John Lynch did something in this year’s draft that he’s never done before: Nothing. That’s right. In each of his previous five go-arounds as the 49ers’ final word on roster acquisitions and allocation of capital, he’s liberally moved up and down the draft board, using players and picks as bargaining chips with abandon.
However, not this year. The team stood pat, selecting nine players from the nine slots the team had scheduled, and I’ll tell you now that, while not quite as exciting, this is very good news.
The brass has talked for years about preventing leaks and keeping moves under wraps, but I don’t think anyone would have anticipated this big of a zag. Sure, for a few anxious minutes there, we had to sweat out the tenth pick, just in case, the Jets ponied up enough to swoop Deebo Samuel. But, other than that, it seems like the phone in the war room might’ve had no service.
So, how do you explain such a tremendous tendency breaker? Well, like every time the draft ends, you end up learning a lot more about how teams see themselves compared to how they’re viewed from the outside. Everyone and their uncle spent the entire off-season screaming about what the San Francisco 49ers need.
Strong Safety! Guard! Center!
All of those positions had top-tier guys available, but taking them would’ve required trading up to the end of the first or beginning of the second round. At 61, the Niners seemed to miss out on all the guys who would’ve made the most sense. Instead, they waited, and who should fall into their lap? Drake Jackson, DE, USC.
This should only be surprising in how unsurprising it is. Jackson means that the Niners have used their first selection of the draft on a defensive lineman four out of the last six years. He also seems to fill what the team has considered its biggest hole on defense, a speedy edge rusher to bookend with Nick Bosa.
The team spent a second-round pick on a player to fill this role once before, and, at least this time, it won’t cost them an 85 million dollar extension. The EDGE position in 2022 had both high-end talent, as evidenced by the three taken in the top five, but also depth. This is where the 49ers saw value, accurately predicting an athletically gifted player who could learn under Kris Kocurek would fall to them.
This philosophy seems to apply to the entire draft. (Outside of Ty Davis-Price in the third round, but we know Shanahan’s got a whole different philosophy about running backs.) It became clear quickly that depth would be the name of the game, which tells us that they must have been pretty comfortable with the state of the roster, especially when you look at how they approached free agency.
First, they filled the team’s most screamingly, glaringly, horrifyingly obvious need at cornerback, which would have been impossible in the draft without a huge move up. After that, it appears they were content to attack luxury positions along the special teams unit that had its own share of issues. Of course, some of those players, like Ray-Ray McCloud or George Odom, could threaten to make a bigger impact, but time will be the judge there.
When you put this all together with hindsight being 20/20, it can pretty easily be deduced that the 49ers approached this draft with a complete top-to-bottom-bottom-to-top construction plan. It says they believe in Mike McGlinchey’s recovery, Aaron Banks’ development, Alex Mack’s decision, Tarvarius Moore/Talanoa Hufunga’s ability, and Trey Lance’s star power.
The belief seems to be that there’s enough superstar talent at the premium positions (Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Trent Williams) and enough athletic-freak outliers at others (George Kittle, Fred Warner) that the biggest need was an overall talent level increase. Bringing in guys who can compete at the backup guard or center or cornerback position to up the floor will pay dividends when unforeseen. Still, unavoidable injuries happen, like they always do.
So, let’s talk about how this approach signals good things on the horizon. A team only lets a draft come to them the way the Niners did in two very different circumstances. One, you’re so utterly devoid of talent that making moves for individual players would be a waste of resources. Or, on the other hand, you’re so satisfied with the team as-built that you can afford to go the best player available/value plays simply.
When a front office looks at a team which was minutes away from winning the NFC Championship that’s about to turn the keys over to a young, blue-chip quarterback, and they’re stocking the cupboard as full as possible, what do you think that means?
The Super Bowl window is open, and this is how you keep it that way.