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Jason Verrett’s injury should force 49ers to reflect on their 2021 draft strategy

The 49ers entered the offseason with a thin secondary and missed an opportunity to solidify their depth at cornerback. Now they’re paying the price.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

After Jason Verrett’s season-ending ACL injury, the 49ers will face an uphill battle all season without their best cornerback.

The Niners have signed a pair of proven veterans (Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick) over the past week to try and alleviate their depth, but it’s unclear what either player has left. In the meantime, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans could be forced to rely on veteran corner Dontae Johnson, who has struggled throughout his career in coverage.

Injuries are always a part of football. But elite NFL franchises prepare themselves to deal with losing significant contributors as best as they can.

Now that the 49ers will be moving forward without Verrett, the barren depth behind him is glaring. Looking back on the last offseason, it’s hard to understand why the team didn’t do more to prepare themselves for this possibility.

The 49ers' secondary was already a source of massive problems for the defense throughout last season. But then, the Niners' top seven corners by defensive snaps all became free agents. Without much cap flexibility and several key players at other positions in need of new contracts, the 49ers had to find a way to rebuild one of the thinner positions on their roster without breaking the bank.

A slow free-agent market enabled the Niners to retain more free agents than many expected, including cornerback. Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, K’Waun Williams, and Dontae Johnson all re-signed with the 49ers for modest contracts. However, even though Verrett, Moseley, and Williams were clearly viable starters, the roster still lacked proven depth behind them.

Verrett was clearly the 49ers' best corner last season, but injuries have mired his entire career. Before appearing in 13 games in 2020, a series of severe injuries limited him to just six games from 2016-2019. While Moseley and Williams have better track records staying on the field, the pair also combined to miss 12 games last season.

The 49ers turned to the draft to address their absent depth, adding cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir. With that said, a late-third (Thomas) and fifth-round pick (Lenoir) are far from guaranteed contributors.

Now, heading into the 49ers' second game of the year, with Verrett out for the season and Moseley struggling with a knee injury, it’s worth reflecting on whether the organization did enough to prepare for this scenario.

While Lenoir looks like a late-round steal, the 49ers cornerback depth chart is still the thinnest of any spot on the roster. Had Lenoir not far outperformed the expectations of a rookie fifth-rounder, the Niners could already be in even more dire straights. Perhaps most frustrating of all for fans, the 49ers had other opportunities to solidify their secondary in the draft and opted to reinforce stronger parts of their roster.

Plenty of criticism has gone Thomas’ way. The third-round pick out of Michigan has struggled mightily thus far in his pro career and has been clearly outplayed by Lenoir throughout the preseason, practice, and the first game of the regular season.

However, the selection of Thomas has less to do with the 49ers' thin secondary than drafting guard Aaron Banks and running back Trey Sermon earlier on Day 2 of the draft.

Thomas was expected to come in a bit behind other prospects. A top-100 recruit out of high school, Thomas played well in his only season as a starter in college back in 2019 but was far from a finished product.

Then, he sat out the entire 2020 season due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Already exhibiting some inconsistencies on tape before taking a year off, the 49ers should have been prepared for him to enter pro ball further behind the 8-ball.

Cornerback is already one of the toughest positions to evaluate in the NFL draft. Adding the variability of a COVID-19 hampered college football season made the task even more difficult.

With the 49ers clearly lacking cornerback depth in the short and long term, adding a pair of players towards the top of the draft should have been a priority, especially if they were eyeing a more developmental prospect like Thomas.

Draft retrospectives are always a bit unfair to teams, but the way the 49ers' situation has played out seems like something the team should have foreseen.

The process of drafting Sermon was a head-scratcher for multiple reasons. The Niners already had a well-fortified group of backs, the draft class featured a deep running back class where some mid-round prospects were expected to fall to later rounds, and the 49ers had to trade draft capital to move up to select him.

When the Niners circled back to running back, selecting Elijah Mitchell, in the sixth round, it guaranteed that one of the veterans wouldn’t make the roster. Gallman ended up the odd-man-out.

Severe injuries to Mostert and Wilson have impacted the 49ers running back group, but would the team be substantially worse off if Gallman were on the roster instead of Sermon? Given that Sermon was a healthy inactive in their Week 1 victory over the Lions, it’s hard to see it that way.

The trade-up was only possible because the 49ers traded down in the second round to select Banks. The Niners have struggled on their interior offensive line over the past few seasons, but that hasn’t been from a lack of adding players.

In fact, the 49ers released 2020 fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz in final cuts this season. McKivitz far from impressed as a rookie, but Banks has underperformed his draft status early on too. Most importantly, the Niners passed on several defensive backs in the second round, including cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.

Samuel has been one of the most impressive rookies this season, already earning a starting job with the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s starting outside in Los Angeles but was also considered a ready-made nickel corner at the time of the draft.

Selecting Samuel would have put the Niners in a better position to deal with the slew of injuries they’ve faced early this season. It also would have been a smarter long-term financial strategy. Verrett and Williams will once again be free agents at the end of this season.

Had Verrett not gotten hurt, he very likely would have played his way out of the Niners price range. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with Williams. Even if Samuel hadn’t emerged as an immediate contributor, bringing him in with Thomas and Lenoir would have given the 49ers a far greater chance of finding an above-average corner. Something they needed to find even before Verrett’s injury.

Had the 49ers selected Samuel and Thomas, they would have had their original fourth-round pick to play with. Sermon and Banks would have almost certainly been off the board.

Still, the Niners could have circled back to one of the remaining running backs (Chuba Hubbard, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Kene Nwangu) or offensive lineman (Dan Moore Jr., Josh Ball, and Royce Newman) if they were worried about their internal options at those spots.

In the end, the 49ers added Banks, Sermon, and Thomas in rounds 2-4 of the draft, seemingly covering more holes on the roster than if they’d walked away with Samuel, Thomas, and Newman. However, that ignored the players already on the roster.

If Banks displaced McKivitz, Sermon displaced Gallman, and Samuel would have displaced Johnson, the 49ers needed to consider the weakest link of those veterans. Gallman was always a tier above Johnson and McKivitz, but the 49ers' selections didn’t seem to take that into account.

Injuries have defined head coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure with the 49ers. Bad luck does seem like a factor, but ill preparation can often make poor outcomes look like bad luck.

No one denies Shanahan’s ability to design one of the most innovative offenses in the NFL. Despite the 49ers' struggles on the field at times, Shanahan has done a commendable job keeping the locker room engaged as well.

However, the jury on Shanahan’s ability to allocate his draft capital and the salary cap is still out. With the Niners scrambling to address their depleted cornerback position, it’s hard to ignore the questionable decisions they made in this spring’s draft.