The Niners were utterly embarrassed by opposing offenses last season. Not even good offenses—any offense. San Francisco’s “defense” set franchise worsts in 2016: most points allowed in a season, most rushing yards allowed in a season, and most total yards allowed in a season. Let’s give them some credit here though, it’s actually really hard to be that bad. There’s no one place to point the finger when you have that kind of season. It was a combination of injuries, lack of talent, scheme, and poor output from the offense.
New coach Kyle Shanahan’s bread and butter is offense, and considering how bad the 49ers played on that side of the ball last year, it made sense to think they’d have a keen focus on that in the draft. But San Francisco zeroed in on offense in free agency by signing QBs Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley; WRs Pierre Garçon, Aldrick Robinson, and Marquis Goodwin; RB Tim Hightower; FB Kyle Juszczyk; and TE Logan Paulsen. World beaters? No. Far from it. But they’re key role players, several of whom have valuable knowledge and experience in Kyle Shanahan’s complex offensive system. It’s also no secret that quarterback is the most important position on the field and, clearly, Brian Hoyer isn’t a guy you build a franchise around. But the 49ers weren’t going to force a selection in a weak quarterback class, especially when one of those selections isn’t going to help the team next year. Shanahan will get his franchise QB in 2018—whether it’s Kirk Cousins, a rookie, or otherwise. The front office and coaching staff are keenly aware this isn’t an overnight success scenario. For as out of touch as Jed York can be, even he knows the Niners are not in a position to seriously contend for a couple of years.
With that said, the organization wants to build this roster the right way. They want to build a roster that sets the team up for success for years to come—not a patchwork, unsustainable, overpriced one designed for short-term mediocrity. So that’s how the team prepared for and attacked the 2017 Draft. They were calculated; they were shrewd; they were decisive—all the more impressive considering a first-time GM and head coach were at the helm.
The Niners targeted defense with gusto, not solely because it was a need (everything is when your record is 2-14), but knowing this class featured a deep pool of talent on that side of the ball. The beauty of a bare roster is that 49ers brass could truly engineer this draft to take the highest-ranked players on their board, and thanks to a ridiculously lopsided trade with the Bears, the organization was able to take two of their top three in DE Solomon Thomas and LB Reuben Foster.
Foster and Thomas
There isn’t much to say about these guys that hasn’t already been said. They are an instant upgrade to that dreadful front seven. I was hoping the 49ers would take Jamal Adams with their first pick, but I understand why they went with Thomas. If you can stop the run and generate a solid pass rush, you can get by with a questionable secondary. As pundits have mentioned, the idea is that Thomas will line up on the outside in the base defense and kick inside on third down and pass rush situations. The franchise desperately needs a pass rush; Thomas provides that and some insurance in the event that Arik Armstead doesn’t pan out.
Foster, meanwhile, jumps off the screen when you watch his highlights. The sideline-to-sideline speed and ferocity can’t help but get you excited for his potential. The 49ers haven’t that kind of presence at linebacker since before Patrick Willis retired and NaVorro Bowman was injured. Much like Thomas, Foster gives the team both defensive firepower and insurance at the position. Ahmad Brooks is 33 years old and isn’t a player opposing offenses worry about. Aaron Lynch can’t seem to put it all together and reportedly showed up to camp significantly overweight again—he may not even be on the roster opening day. Bowman has endured a torn ACL, MCL, and Achilles in the past three years. His determination and leadership are undeniable, but he’s human and those are devastating injuries. If he can’t get back to the level of play we’re accustomed to seeing, Foster can fill the void as the anchor of that unit. The excitement for Foster, however, is tempered by his diluted urine sample at the combine and, more importantly, the dubious nature of his recovery from shoulder surgery. There’s a reason thirty teams passed on Foster even though he was graded as a top-ten talent. Whether it’s concern about the drug test, the shoulder ,or both is up for debate—but hopefully, the Butkus award winner gives those teams reason for regret.
