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NN Mailbag: NFL Draft curveballs, free agency targets, coaching additions, AAF and more

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Addressing your 49ers comments, questions and concerns in this edition of our Niners Nation offseason mailbag.

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers now firmly have their sights set on free agency beginning on March 13th, and the 2019 NFL Draft, which starts on April 25th. It’s Year 3 for general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, who enter into a critical offseason with roughly $60 million in projected salary cap space and the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

We’re back with your latest questions in this week’s offseason mailbag. You’re welcome to drop questions in here for our next mailbag or tweet me @Rob_Lowder.

“We’ve been talking all EDGE and defensive line with the first pick of the draft. I’d be blown away if they didn’t go with one of the top EDGE prospects at #2, but the draft is crazy. Who could you see them picking at 2 that isn’t DL?” Gage Oughterson

The NFL Draft is indeed crazy, Gage. However, I don’t see a prospect tempting the 49ers at second-overall that doesn’t play along the defensive front. Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, Josh Allen, Rashan Gary and Ed Oliver, the first five picks in Matt Miller’s most recent mock, are all EDGE rushers or defensive lineman. The first non-DL, non-QB pick doesn’t appear until the Buffalo Bills selecting Alabama OT Jonah Williams at No 9. While the 49ers could use an eventual replacement for veteran Joe Staley, No. 2 seems bit rich for that pick, which brings us to our next question...

“What are some players that the 49ers could target in a trade down with the Giants, Jags, Broncos, or Washington?” J

The New York Giants (No. 6 pick), Jacksonville Jaguars (7), Denver Broncos (10) and Washington (15) are candidates to move up in the hopes of landing a franchise quarterback. Another team to keep an eye on are the Miami Dolphins at pick 13. That’s a pretty significant spread of possible landing spots for the 49ers. Here are just some of the names to keep an eye on if Lynch executes a trade:

Jachai Polite, Edge, Florida
Brian Burns, Edge, Florida State
Clellin Ferrell, Edge, Clemson
Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
Devin White, LB, LSU
Montez Sweat, Edge, Mississippi State
Greedy Williams, CB, LSU

“Do you see the 49ers trading up with Arizona for Nick Bosa?” Julian Thrift

If the 49ers wanted to be guaranteed Nick Bosa, a trade up one spot to first-overall would be one way to do that. Unfortunately, unless Lynch significantly overpays, I don’t see the Arizona Cardinals as willing trade partners. There’s a good chance they have eyes for Bosa, and allowing a coveted player to be drafted within your division doesn’t strike me as smart management. It’s more likely that another team needing a quarterback trades with the Cardinals and allows Bosa to fall to the 49ers. There’s also a real chance the Cardinals, who already have pass rusher Chandler Jones, may value Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams over Bosa at first-overall.

“What are the chances that Kliff Kingsbury actually does go with Kyle Murray at 1, trading Josh Rosen and freeing up Nick Bosa to the 49ers at 2?” Shannon Kennedy

“Kyler is a freak. I would take him with the first pick of the draft if I could.”

That was new Cardinals head coach Cliff Kingsbury when asked about Murray while still coaching Texas Tech in 2018. Now that the former Oklahoma quarterback has declared for the draft and committed to football, rumors are swirling as to how much Kingsbury really wants Murray. The Cardinals hold the first-overall pick. Speculation would have Arizona trading away quarterback Josh Rosen, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and selecting Murray first-overall. The chances of that actually happening? I’d put them at a solid 5%.

“If we trade down after not getting Nick Bosa, who is a better EDGE between Jachai Polite and Brian Burns for the 49ers” HeyitsG

Polite and Burns are prime candidates for the 49ers if they trade back from pick No. 2. Both are pure pass rushers that show a refined ability get after opposing quarterbacks. If I was forced to choose between two, I’d go with Burns. He has an ideal blend of size, productivity and athleticism to function as both a SAM linebacker and pass rusher in the 49ers’ defensive scheme. Burns is 6-foot-5 and roughly 240 pounds. He racked 52 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, three pass breakups and three forced fumbles in 2018.

Choosing Burns isn’t an indictment of Polite, though. He’s a bit smaller at 6-foot-2, but still had a stellar 2018 consisting of 45 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and six forced fumbles.

“What are your thoughts on free agency? It seems like the playoffs showed how important a good defense still is. Do you see us spending more on defense or offense?” Billy Hyder

As the NFL salary cap quickly rises, free agency has become increasingly important. What was once seen as a complementary path toward team-building is now viewed as an essential element to a team’s success. The 49ers need more help on defense than offense and I presume the team’s actions in free agency reflect that. Pass rusher, linebacker, cornerback and free safety are all areas In need of significant improvement that can't solely be found within the draft.

