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Running back, secondary, defensive line: Where do the 49ers go if they stay at No. 2?

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The 49ers have a lot of options. We look at the most likely ones.

NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The NFL draft kicks tomorrow and—as is the case every year—rumors and smokescreens are swirling faster by the hour. With an entirely new coaching staff, new general manager, and a roster that has more holes than (insert funny metaphor here), the 49ers have a multitude of ways they could go when the clock starts ticking on Thursday.

Let’s break down what’s out there and discuss some of the more plausible scenarios…

Popular Projections at No. 2

  • Solomon Thomas, DE (Stanford)
  • Jamal Adams, S (LSU)
  • Mitch Trubisky, QB (UNC)
  • Leonard Fournette, RB (LSU)
  • Malik Hooker, S, (OSU)
  • Marshon Lattimore, CB (OSU)

Ideal scenario: Trade back

The Niners have wide-spanning needs. Trading the No. 2 pick in exchange for another team’s first rounder and a few other picks along the way is their best course of action. It represents the greatest value for San Francisco and it’s undoubtedly the front office’s top priority. The problem is that the appeal of the No. 2 selection seems about as lukewarm for other teams as it is for the 49ers, so it appears less and less likely that the team will find a trade suitor. If they are able to entice a team to move up, expect them to pick somewhere in the 6-12 range. Moving back changes the 49ers’ outlook a bit, so players that seem like a reach for the No. 2 slot, such as Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams or even Trubisky (assuming he’s still on the board and Shanahan’s keen on him), may move onto the radar in this case.

Running Back

LSU v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

If the pick is for running back there’s only one option at No. 2 and it’s Leonard Fournette. And while I think he might be a stronger possibility than some believe, it would still be somewhat of a surprise to hear his name called. Seeing what Shanahan has been able to do with guys like Alfred Morris, Tevin Coleman, and Devonta Freeman, it makes far more sense for the 49ers to wait to address the running back position until later rounds. But let’s look at both sides of the coin:

Why Fournette Will Happen

Insurance policy

Carlos Hyde has still yet to break out or prove himself, other than proving he’s injury-prone and needs to hit the hole with more decisiveness. To be fair, the cast surrounding Hyde has been terrible, but plenty of talented backs have done better with similar support (Maurice Jones-Drew and Frank Gore come to mind).

Need for a true offensive threat:

The 49ers lack a young offensive star to build the team around. In fact, they lack any sort of offensive firepower. Fournette fits that mold. If Hyde stays healthy, it gives the team a young, potent backfield combination for new QB Brian Hoyer to lean on.

Why Fournette Won’t Happen

Too high a pick, too deep a RB class

Jordan Howard was selected in the 5th round last season and put up a 1,000 yard Pro- Bowl season for the Bears. Shanahan had success with mid-round picks Devonta Freeman (4th round) and Tevin Coleman (3rd round), as did his father in Denver with guys like Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson. With ample talent on the board in later rounds, it seems like a waste to pull the trigger in the first round.

Injury Concern?

Fournette missed some time last year with an ankle issue—one that some circles are cautioning may be a chronic problem requiring surgery. One of the prime reasons the 49ers would be looking to draft Fournette is not only his skillset, but to offset the durability issues surrounding Hyde. Would the team be willing to roll the dice?

Secondary

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Cloudy picture at cornerback

The big questions here are: Where do the 49ers pencil in Jimmie Ward? And how does the release of Tramaine Brock change that (and the plan for the secondary as a whole), if at all? There was talk from John Lynch of the 49ers moving Ward back to his natural position of free safety. If that’s the case the 49ers projected starters at cornerback would be Rashard Robinson and…take your pick. Robinson showed promise as a rookie but he’s far from a proven commodity, especially as the team’s No. 1 CB. Behind him, there’s a muddled mix led by the newly signed K'Waun Williams, Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, and Will Redmond. Reaser and Johnson have had moments, but neither looks particularly promising—especially Reaser. The jury is out on Redmond since he missed all of his rookie season in 2016 due to injury.

Corner vs Safety

At this point in time, there is perhaps no greater position of need for the 49ers than cornerback (you can put linebacker right at the top as well). The 2017 class is exceptionally deep at both cornerback and safety, but that wouldn’t necessarily preclude San Francisco from selecting one with the No. 2 pick. The Niners aren’t “strong” at any position, so the pick will be borne out of who they have rated highest—not need. It will also be driven by what they think of Ward and his role.