Secondary picture comes into focus
One of the biggest questions coming into this draft is whether or not the release of Tramaine Brock altered the 49ers plan to move Jimmie Ward back to free safety. San Francisco passed on top safety prospects in a deep class, indicating some level of comfort with what they already have at the position. In reading the tea leaves, it seems as if the team will move forward with giving Ward a shot at free safety.
Standing 6’3 with 33” arms, third-round CB Ahkello Witherspoon has the frame to go toe-to-toe with the league’s larger receivers, but he’ll need to bulk up and work on his poor tackling technique. Still, he fills a huge need a cornerback. With Ward penciled in at FS, look for Witherspoon to push Dontae Johnson and K’Waun Williams for a starting role opposite Rashard Robinson.
The Iowa connection
Two Hawkeyes—TE George Kittle and QB C.J. Beathard—were scooped up by San Francisco.
The Beathard selection…
You could hear the collective confused grunt of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor from pundits and fans when this name was announced in the third round. Many analysts projected Beathard to go undrafted. Snickering and the phrase “noodle arm” peppered the commentary following the selection. What seemed like a ludicrous pick to the masses was one of conviction for Kyle Shanahan. It’s been reported that Beathard was the only QB Shanahan wanted. The first-year head coach praised his toughness and football IQ, comparing him to Kirk Cousins.
Kittle, meanwhile, joins a crowded tight end stable. John Lynch admitted the team wanted to trade Vance McDonald but couldn’t find a dance partner. Apparently no one was in the market for an underachieving tight end with stone hands and fumble problems. As detailed in a piece Mark Saltveit wrote back in February, tight ends play a crucial role in Shanahan’s offense. He uses more three-TE sets than any other coach in the league, so the stiff competition will bring out the best in this group.
Sleeper steal of the draft
Watch the video above and it’s clear why Utah’s Joe Williams was regarded as one of the draft’s most explosive running back prospects. Equipped with game-breaking speed, quick cutting ability, and sound vision, the fourth-rounder looks like the type of running back who can thrive in Shanahan’s zone scheme. Williams routinely rattled off huge runs en route to a 1,407-yard rushing performance in his last year at Utah. He’s extremely dangerous in the open field; a threat to score every time he gets a bit of daylight. He had some fumbling issues and his dedication came under fire when he abruptly retired in September 2016, only to return a month later. However, his explanation on why he decided to step away should alleviate concern. If the coaching staff can develop his talent, he has the chance to be something really special. Look for Williams to carve out a roster spot along side Carlos Hyde, Tim Hightower, and Kapri Bibbs, among others.
On the surface, the 2017 NFL Draft doesn’t look all that different from the ones Trent Baalke led the charge on. The 49ers went big on defense, spun off a few commendable trades, and took a chance on Reuben Foster’s shoulder and drug sample. But it smells very different. For starters, there was nary an ACL tear in the bunch and no first-round reaches (see AJ Jenkins, Joshua Garnett). Secondly, the organization’s decision to focus on defense wasn’t because they weren’t confident in their ability to assess offensive talent (which was the common assertion about Baalke); it was the logical choice given the state of the roster, the team’s draft board, and what the class offered.
The Niners want to take the first year slow on offense. They know they don’t have their franchise quarterback or a number one wide receiver. They’ll take their time this year to implement Shanahan’s system, see how their current crop of players can perform in it, and identify what they need for 2018. In the meantime, the revamped defense should help the team be much more competitive in 2017. Remember, the 2011 offense that Harbaugh took over had a universally written-off Alex Smith, an underachieving Michael Crabtree, and Josh Morgan—a No. 4 WR in starting role. Yes, they had Frank Gore and Vernon Davis, but the unit as a whole was mediocre at best. They finished 26th in total offense that season and still managed to come inches away from a Super Bowl appearance. Granted, that 2011 defense was historically good, and I’m not saying the 2017 49ers are even remotely in a position to do the same. I’m simply saying the offense of 2011 and that of 2017 bear some resemblance and, at this juncture, it’s wiser to lean on a better defense and let Shanahan make do with the offense.