After trading up for Trey Lance last offseason, the 2022 NFL Draft was supposed to be a much less hectic period for the San Francisco 49ers. No one figured the Niners would fit into many draft narratives without a first-round pick. However, that changed because of swirling trade rumors around quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Yet, at least for the moment, the smoke has yet to reveal fire. After NFL teams made 262 selections and signed hundreds of undrafted free agents, the Niners left the weekend without making a single trade. They had nine picks heading into the three days of festivities and made a selection each time they came on the clock.
This was a significant change of pace draft for the 49ers' brain trust of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. Without a first-round pick for the first time during their tenure (more specifically, without a top-15 pick), the Niners were much more cautious than in previous years. Perhaps San Francisco came away with one of their best value classes of Shanahan’s tenure for that very reason. The 49ers did an impressive job of improving their depth and addressing nearly all their needs despite their limited draft capital.
1. Drake Jackson, Edge, USC (61st overall)
Every NFL team aims for at least one of two things with their top pick in the draft: an immediate starter or a player with legitimate star potential. Jackson has a chance to be both but more firmly fits the latter. While the 49ers already have plenty of depth along the defensive line, the run of safeties earlier in the second round makes it easy to justify passing on a more immediate need.
Jackson has elite bend off the edge and at times looked like a potential top-15 pick, but inconsistent production and some weight fluctuations led him to fall. Jackson only recorded 12.5 sacks over his college career, but USC was a mess during his tenure. Jackson underwent multiple scheme changes and dropped way to become a standup linebacker his sophomore season. USC always seemed to underutilize his pass-rushing prowess. In his limited opportunities, Jackson excelled, recording a 22.0% pass-rush win rate, per PFF.
Jackson was one of the youngest pass rushers in the draft class, making his case for big upside even higher. He turned 21 less than a month ago. His youth did show up on tape, though. Jackson never showed a consistent ability to combine pass-rushing moves and lacked the strength to move opposing linemen consistently. However, that could be corrected if the 49ers helped him maintain a better weight.
Jackson has a chance to immediately compete with Samson Ebukam for a starting spot opposite of Nick Bosa. He has the potential to develop into a dynamic weapon off the edge. That’s a tantalizing combination at the end of the second round.
I initially gave the Jackson pick a B+, but the more I looked at the draft, the more I realized he was probably the best option available to them at that point. The 49ers did not luck into an obvious first-round prospect falling to them at the end of the second round, but selecting Jackson was probably the best option available to them at that point.
Pick Grade: A
2. Tyrion Davis-Price, RB, LSU (93rd overall)
For the second consecutive year, the 49ers drafted a running back with the first of their two third-round picks, and for the second straight year, I’m left scratching my head. Davis-Price was a fourth or fifth-round prospect, according to most boards. It remains even more confusing given the Niners’ ability to get production from late-round/undrafted backs under Shanahan.
The Raiders did select OG Dylan Parham 90th overall, and I wonder if the Niners lost their target and opted to go for the top running back on their board instead. Either way, this was easily the organization’s most head-scratching move of the draft. However, that does not mean Davis-Price won’t be a notable contributor next season.
Davis-Price was a consistent contributor over his three seasons at LSU, recording his first 1,000-yard season in 2021 when he moved to the top of the program’s depth chart. Davis-Price has the potential to be above-average at everything (even pass-blocking) but lacks an apparent standout skill. Still, he’s a solid depth piece and might already be the 49ers' best runner between the tackles.
Perhaps the 49ers were betting against LSU, a bet several teams made throughout the draft. After winning the national championship in 2019, the LSU program fell apart over the past two years. The fact that Davis-Price was a consistent positive throughout all of the program’s ups-and-downs, even holding his own this season despite LSU’s mediocre passing game and offensive line (for SEC standards), could be a part of why the 49ers believe he was underrated.
