The NFL is a parity league. We all know that. We also know that the San Francisco 49ers have been on the better side of the NFL draft order for quite a few years now. So that might mean things will even out as time goes on?
No. Not really.
There’s no-brainer first-round picks the 49ers have been beneficiaries of, and then there are the late-round gems the 49ers strategically snagged. That latter ability is what the 49ers demonstrated they can do well and will continue to do well.
Since coming to the 49ers, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan had some salary cap space and draft capital. In 2017 they used two first-rounders to draft Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster. The latter is a bust, and the former is disappointing (though they showed up decent on Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings). What was key in 2017 was the 49ers’ ability to grab late-round gems when most are throwing darts. In the third round, they got Ahkello Witherspoon, who has proven to be excellent depth (and could still be a starter with one more offseason). Fifth-round got them George Kittle, who I don’t need to describe any further, and Trent Taylor (who has shown up, though has been injured). Finally, in the sixth round, they snagged D.J. Jones. Jones is on IR, but his absence is felt, and he’s a solid nose tackle for the defense.
So there are four good picks out of the eight taken after the first round. Not only are they good, but two of them are starters playing at a high level.
2018? Not near as impressive, but it got the 49ers Fred Warner in the third round, Julian Taylor (solid depth), and Richie James (great returner and wide receiver fill-in). Tarvarius Moore has been a solid depth piece and, at one point, seen as the person to take over for Jimmie Ward (and he still could with another offseason).
Then there’s 2019. Yes, the 49ers got Nick Bosa, that’s a given. But then comes Deebo Samuel, Dre Greenlaw, and Justin Skule. Out of those three names, the only question mark is Skule, and it’s not a bad take to say he’s a rookie and needs to develop. There’s also Punterville’s hero Mitch Wishnowsky who shouldn’t be given up on in his first year.
And then there’s looking past the draft. The 49ers have a backup quarterback (Nick Mullens), a running back (Matt Breida) and a cornerback (Emmanuel Moseley) that they found in the undrafted free agent market. All three of those names have contributed.
The thing that happens when teams get good is difficulty in drafting late-round talent. You saw this with Trent Baalke, who just threw darts hoping something would stick. The 49ers have managed to find stars late in the draft, and not just with their first pick. You know who else could do that? New England.
The 49ers have a lot of contracts coming up, and for us to assume they’ll find a way to keep everyone is a bit too much wishful thinking. They will need to plug those holes left via the draft and the UDFAs—something Lynch and Shanahan have indicated they can do it with consistency.
If they can keep doing that, they’ll keep being contenders.