SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It looks like the 49ers might be done making significant additions in free agency. So for the next month and a half, the focus shifts to the upcoming draft. The first round starts April 30.
But first, the team’s free-agent additions and departures:
We’ll rank the time draft needs from 6 to 1, with 1 being most pressing. The 49ers will have nine draft picks to help address these needs. They added two compensatory picks for losing two qualified free agents last spring. Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Anthony Dixon departed while the team brought in Antoine Bethea.
6. Outside linebacker/Pass Rusher
The 49ers’ deep group of linebackers was a strength in 2014, but the position on the outside beyond its top two players - Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch - is in flux. Dan Skuta signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars while reserve Chase Thomas reportedly tore an ACL this offseason while working out making it unlikely he contributes in 2015.
That leaves Ahmad Brooks, with his $7 million cap hit, and third-year player Corey Lemonier backing up Smith and Lynch. Brooks will be back next season, general manager Trent Baalke said, despite a salary that doesn’t match up with his declining production.
Lemonier took a drastic step backward in his second season last year entering the season as a starter when Smith was serving his nine-game suspension. But he was quickly passed by Lynch, the rookie, on the depth chart and played sparingly as the season wore on. Lemonier will need a strong offseason to retain his roster spot, which would likely include a competition with an incoming rookie.
5. Defensive End
Losing Ray McDonald and Justin Smith, who continues to mull retirement, means the 49ers will likely have two new starters in 2015. They signed veteran Darnell Dockett, who is coming off an ACL tear that caused him to miss all of last season, and will have an open competition for the other starting defensive end spot.
Aside from an incoming draft pick, the 49ers have Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, and red-shirt rookie Kaleb Ramsey. Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Mike Purcell are the team’s nose tackles, who could see more time playing defensive end in curtain situations.
By the time the draft comes around, San Francisco will likely know if Smith is coming back for a 15th season. If he does, the team could wait until the later rounds in the draft and hope Ramsey can become a viable contender for a roster spot. If Smith doesn’t come back, expect the 49ers to use a mid-round pick to add depth and competition to the defensive line.
4. Inside Linebacker
In one week’s time, the 49ers’ plan at inside linebacker flipped on its head. Gone are Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, leaving a massive hole on the inside of the team’s defense. A lot of eyes will be on NaVorro Bowman this offseason, who Baalke said is in a ”real good place” in his rehab from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee sustained January of 2014.
If Bowman returns healthy, he would start alongside Michael Wilhoite, who replaced Bowman admirably during his absence last season. Third-year player Nick Moody, who was inserted into the lineup after Borland suffered an ankle injury late in the year, would be the team’s only back up with any experience. Shayne Skov signed a reserve/future contract this offseason and will compete for a roster spot this summer.
The 49ers could use a second or third round pick to address the position to add depth, or even give Wilhoite a run for his starting job.
3. Wide Receiver
Receiver is always the most popular position on fans’ wish lists, but the addition of Torrey Smith makes it a less pressing need. The 49ers have their starting duo in Anquan Boldin and Smith, and won’t likely use an early pick on a player that won’t have a significant role during his rookie season. Baalke likes to find players with early picks that he believes can contribute right away.
Adding a receiver early in the draft would be a complicated decision. In the past, the team has typically rotated its third receiver depending on match ups, meaning reserve wideouts would get roughly 10 to 12 snaps per game. If the 49ers are going to run the ball as often as Baalke has indicated this offseason, they would have a hard time developing a receiver taken with an early-round pick due to a lack of consistent playing time.
With Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and Jerome Simpson competing for roles behind the starters this summer, a rookie wideout would have to make a remarkable early impression to get a significant playing time in 2015.
That being said, Boldin, 34, is entering the last year of his contract meaning the 49ers will likely need a new starter in 2016. If they invested an early pick on a receiver in this draft, they could allow that player a year of development before expanding his role if Boldin leaves. But there’s danger in taking a receiver early without the opportunity to play and develop chemistry with Colin Kaepernick during games. Bottom line: the 49ers need to add depth, youth and speed to the position group.
The 49ers lost their two starting corners - Cox and Culliver - in free agency, while second-year nickel corner Jimmie Ward is rehabbing from his second Jones fracture in his foot in a calendar year. Baalke drafted four corners last spring (Ward, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker), who he is counting on to provide depth in 2015.
If the season started Sunday, the 49ers would start Tramaine Brock and Johnson. Brock only played in three games in 2014 after sustaining a toe injury in the season opener after his breakout season in 2013. Johnson impressed as a rookie, but allowed a team-worst 122.4 quarterback rating (15 of 23 completions, two TDs) when targeted over the last three regular season games.
Surprisingly, it was Johnson, and not Cox, who replaced Ward at nickel after he hit the shelf with his foot injury in November. The 49ers would be smart to add a corner to play on the outside in nickel situations, allowing Johnson to return to the slot if Ward can’t. Reaser and Acker will be healthy this summer, but the 49ers aren’t in a position to count on them after missing their rookie seasons with an ACL tear and stress fracture, respectively.
The 49ers brought back Chris Cook and signed former Charger Shareece Wright for depth, but neither is assured a roster spot. Baalke could find a corner to compete for a starting job in the first round, with LSU’s Jalen Collins fitting the mold as the lengthy, athletic corner he typically covets. Marcus Cromartie and Cameron Fuller will also compete for roster spots.
1. Left Guard
The 49ers’ offense struggled to find any consistency last season, starting with the inability to get the running game in rhythm. Starting eight different combinations along the offensive line played a big role in that, making it the team’s top offseason priority heading into the draft.
After losing left guard Mike Iupati to the Cardinals, the 49ers could use an infusion of talent capable of competing for a starting spot from the jump. The bodies are already there for a stiff competition with Brandon Thomas, Marcus Martin, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney and Eric Pears in the fold. But none of them give the offense what Iupati did when he was at his peak form in 2011 through 2013.
Thomas missed all of last season with an ACL tear, but is no guarantee to regain his form that made him one of the most promising players at the position entering last year’s draft before his injury. Assuming Martin can become a capable starter might be dangerous. Martin, Pears and Kilgore could also compete for that role, but the 49ers need high-level production from Iupati’s replacement if their running game is going to be their calling card as it was when they reached three straight conference title games from 2011 to 2013.
The Cowboys of last season provide a good blueprint. They drafted Notre Dame’s Zack Martin with the 16th-overall pick to plug into the starting lineup at right guard. The 49ers' first pick as at No. 15. Martin became a key cog on Dallas’ front and earned first-team All-Pro honors, helping his line mates form one of the best units in the NFL. His addition helped DeMarco Murray lead the league in rushing with 1,845 yards.
Drafting a guard early to compete for the starting role would allow the 49ers to let Thomas develop in 2015 without the pressure of having to start a year removed from his knee injury. Remember, right guard Alex Boone is entering the final year of his contact and might need replacing in 2016, which would be an ideal spot for Thomas to take over after a full season of practice as a pro.
In the coming weeks, we'll take a look a prospects that would be good fits at all these positions.