Pick Grade: D
3. Danny Gray, WR, SMU (105th overall)
Wide receiver may not have been the 49ers' most apparent need with players like Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk locked into the starting lineup, but there’s an argument that wideout was as big a need as any other position on the roster. Aiyuk and Samuel have dealt with minor injuries every year of their careers, and San Francisco lacks proven backups. Assuming both are healthy, Gray adds a vertical threat to hopefully complement Jauan Jennings in the second tier of receiving options for Trey Lance next season with the potential to be a bit more down the line.
Gray was a polarizing draft prospect, receiving grades that ranged from the third to seventh round from various prognosticators. He combines the tantalizing speed (4.33 40-yard dash) and over-the-shoulder catch tracking ability to be a standout deep threat, a la Marquez Valdez-Scantling, with an excellent ability to generate yards after the catch, recording the third-most YAC per reception in the class. However, a limited route tree struggles with physicality, and drop issues leave some evaluators skeptical he can be an NFL receiver. I am willing to risk giving up some basics to get big-play ability, especially at pick 105. For that reason, I like the pick.
Pick Grade: B+
4. Spencer Burford, OL, UTSA (134th overall)
I have to admit; Spencer Burford was not one of the offensive line prospects I researched heavily coming into the draft. However, the more I’ve looked into the 49ers' fourth-round selection, the more I’ve liked the pick.
Burford was a four-year starter at UTSA, primarily playing left tackle. Burford is an excellent athlete and has the size the athleticism to play tackle at the next level. However, he never developed the consistent form and technique evaluators wanted to see to make him a top-end prospect. Still, his physical traits give him a solid chance to be a quality guard, even if his technique never becomes a strength.
Pick Grade: B
5. Samuel Womack, NCB, Toledo (172nd overall)
Samuel Womack was the second biggest reach of the 49ers selections, behind Davis-Price. However, selected at the end of the fifth round, it was far from an unjustifiable pick. Womack is limited by a small 5’9’’ frame but has the necessary aggressiveness and ball-hawking instincts to be a quality special teamer and potential slot corner. Were there better upside prospects available instead of Womack? Probably. But I’m not going to knock the 49ers for finding a player with a clear path to immediate playing time late in the fifth round.
Pick Grade: C+
6. Nick Zakelj, OT, Fordham (187th overall)
Fordham’s Nick Zakelj rounded out a series of three consecutive smaller school picks by the 49ers that weren’t on my radar heading into the draft but grew on me as I researched them. Zakelj is a purely developmental project who, if all goes exceptionally, could compete to be the 49ers' right tackle in 2023 if Mike McGlinchey moves on in free agency following next season.
Zakelj is a slightly larger and even less refined prospect than Buford. Zakelj has the size, strength, and athleticism to be a starting tackle but was rarely tested against Patriot League competition and never developed consistent technique. Still, he was an All-Patriot League player all four years of his career.
I’m not sure Zakelj is the upside play I would have made at tackle, but it’s clear San Francisco’s strategy was to bet on their ability to develop players with physical traits. As a result, it carries some risk but comes with a significant potential payoff. While there’s a chance, Zakelj is never more than a mediocre swing tackle, pairing him with Buford gives the 49ers a decent chance of coming away with one future starter between the two of them.
Pick Grade: B-
7. Kalia Davis, IDL, UCF (220th overall)
I was surprised to see the 49ers make no trades, mainly because I was skeptical they could find prospects in the 200s with a shot of making their 53-man roster. I was wrong. Kalia Davis is built like a standard run-stuffing nose tackle but has the burst off the snap to be a factor in the pass rush.
He was quite productive over his career at UCF and might have been a borderline Day 2 selection if not for a torn ACL in Week 5. Even with the injury, several evaluators considered Davis a fifth-round prospect, and instead, the 49ers grabbed him at the end of the sixth. While the Niners have several veteran interior defensive linemen signed for next season as they try to replace D.J. Jones, no one is firmly entrenched behind Javon Kinlaw. Davis is a great value who could immediately find his way onto the field.
