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Four “safe” players the 49ers can draft in the first round

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Safe is a loose term in the draft, but these are the four players that can contribute right away with the 49ers.

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

It’s time to rev up the draft articles as we are under two months away from the NFL Draft. With the San Francisco 49ers picking No. 31 this year, the options are endless. Secondary, wide receiver, offensive line, and I wouldn’t rule other positions just because we don’t view them as a position of need. On Monday, we went over a few players the team should avoid. Here are four players that qualify as “safe—as safe as you can get in the draft—that could help the 49ers right away but don’t have a low floor.

WR Tee Higgins, Clemson

I say this somewhat jokingly, but I was told Higgins didn’t run a 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine as he was trying to drop weight and improve on his time. That opened the door for a couple of other receivers to sneak into the first-round conversation. That’s great news for the Niners. When discussing fits, it’s hard to find someone better than Higgins.

Higgins gives the offense everything they’re lacking. A vertical threat, someone that can create with the ball in his hands, and a red zone threat. Three of the four games I watched, the defense resorted to double-teaming Higgins because they couldn’t slow him down. Higgins is going to have highlight catches, but he’s also going to have the focus drops that plagued Deebo Samuel as a rookie. He’s quick enough to shake free from tight coverage, but can also thrive in contested situations. I’d love for Higgins to be a Niner next season.

S Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota

If the 49ers let Jimmie Ward walk, and don’t take his advice to give the keys to Tarvarius Moore, Winfield Jr. is the perfect player in a trade back scenario. If you feel Winfield Jr. would be unavailable in the middle of the second round, he’s skilled enough to take in the first round. Winfield Jr. is a playmaker, and that’s been lacking in the 49ers secondary. Ward is a very good player, but he’s not a playmaker. Winfield Jr. will make you fall in love with his aggression. He’s viewed as undersized at 5-foot-9 and 203 pounds, but you’d have no idea when you watch Winfield Jr. play, though. If you want toughness, a ballhawk, and someone versatile, the 4.45 50-yard dash running safety is your guy.

Winfield Jr. also allows you to continue to play three safeties—the personnel where the 49ers defense excelled in 2019. He lined up in the slot, in the box, and deep. The good news is Winfield Jr. made plays all over. There are going to be occasions where Winfield Jr. gets beaten in coverage or overruns a running back. Those are the plays you live with when you’re talking about a playmaker of this caliber.

CB C.J. Henderson, Florida

Henderson may have cemented himself in the top-20 after running a 4.39 40-yard dash and blowing up the combine. Players fall in the draft. We see it every year. In a situation where other skill players are taken early, and Henderson falls to No. 31, the 49ers are a great fit for Henderson. When you watch Henderson, you can see his quickness, explosiveness, and efficient transitions out of his breaks. At the line of scrimmage, Henderson is aggressive and will have plays where he eliminates the wideout. He had reps where he looked good in the slot as well. You’ll hear about his lack of physicality and poor tackling. That is important, and it’s also true. I didn’t see a 4.39, or a guy that will be a No. 1 cornerback, but that doesn’t mean Henderson can’t get there. Henderson is a safe player that I think his ceiling is inflated after the combine, but he still has a high floor.

DL A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

In a world where the 49ers tag and trade Arik Armstead, Epenesa is the best-case scenario to replace Armstead. Once upon a time, Epenesa was thought to be a top-10 lock in the draft. An underwhelming combine that saw the former Hawkeye test below average across the board will cause him to slip in the draft. If that happens, John Lynch should sprint to the podium and bet on Epenesa, who will be a classic case of “film vs. athletic testing.” Here’s his combine compared to Armstead’s:

Both players are ideal base ends in a 4-3 with their size, strength, and length. Epenesa is the opposite of Dee Ford. He’s not going to wow you with speed or explosiveness off the edge. Epenesa is a power player that can excel both inside and out, which is why he is an excellent fit in San Francisco. On passing downs, you have Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, and your worst pass rusher is your first-round pick? That would give the 49ers a deadly front for the next few years, assuming they can lock down Buckner for the long-term. If there is a team that can maximize Epenesa, it’s the 49ers.