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What would represent a successful draft for the 49ers?

San Francisco should be focused on depth, with one eye on 2024.

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The 49ers have a history of successful drafts. Regardless of whether Trey Lance remains with the team and fulfills his potential and despite criticism of their 2017 first-round misses and the insistence on selecting running back after running back, there is no denying John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have continually found pivotal contributors via the draft.

This year, the odds of them doing so are somewhat decreased, given they do not have a selection until the 99th pick in the third round as a result of the trade that netted Lance and last year’s mid-season trade for Christian McCaffrey.

San Francisco, of course, still found starters last year despite not having a selection until the second round. Spencer Burford, after splitting time with Daniel Brunskill as a rookie, will start at right guard in 2023 and Brock Purdy will be the favorite to start at quarterback if he can recover from his torn elbow ligament In time for Week 1.

And the Niners do have more bites at the apple this year. They have 11 selections in 2023 but, with eight of them on day three and nothing resembling a premium pick, the 49ers will be facing a difficult challenge to thread the needle and find key players in this draft.

So, in a year when they will again miss out on the players seen as best in class but have a host of opportunities to prove their scouting acumen by unearthing some day-three gems, what would represent another successful draft for the 49ers?

Before answering that question, it is worth noting that the Niners will almost certainly draft a running back or a wide receiver, if not both. You may not like it, but since when has Shanahan cared about what outsiders think? He values both those positions highly, and there has not been a draft during his tenure in which San Francisco has not selected a back or a receiver.

Such ‘luxury’ selections could be considered more acceptable this year. It is well documented that the 49ers do not necessarily need to find starters in the draft, though the case could be made for doing so at right tackle and kicker.

Instead, one of the primary aims of this year’s draft for the 49ers will be to infuse depth, and the two main areas of focus should be on position groups where they are only a couple of injuries away from being in a tricky spot.

On the defensive line, the 49ers have arguably the most talented front in football, with Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa playing alongside interior disruptors Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave.

Yet, the edge depth behind Bosa and presumptive second-year starter Drake Jackson is uninspiring and, though the 49ers have numbers further down the defensive tackle depth chart, they could still use another interior rusher to supplement Armstead and Hargrave and a de-facto nose tackle who can fill the D.J. Jones role that Hassan Ridgeway occupied in 2022.

The 49ers are no longer are a rush over coverage team. Theirs is a defense that, as it proved last season, can win up front and on the back end. San Francisco’s secondary made great strides in 2022, but there is only a series of question-marks at cornerback after expected starters Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir and Isaiah Oliver.

With this draft class especially deep at corner, the 49ers have a clear chance to find some young insurance at a premium position and avoid the situation they faced in 2021, when a succession of injuries left them relying on Josh Norman and Ambry Thomas during the second half of the season. Thomas’ step back in 2022 is one of the reasons why corner should be on the agenda for San Francisco in this draft.

At safety, the only player with any starting experience behind Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga is special teamer George Odum. Selecting an heir apparent to free safety Gipson from a crop that is not as talented as the cornerback group would achieve the dual goals of adding depth while filling holes that could emerge in 2024.

While it is unlikely the 49ers will part with George Kittle next year, doing so would save them nearly $10 million against the cap, per Spotrac. Kittle has not played a full season since 2018 owing to injuries and, in a draft in which tight end may be the deepest position, it would be prudent for the 49ers to pick him a running mate and potential successor. San Francisco has reportedly done more work on tight end than any other team.

Similarly, with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk carrying a joint cap hit of over $42.5 million in 2024 — though that could be lowered by an Aiyuk extension next offseason — the idea of the 49ers bidding farewell to one of their top two receivers is not overly farfetched.

As such, there is justification for Shanahan making his near-annual receiver selection. Should the Niners hit on a day two or day-three receiver who shows signs of being able to take on a starting role, it would give them room to maneuver at wideout and more confidence in their options at the position if they need to move on from a star.

It is unrealistic to suggest the 49ers could come away from this draft with improved depth in the defensive trenches and in the secondary, and potential starters at three positions.

But if the 49ers can exit the draft with increased resources in those two critical areas of Steve Wilks’ defense to protect against injuries and a couple of prospects who at least have the starter upside to indicate they could develop into prominent contributors in 2024, then they can head into their offseason program satisfied with their efforts in setting up the roster for next season’s Super Bowl push and for the future.