Pick Grade: A
8. Tariq Castro-Fields, CB, Penn State (221st overall)
According to consensus boards, Tariq Castro-Fields was the 49ers' best value selection of the draft, consistently ranking as a fourth or fifth-round prospect. Castro-Fields is an excellent athlete who was a solid contributor for five seasons in the Penn State secondary but never found a way to put it all together. Castro-Fields showed the speed, size, and explosiveness to be an effective outside corner during the pre-draft process but was more of a jack-of-all-trades starter in college.
He will need to greatly improve his ball skills to become a legitimate starting prospect, but it’s not hard to see him developing into a solid backup. At this point in the draft, teams should be willing to bet on some good fortune and their coaching staff. Castro-Fields’ speed should make him a quality special teams contributor on Day 1, and if he develops well with the 49ers, he could one day push for a starting spot.
Pick Grade: A
9. Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State (262nd overall)
I suspected the 49ers would eye a quarterback with the final selection of the draft, and Shanahan opted to go with Iowa State standout Brock Purdy. It would have been exciting to see them go for a higher upside quarterback, like Carson Strong, but that would have been a deviation from Shanahan’s history when targetting backups.
While he has unexceptional arm strength, which leads him to check down more than he should, Purdy also avoids negative plays, using his decent athleticism and quick release to avoid sacks and turnovers. He never missed a game due to injury in his four seasons as Iowa State’s starter.
It’s also worth noting that even if the 49ers plan to trade/release Jimmy Garoppolo before Week 1, Nate Sudfeld is already guaranteed $2 million next season, likely locking him into the backup quarterback spot. If the Niners plan on trying to sneak their third quarterback onto the practice squad, Strong’s upside probably would have made it harder for them to get him through waivers. Purdy, on the other hand, has a far better chance of getting to the 49ers practice squad.
Pick Grade: B+
Notable UDFAs: C Dohnovan West, S Leon O’Neal Jr., IOL Jason Poe
Safety Leon O’Neal Jr. has a fantastic motor and should have a chance to make the roster on special teams. His energy level and intangibles leave some folks confident that he will develop beyond his current projection at the next level, and that’s a gamble worth taking in undrafted free agency. Jason Poe is another developmental offensive lineman who has showcased excellent athleticism but struggled with consistency on the interior at Mercer. West, though, is the jewel of the undrafted free agents.
West was a solid starter at left guard, right guard, and center during his college career at Arizona State and seemed to finally come into his own at center in the second half of this past season. No one would have been surprised if the 49ers drafted West at any point from pick 93 on. Instead, they signed him as a free agent. I will not be shocked if West is the 49ers starting center in 2023.
UDFA Grade: A-
I have come to expect the unexpected from the Shanahan/Lynch regime. There are usually some consensus needs that they choose to ignore in the draft, and there’s always the looming threat of Shanahan falling in love with an early-round running back. Both of those things happened this year, but shrewd late-round picks and undrafted free-agent signings helped them build a really exciting draft class around Drake Jackson anyway.
Safety and center seemed like obvious needs entering the draft, but the best options went off the board before they were on the clock. So instead of reaching for those needs, they mostly acquired better values. Then, rewarded for their patience, they landed top undrafted free agents at both spots.
As high as I am on the 49ers draft class, fans will need to keep things in perspective. While Drake Jackson was a great pick, he’s also just the 11th highest selection of Shanahan’s tenure. So expectations need to be adjusted accordingly.
Given the picks they had, it will be a fantastic draft for the 49ers if they come away with one Pro Bowl player, two above-average starters, or three consistent contributors. That’s markedly lower than the standard they needed to meet to find solid value in previous drafts. With that in mind, the 49ers did an excellent job addressing their short and long-term needs despite having the least draft capital of any year in the Kyle Shanahan era.
Overall Draft Value Grade: A-