priority
Offensive line has taken a backseat to defensive line and cornerback in much of the pre-draft chatter, but that's not necessarily justified. The 49ers lost left guard Mike Iupati to Arizona in free agency. Right tackle Anthony Davis had a down year due to injury and never seemed to find his form upon returning. Right guard Alex Boone held out last year and performed below average during the season. Now, Boone is in the final year of his contract and says he will skip all voluntary workouts—not the kind of situation that breeds confidence that he'll be returning to San Francisco. Then you have Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin who will seemingly battle it out for the center position. That's a decent amount of uncertainty for a team who plans to incorporate a run-heavy attack and trying to protect their franchise quarterback who , mind you, doesn't perform particularly well when he's being pressured. All the wide receiver talent in the world doesn't matter if Kaepernick can't get the ball to them.
Given all the aforementioned, my gut tells me Baalke spends that first pick on the offensive line. I think he trades down into the late first round or early second and takes his target, whether it's a tackle, guard, or center. Most likely, he goes with someone versatile who can develop across the line. Florida State center Cameron Erving fits that bill. He's got great size and length, and his athleticism and quickness set him up to play in a few different spots. If the 49ers don't feel too strongly about Kilgore or Martin at center, they can plug Erving in there and free up Martin and Kilgore to fill the void at left guard.
Speaking of left guard A.J. Cann out of South Carolina is another to keep an eye on, especially if the 49ers trade out of the first round into the early second, or if Cann falls to the Nines at #15 in the second round. San Francisco did sign veteran journeyman tackle Erik Pears this offseason, but at age 32 and given his lackluster track record, it wouldn't preclude them from grabbing top-talent in the draft. Pears' likely role is to push the younger competition and give the 49ers some veteran depth.
Niners take a tight end in the first four rounds
No one is talking much about the tight end position for San Francisco...but they should be. Vernon Davis had a horrendous year last year and while some predict a bounce back:
1. That's far from a certainty.
2. He's a speed-reliant tight end with suspect hands and route running, at age 31, in a contract year.
Davis griped for a new contract last year and held out of minicamp before partaking in mandatory activity. Whether he can bounce back this year or not remains to be seen but even if he does, his age and contract situation put the 49ers In a precarious spot at the position. Third-year man Vance McDonald spent much of last season injured but the time he has seen on the field the past 2 seasons has not been pretty. His lack of hands and inability to carve a role in the passing game have many already proclaiming him a bust. #3 tight end Derek Carrier has shown flashes of athleticism and ability but he's still an unknown, starting just one game in his young career and amassing only 109 total yards last season. Carrier did sign a 2-year contract extension this offseason, so it's clear the 49ers like him, but how much they value him and his potential remains to be seen.
2015 is far from the greatest draft class in terms of top-end talent at the tight end position. There may be only one first-round selection when all is said and done. That's fine for the 49ers. I don't see them using their first pick on a tight end; however, keep an eye on the third and fourth rounds, and be on the lookout for names like Clive Walford from Miami and Jeff Heuerman out of Ohio State. Standing at 6'4 and 6'5 respectively, both players also have great reach with arm length hovering around 34". Those are key Baalke traits and these guys have the pedigree to be solid in blocking and setting the edge in the run game.
So there you have. We'll have to wait a few more hours to see what comes of these. Knowing Trent Baalke, I don't expect to hit many or any of my projections, but if even one comes to fruition, I'll consider it a win.