LSU’s Jamal Adams is considered a can’t-miss pick. Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, despite only starting one year at Ohio State, has shown game-changing, if raw, ability as a centerfielder at the position. But a down season in 2016 and concussion worries aside, 49ers incumbent safety Eric Reid has shown to be a capable to above-average player. He may have even more upside if he shifts to the strong safety position and plays closer to the line, considering coverage gaffes were a large chink in his armor. Jimmie Ward, meanwhile, has some decent speed and range to play free safety if the 49ers are truly going to move him there. As a four-year veteran going back to his more natural position, he may finally flourish and demonstrate why the 49ers selected him in the first round. Then again, he’s not the most durable for the position and has now grown accustomed to playing CB and slot role. Second-year man Jaquiski Tartt has starting experience and adds depth to the safety group.

At cornerback, the only name expected to go that high is Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore is a real talent, but he only has one year of starting experience. What’s more worrisome is that it was due to persistent hamstring issues that ultimately required surgery. Hamstring problems can dog a player his entire career. This could be a big red flag and it could cause Lattimore to slide down draft boards.

Defensive Line

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

I saved this for last because it’s been the most bandied about and most likely projection for the 49ers’ first round selection. Solomon Thomas is really the only name you need to know here.

He’s shot up the draft boards and mocks after an impressive showing at the combine. As a Stanford Cardinal, he’s local and shares the same alma mater as GM John Lynch. The 49ers still need a disruptive pass rusher and significant help in stopping the run, despite selecting a defensive end in first round the past two seasons. Thomas fits that bill, but where exactly would he fit in on the current roster? It’s a safe assumption that Arik Armstead would remain at end, DeForest Buckner would shift to tackle, and Thomas could potentially play the “LEO” role in coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme (on the side of the line opposite Armstead). The LEO role would come with somewhat of a steep learning curve, however, as it’s not something Thomas is accustomed to playing. Therefore, the plug-and-play value of drafting Thomas isn’t really there. Plus, it’s been widely speculated that Thomas is the pick, and if John Lynch’s surprise hire is any indication, the new 49ers’ new regime would prefer to keep outsiders guessing.

Final Projection: Jamal Adams, S, LSU

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Niners haven’t fielded a fearsome secondary since Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldon, and Donte Whitner were patrolling the defensive backfield in 2012. Even they struggled at times—notably in the 2012 postseason (remember Atlanta torching them through the air for 17 points in the 1st quarter of the Championship game)? In Adams, San Francisco gets a rock-solid, Day 1 starter and a key building block for transforming the secondary into a vaunted unit.

Why safety over corner?

For one, Lattimore’s hamstring problems. Those can’t be ignored. When you’re selecting at No. 2, you can’t have such a significant question mark; you need a surefire thing. That’s Adams: high-floor, high-ceiling.

Beyond the fact that he plays new GM John Lynch’s former position, he’s highly touted for his character, as a natural leader, and as a tone-setter on defense. Those who coached him at LSU exalt his preparation, drive to be great, and influence in the locker room. He also happens to come from a football pedigree (his father George was a running back for the Giants and Patriots).

Lynch has said that the franchise needs a cornerstone player at No. 2. Adams sounds the part. Hell, when you read about him, it sounds like a profile of John Lynch. Malik Hooker may be an easier fit as a rangy free safety, but he’s a greater risk and much more raw. The 49ers will find a way to make the Eric Reid/Jamal Adams combination work and it would allow them to keep Jimmie Ward as a veteran presence at cornerback.

Yes, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has emphasized stopping the running game as the focal point for the defense (isn’t that true for every defense?). Considering the 49ers ranked dead last in that category last year and set franchise lows, that sounds like a pretty good area to focus on. But the 49ers have addressed a bit of the front seven with free agent additions Earl Mitchell and Malcolm Smith. They’ll also be getting Arik Armstead and NaVorro Bowman back from injury. Sure, the front seven remains a big area of need—especially at middle linebacker and edge rusher—but marginally less so than the secondary. San Francisco also has a high second-round pick and some draft capital to play with, so they certainly could move back into the end of the first round to nab a player like Reuben Foster if he were to fall, or look to an edge rusher like Zach Cunningham or Hasaan Reddick (although Reddick would likely require them to move up into the 8-12 range of the first round).

Runner Up: Solomon Thomas

It’s difficult to not project Thomas as the selection at No. 2. It’s an area of need and the Stanford ties are there. But with the every-down role for Thomas a little murky and the fact that the defensive line does have some depth, Adams gets the edge. The 49ers can get a rotational pass rusher later on.