The San Francisco 49ers will head into next month's draft with a deep roster that could theoretically have all 22 starters in place before making any picks. And with at least 11 selections, they will have plenty of ammunition to address their needs or move picks for more selections in 2015's draft.
The 49ers received scant production from last year's rookie class aside from first rounder Eric Reid starting every game and earning Pro Bowl recognition. Vance McDonald played a role as the team's No. 2 tight end, but that's about it for those rookies. They will be expecting more from wideout Quinton Patton, who fractured his foot early in the season and appeared in just nine games including the postseason.
Second-round pick Tank Carradine didn't play in 2013 while recovering from an ACL tear suffered in his final game at Florida State. He began practicing midway through the year, but was shutdown when team doctors determined his knee wasn't fully recovered. He had offseason surgery to remove scar tissue and will enter his second pro season completely healthy.
"He looks like a different guy now, since that procedure," said head coach Jim Harbaugh at the scouting combine in February. "Just with what we saw when he did practice with our football team and now this procedure that's been done, I'm even more excited. I think he's going to have a great offseason and look forward to his progress very, very much."
Another player that will look to make an impact after "red shirting" last season is running back Marcus Lattimore, who also sat out the entire season while rehabbing a serious knee injury. Lattimore tore three knee ligaments before the 49ers selected him in the fourth round last spring. The South Carolina alum was regarded as the best running back prospect in the draft prior to his injury and the organization remains very high on him despite his absence from the playing field.
With last year's draft class in mind, there will be plenty of competition in training camp for roster spots at a number of positions. Let's break down the team's needs - in order - with the draft just over a month away.
The 49ers didn't address corner early in the 2013 draft despite having rumored interest in Tyrann Mathieu and Johnthan Banks in the early rounds. Instead, they waited until the seventh round to select Marcus Cooper, who wound up on the Kansas City Chiefs after San Francisco tried to land him on the practice squad at the conclusion of training camp. Cooper wound up playing a key role in the Chief's secondary that was a big part of the team's 11-5 regular season.
Incumbent cornerback Chris Culliver missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in training camp. The 49ers were able to absorb the loss thanks to the emergence of Tramaine Brock, who led the team with five interceptions and earned a four-year, $16 million contract extension during the season. Brock will remain a starter in 2014 after the team released Carlos Rogers and let Tarell Brown walk in free agency. Both signed one-year deals with the Oakland Raiders.
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The 49ers expected Culliver to start opposite Brock this year, but he was recently jailed for alleged hit-and-run and a weapons possession charge. There could be a suspension looming, which would have a mild affect on the positional need. Culliver was a prime candidate for a contract extension this offseason, but his future is in question in light of his arrest. Culliver was also the centerpiece of a media day scandal at the Super Bowl two seasons ago when he made anti-gay remarks to a shock-jock radio personality before going on to have a poor showing in the loss to the Ravens.
Perrish Cox and Eric Wright will be brought back and compete for roster spots after signing modest one-year deals. The team also brought in free agent Chris Cook, who allowed a league-high nine touchdowns in coverage for the Vikings last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The 49ers like Cook's raw skills and believe he has the size and length to be a good press corner. The team knows what it has in Cox after he played nickel in the first two rounds of the playoffs last year when Rogers was sidelined with his hamstring injury. For Wright, he will benefit from having a full and healthy offseason with the team as he hopes to regain the form that garnered a five-year, $37.5 million deal with Tampa Bay two years ago.
This is a very good draft for cornerbacks, with as many as five that could go in the first round. At 30, the 49ers could find a corner in their current slot, or take the best player available and use their two second-round picks or three thirds to address the position. But because Brock is the only incumbent starter that has solidified himself in the long term, finding a cornerback for the future should be the team's No. 1 priority come draft time.
The 49ers' passing attack became formidable once Michael Crabtree returned to form towards the later portion of the regular season and playoffs. After re-signing Anquan Boldin to return for at least two more years, the team's starters are set for 2014. But questions remain going forward.
Crabtree is entering the final year of his rookie contract and will look to get top dollar on the free agent market. With Colin Kaepernick's rookie deal up as well, he is the team's priority. Once he signs his extension, the front office will have a better idea of their budget going forward for players like Crabtree and Mike Iupati. Should Crabtree register another 1,000-yard campaign, he will likely look for a franchise-type deal that would average out to $10 million per season. In theory the 49ers could make something like that work depending on the structure of the deal, but it would be a very difficult negotiation considering Crabtree's past that included his holdout at the start of his rookie year. It will be very tough to bring back both Iupati and Crabtree considering their potential value on the open market.
