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Free Agency vs the draft: Predicting the 49ers’ top selections

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Who will the 49ers pick up, and where?

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Despite inking Jimmy Garoppolo to a record-setting contract, the 49ers still carry a big wad of cash heading into free agency and the draft. It’s a good thing too; they still have plenty of holes to fill despite ending 2017 on a five-game win streak. With just days to go until negotiations officially begin, the biggest question is which positions will San Francisco target in free agency versus the draft. It’s difficult to forecast right now–because one triggers the other–but let’s give it a shot.

FREE AGENCY

Cornerback
Prediction: Malcolm Butler Runner Up: Trumaine Johnson

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This, in my mind, is the organization’s top priority right now.

San Francisco needs a proven veteran to pair with Ahkello Witherspoon and shore up a secondary that struggled to get off the field last season. The defensive unit made some strides in rush defense under first-year coordinator Robert Saleh, but pass defense remained a significant issue. The team allowed 3,764 passing yards in 2017 (235.2 per game); 11th most in the league. They surrendered 27 TDs through the air; 8th most in the league. Their paltry 10 interceptions was ranked 24th in the NFL.

The Niners’ lack of a pass rush was a big contributing factor, but they got no help from some truly awful performances from Rashard Robinson (released last year) and Dontae Johnson (soon to walk in free agency).

Someone like Malcolm Butler or Trumaine Johnson, along with a very promising second-year man in Witherspoon, will instantly upgrade the defensive backfield. Even if Eric Reid leaves in free agency, the safety group looks to be in strong hands with Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert making a splash last year.

Running Back
Prediction: Isaiah Crowell Runner Up: Dion Lewis

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I think it makes sense for the Niners to go the free agency route at running back rather than draft. Matt Breida is a great complementary back but with incumbent starter Carlos Hyde’s likely (and hopeful) departure, the 49ers need a proven veteran to add to the mix. Last year’s fourth round selection Joe Williams could be a valuable asset, or he could be cut; he’s the huge X factor here.

Isaiah Crowell played for Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland and could be had a decent price. He’s only 25 years old, employs good vision, and uses his burst to get through the line and around the edge in a hurry. Crowell’s also flashed some skills as a receiver. Shanahan, much like his father Mike, has made his bones getting the most out of lesser touted running backs. Crowell fits the mold as a young guy with experience in the system and the potential to flourish.

Dion Lewis came up big for the Patriots down the stretch last season. He’s a fantastic receiver out of the backfield. He makes a lot of sense in Shanahan’s offense and would give defensive coordinators someone else to game plan for not named Garoppolo; however, he’s two years older than Crowell and will command a higher salary.

Wide Receiver
Prediction: Donte Moncrief Runner Up: Paul Richardson

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Much like every other position group, the receiving corps took some big steps forward once Jimmy Garoppolo took over last year. Great quarterbacks have shown, time and again, that they can immensely elevate a mediocre group of wide receivers. Tom Brady has consistently won Super Bowls with lackluster wideouts. The scheme, and each receivers role in it, is far more important than top flight talent. Nevertheless, the 49ers are still one guy away from making this unit truly competitive. They lack a true no. 1 and they won’t get one in free agency. What they will get—which should be good enough—is another solid guy to round out the group as a whole. Pierre Garcon is a dependable possession receiver; Marquis Goodwin is the deep threat; Trent Taylor is the shifty slot receiver who can cover the middle of the field.

Ideally, the Niners nab Moncrief or Richardson bolster the top 3 alongside Garcon and Goodwin. Moncrief was highly regarded coming out of college and performed well with Andrew Luck at the helm. Indianapolis’s inability to keep Luck on the field and woeful offensive line has resulted in some pretty poor performances from Moncrief the past couple years. He’s young, big-bodied, and won’t command a very high salary. He’d be an ideal red zone target and additional weapon for Garoppolo.

Paul Richardson notched a career-high 703 yard performance as a starter in Seattle last year. Despite having a skillset similar to Goodwin, the duo could work nicely in tandem to stretch the field and open up the middle for Garcon, Taylor, and George Kittle.

Wildcard: Vinny Curry, DE


Curry’s tenure in Philadelphia looks to be finished after the Eagles recent trade for Michael Bennett. Curry is still pretty young at only 29 years old and is good at applying pressure from defensive end. Arik Armstead, a Trent Baalke holdover, has been an oft injured bust so far for San Francisco. On top of it, he’s a poor fit in Robert Saleh’s defense. If Curry is released, the 49ers may kick the tires on him and move on from Armstead.

DRAFT

Edge Rusher
Prediction: Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

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The free agent market and the draft are pretty thin in the pass rush department. This is an issue for a team like the Niners, who sorely need someone to pin their ears back and get after opposing QBs. Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead were supposed to be those guys. They’re not. They may never be.

If San Francisco stays at no. 9, don’t be surprised if Virginia Tech OLB Tremaine Edmunds is the name you hear at the podium. Edmunds is just 19 years old and has a boatload of raw athletic ability and potential. Raw is the key word here. If the coaching staff can keep Edmunds’ focus on getting to the quarterback in Year 1 on passing downs, they have plenty of time to coach up the rest of his game.

Offensive Line
Prediction: Isaiah Wynn, Georgia

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The reason I think the 49ers look to the draft here is because they need more youth along the line, not another veteran. Although Joe Staley is still performing at a high level, he’s likely only got a couple more years. Plus, guard is the most plug-and-play position from the collegiate level to the NFL. If the Niners feel strongly enough, they can dedicate their ninth selection to a top-flight guard. More than likely though, they’ll look at other positions if they stand pat as guards historically don’t carry nearly as much value as other positions.

The Niners have to protect Garoppolo. Jimmy G’s quick release and ability to move around in the pocket were a huge boon. They also masked one of the team’s biggest—if not the biggest—problem areas: pass protection.

My hunch is that someone of value to another team slides to that ninth pick and John Lynch and co. leverage that to trade back. If that’s the case, look for the Niners to use a middle-to-late first rounder or second rounder on a guard.

Isaiah Wynn makes the most sense due to his athleticism (which is crucial to Shanahan’s scheme) and flexibility. Wynn can play any position along the line. That gives the 49ers great range in terms of depth.

Middle Linebacker
Prediction: Josey Jewell, Iowa

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Reuben Foster could face suspension and even if he doesn’t, his immaturity and startling track record of injury during his rookie season make middle linebacker an unfortunate priority for the organization.

I can’t see the front office dedicating a top pick to middle linebacker, but I expect them to select a promising prospect in the middle rounds.

Josey Jewell may not be the fastest or strongest guy, but his instincts and fundamentals are sound. He’s a sound tackler and has a nose for the ball against the run. He’d give the 49ers some depth and insurance behind Foster.

Wildcard: Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State


The 49ers are rumored to be high on Ateman and which round he’s selected in is murky. He could go as high as the 2nd or as late as the 4th or 5th. At 6’4, 200 lbs Ateman gives the 49ers the large frame that’s missing from their current receiving corps. Kyle Shanahan recently mentioned that it’s not about having the right “type” of receiver, it’s simply about having the right guy. In other words, good receivers come in all shapes and sizes. That’s a very valid point but if the 49ers value Ateman’s skillset beyond just his size, then he gives the team a big red zone target and a talented wide receiver to add to the mix.

Receiver becomes less of a priority if the Niners sign Moncrief or another free agent, but if they don’t, expect a receiver’s name to be called in one of the first three rounds come April.

Who are your free agent and draft day predictions? Have at it in the comments section.