“If the 49ers were to target a cornerback in free agency, who would you want them to target and why?” Mike Wonderful

My choice would be Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby. Coming off a November ACL tear, Darby may not be ready at the start of training camp, but what he’s shown since entering the league should be worth the risk for the 49ers. Darby’s 50 forced incompletions since entering the league ranks 12th among all cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. In nine games, Darby totaled 43 tackles, 12 pass breakups and an interception. He’d be a solid compliment to Richard Sherman and would give the 49ers secondary reliable coverage options as they bolster the pass rush.

“Thoughts on a fit with the 49ers for Zach Zenner and Pierre Desir? Do you think they are realistic options?” Steve DiMora

I don’t see the 49ers have much interest in Detroit Lions’ running back Zach Zenner. The team’s backfield is already stacked with both Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert returning from injury, joining Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson and Alfred Morris. All except McKinnon stood out in 2018, and will likely make up the bulk of the roster completion this offseason. Indianapolis Colts cornerback Pierre Desir, on the other hand, will definitely be in play as the 49ers look to upgrade their secondary. Desir totaled 79 tackles, two tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2018. He’d immediately becom the favorite to start opposite Sherman.

“How strong of a play will we go after CJ Mosley?” Rod Simmons

Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley is expected to hit the open market at the start of free agency. The standout defender has been a consistent force for the Ravens since being drafted in the first round in 2014. Mosley (6-2, 240) totaled 105 tackles, six tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and five pass breakups in 2018. The 49ers could make a significant play for Mosley, who would likely assume the Mike role in the team’s defense, allowing Warner to move to Will as the better coverage linebacker. I expect Lynch to have serious interest in Mosley if he hits free agency.

“Can you name one free agent sleeper that the Niners will pursue this offseason?” Uncle Salty

I’m not sure how truly under-the-radar this pick is, but I’m going to go with linebacker Preston Smith. The Washington pass rusher has steadily improved over the course of his four seasons and has been a model of consistency, playing in all 16 games the past three seasons. Smith’s 53 quarterback pressures in 2018 tied for 24th among 109 edge defenders, per PFF. He totaled 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, four sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in 2018. Smith is an ideal candidate for the Sam linebacker spot on base downs, while rushing the passer on the majority of snaps in sub-packages.

“Thought’s on Practice Squad players being eligible to play in the AAF league? Seems like it would be a win win for both leagues. Lawyers can figure out the legality of it if said player gets hurt.” Freddy

The Alliance of American Football made it’s debut last weekend with positive reviews. Outside of some rule changes, the AAF is very similar to the NFL and is meant to serve as a proving grounds for new and former players. NFL practice squad players get no game time throughout the season unless called up, and next to no reps in practice. Allowing players on the practice squad to play on AAF teams during the offseason would be an ideal way to groom and develop NFL talent. Hopefully that’s an idea that’s explored as the AAF gains more traction.

“How would you interpret the hires of Wes Welker and Myles Austin? (I view it as an attempt to make the team extremely player friendly.)” Brandon

The 49ers hired former NFL receivers Wes Wekler and Myles Austin within days of each other last week. Welker will be taking over as the team’s wide receivers coach while Austin assumes the role of offensive quality control. A player-friendly coaching staff will definitely be a result of the hires. The pair will also bring high-level experience to the coaching staff, including Welker’s Super Bowl pedigree. A coach being able to relate to their players is an invaluable attribute, and both Welker and Austin should be able to connect with the 49ers’ roster.

“Who do you see being QB2? Nick Mullens put in some solid performances. If Mullens, what do you see happening to CJ Beathard? Or if Beathard is QB2 what happens to Mullens? Back to practice squad for either?” Craig Matthews

Nick Mullens versus C.J. Beathard will be a significant offseason storyline in the quarterback battle to backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Mullens has the clear edge after replacing Beathard midway through the season and putting together an impressive showing for a former third-string backup. Mullens is the favorite, but Shanahan may be unwilling to give up on Beathard just two years removed from being a third-round pick. There’s a chance the 49ers keep all three quarterbacks on the final 53-man roster. My prediction? Mullens earns the role and the team moves on from Beathard.

“Will the 49ers offseason efforts finally generate a pass rush on Sundays?” Drew

If the 49ers are going to bolster their pass rush, this is the offseason to do it. The draft is stacked with quality pass rushers and Lynch will have his pick of the litter at No. 2. Bosa, Allen, Polite, Burns, Ferrell and Sweat all expected to go in the first round, maybe even the top half. Free agency also holds some solid options. Those likely to hit the open market include New England’s Tre Flowers, Minnesota’s Anthony Barr, Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham and Washington’s Preston Smith.

“Do you think Elijah Lee will start next season or we bring someone else in?” Tiny

Linebacker Elijah Lee earned a starting spot on the 49ers’ defense in 2018, supplanting veteran Malcolm Smith, who struggled with injury. Lee earned five starts but played in 16 games, totaling 65 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. The former sixth-round pick will be the favorite to start opposite Fred Warner in 2019, but the 49ers are very likely to make additional investments in the linebacking corps prior to the season. Expect Lee to face steep competition.