That's why receiver is the team's No. 2 priority heading into the draft. Not only could the offense use a down-field threat to compliment Crabtree and Boldin - who work better in intermediate routes - but it could afford to find a depth piece or two that could vie for a starting job going forward. Like cornerback, this is a very good draft for receivers. The 49ers like Patton, but any receiver they take in the early rounds will compete with him directly for the No. 3 receiver's job. Jonathan Baldwin will be back as well, but will have to make big strides from 2013 if he wants to make the team.
Will the 49ers look for a speed guy like Brandin Cooks, Marqise Lee or Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round? Or could they wait until the second and look at players like Jordan Matthews, Davante Adams or Allen Robinson? We'll have to wait and see.
The 49ers let strong safety Donte Whitner sign a four-year, $28 million contract with the Cleveland Browns before bringing in Antoine Bethea from the Colts. Bethea will turn 30 in July, tasking the 49ers with finding his eventual replacement. With Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman backing up Bethea and Reid, the 49ers don't have to find an eventual starter this year, but they will have a chance to draft someone to develop at that spot while Bethea starts over the next two or three seasons. Bethea signed a four-year deal.
Reid spent the entire year working exclusively at free safety despite coordinator Vic Fangio's penchant for safeties that can play both positions. Reid excelled at free safety, but he has the physical tools to play in the box allowing San Francisco to look at natural free safeties to develop as well. It's not nearly as pressing a need as corner or receiver, but with Bethea on the backside of career ark, finding a long-term replacement is something that's going to have to happen in either this draft or the next.
Interior Offensive Line
It doesn't look like Jonathan Goodwin, 35, is coming back to play a fourth season with the 49ers. That became clear when the team inked former reserve Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension making him the favorite to start at center in 2014. That allows for the possibility of adding an interior offensive lineman in the coming draft.
Adam Snyder, 32, will be on the second year of his two-year deal with the team. And while the team likes his versatility, his age and cap number could let a younger player to come in and supplant him as a backup, especially since the acquisition of swing-tackle candidate Jonathan Martin. San Francisco likes what they've seen in the limited sample size from former fourth-round pick Joe Looney - who could play all three interior positions - and will give him a chance to battle for the sixth or seventh spot on the offensive line.
While Looney and Snyder could play center if the team needed them to, the 49ers don't have a player with much experience at center outside of Kilgore. This doesn't look like a great draft for centers, but the 49ers could find value if they want to find a player to compete for a backup job.
Believe it or not, Justin Smith will not be around forever. He turns 35 in September. Ray McDonald is still in the prime of his career, but spent the majority of 2013 banged up with ankle and arms injuries.
The 49ers used a second-round pick on Tank Carradine and a fifth rounder on Quinton Dial last year, but they shouldn't prevent the team from using an early pick on a defensive lineman to add depth and a future starter. The 49ers like Carradine, but he has proven next to nothing during his one season in the NFL. He could certainly become a starter down the road. But as the adage goes, you can never have too many good defensive linemen.
Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs had good seasons in their limited roles in 2013. But as undrafted players, the 49ers could still use an influx of top-level talent on the defensive front. Adding talent to the group is no slight on Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs, but the 49ers have to think about the future of the position beyond Smith and McDonald. Those are big shoes to fill. And because NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are so reliant on the defensive line eating up blockers to give them room to make plays, the 49ers can't afford to neglect the defensive line in this draft or the next.
Beyond LaMichael James, the 49ers have only Cox as an option to handle return duties, and it's far from assured both of those players will be on the team once the regular season comes around. That's why, at some point, San Francisco will have to look for a player with return skills in the coming draft. And with needs at both receiver and corner, the team could kill two birds with one stone in the later rounds by addressing either position with a player that could handle returning kicks.
James did well on punt returns after taking over for Kyle Williams midway through the season. Still, he hasn't quite been the game changer on either offense or special teams the team envisioned taking him in the second round in 2012. It's worth remembering James was a key player on offense during the playoffs of his rookie season - his fumble in the Super Bowl aside - when he averaged over five yards per carry while Kendall Hunter was sidelined with an Achilles tear.
James is still young and his opportunities on offense have been limited, but his presence won't prevent the 49ers from drafting a player in a similar mold. They could use a shifty, quick player on offense that could either be a threat out of the backfield or as a slot receiver. Players like that usually have a knack for returning kicks and San Francisco could certainly go that direction in the mid or late rounds.
The 49ers like what they have in Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody as backups to Willis and Bowman. But with Bowman likely out for at least the first six weeks of the season, the team could afford to use a pick an inside linebacker that could fill in and also play special teams. If Bowman starts the season on the PUP list as expected, they would have an opening on the roster for another inside linebacker.
Moody, taken in the sixth round in 2013, appeared in just four games last year and only played 10 defensive snaps. With Wilhoite the likely starter while Bowman recovers from his knee injury, he's slated to be the top backup, leaving an opening for the fourth inside linebacker job.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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