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A year later, first Lynch-Shanahan draft class gets high marks

The 49ers got a lot of production from their 2017 rookie class.

We have a full season behind us since the 2017 NFL Draft, and while it often takes three or four years to get a full grasp on a draft, one year does give us some data to begin the analysis process. The folks at NFL.com don’t have any events planned until the 2018 NFL Combine, and so, it they have begun their process of re-grading last year’s draft.

On Thursday, they posted their NFC West grades. It is not surprising the San Francisco 49ers rank at the top. They gave the 49ers an A, followed by a B+ for the Los Angeles Rams, a C for the Seattle Seahawks, and a C- for the Arizona Cardinals. Here’s what they had to say about the 49ers.

It’s pretty hard to have a better first year as a general manager than John Lynch just enjoyed. The Bears hand you a bushel of picks, all so they can draft a QB you weren’t targeting. You draft Foster, a transcendent PFWA All-Rookie talent whom you apparently ranked third on your draft board, at 31. You get solid production out of Witherspoon and Colbert on defense and Kittle and Taylor on offense. Oh, and you fleeced the Patriots in a midseason swap for a franchise signal-caller in Jimmy Garoppolo. The one drawback is that Thomas has underperformed so far. Still, what an exercise in fortuitous team-building. GRADE: A

The Jimmy Garoppolo deal should not really be factored into this re-grading, but I suppose it’s always worth a mention!

A year ago, in his quick-snap grades right after the draft, NFL.com draft analyst Chad Reuter gave the 49ers a B+. He gave them an A for their first round work, a C+ for their day two work, and an A for their day three work.

The strongest work a year later would be their day three players. They got big production on all three days, but in terms of expectations, day three was impressive. George Kittle emerged as a starting tight end, while Trent Taylor should be settled in as a key cog at slot receiver. D.J. Jones offered some production in the sixth round, but Adrian Colbert could be the real steal in the seventh round. He emerged as the team’s starting safety, and while his opportunity came due to multiple injuries, he took full advantage of it. He will compete with Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt (and maybe Eric Reid) for safety playing time. With Ward entering the final year of his rookie contract, Colbert and Tartt could be the team’s starting duo by the time 2019 rolls around.

The 49ers second day included drafting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, and trading up into the end of the third round to select quarterback C.J. Beathard. They did not have a second round pick because they had moved up into the end of the first round to draft linebacker Reuben Foster.

That day two haul is worth a look a year later. The 49ers ended up with a starting cornerback in Witherspoon, and what appears to be a very capable backup quarterback in Beathard. I imagine there will never not be arguments about the idea of grabbing Beathard that high, but Kyle Shanahan clearly was a fan. It feels like they could have gotten him later, but given that it only takes one other team liking him to lose out, it’s hard right now for me to crush them on that. And the Philadelphia Eagles just proved how important a quality backup quarterback is, so I can live with it at this point.

The 49ers got extensive production from both of their first round picks. Solomon Thomas was a regular part of the defensive line rotation, while Reuben Foster quickly became a starter. And yet, of all their draft picks, those two face the biggest questions heading into 2018.

For Thomas, the question is if he can develop into more of a regular impact player. He made some big plays, particularly showing his speed and athleticism in run defense. He was inconsistent in getting to the quarterback, although it took him time at Stanford to develop that part of his game. This offseason is a big one for him, particularly with the 49ers facing a decision about Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option.

For Foster, there are two questions. The first is if he can stay healthy. He missed six games the first eight weeks, and while he finished out the season starting eight straight games, it felt like he was regularly having to leave the game with an injury. He would return, but the small injuries can add up. This offseason will be about building up some bulk to avoid those kinds of injuries.

The other issue is the marijuana possession arrest following the season. The crime itself is not a big deal, but it follows a pre-draft process that included some off-field concerns. While marijuana possession is legal in California, it is illegal in Alabama, and using marijuana is against the rules in the NFL. If one is outside the league’s substance abuse program, it is easy to get away with smoking marijuana fairly regularly. Once you get tested, you’re free and clear the rest of the year. But Foster is in the program, which means more frequent testing. He might face a one-game suspension based on past precedent, but positive tests moving forward will create more problems. On the field he is an A with an asterisk for injuries, but off the field, it’s a bit of an incomplete for now.