SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers are picking at their highest point in the NFL Draft since 2011 before Jim Harbaugh's first season as head coach.
That year they took outside linebacker Aldon Smith with the seventh pick, quickly becoming the missing link on a defense that lacked a consistent pass rush.
This year, San Francisco picks 15th after an 8-8 season. But unfortunately for the 49ers, they might have a hard time finding that missing link at that point midway through the first round.
Their slot at 15 is likely too late for cream of the receiver crop featuring three standout prospects, and too early for a group of cornerbacks that faces a number of question marks (one of which was discussed here).
Going through the elite prospects of this year's class, it's hard to find a sure thing. And at 15, the 49ers' best option might be to trade back later into the first round to add more mid-round picks where there is more value. It's just not a deep class at the top of the draft, making 15 a tough place to be. That was discussed in the video below:
But there are three prospects, in particular, San Francisco should jump on if they fall to 15, which is lower than their projections heading into Thursday's first round. They could also be considered viable trade-up candidates. But with their being more value in the middle of this draft than early on, it's hard to imagine Trent Baalke paying the steep price to move up.
DeVante Parker (6-3, 209), Wide receiver, Louisville
The 49ers' need at receiver is obvious. With Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson gone while Anquan Boldin enters what will likely be the last year in his contract, San Francisco needs a talented receiver to grow with Colin Kaepernick and compliment Torrey Smith. Parker could be that guy, but it would be a significant upset if he fell to 15 with so many teams picking ahead of the 49ers having a need at the position.
Parker has all the traits to be a consistent Pro Bowl receiver should he stay healthy and continue to develop. It might not cost the 49ers a lot to move up from 15, say to the 10 to 12 range. But there will be good receivers available later in the first, should they move back, and into the second and third rounds. Landing Parker would might be the best-case scenario for Baalke and Co. after being unable to draft consistent pass catchers in recent years.
Brandon Scherff (6-5, 319), Offensive lineman, Iowa
With former All-Pro Mike Iupati leaving for the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers have big shoes to fill at left guard. Scherff could start right away and has all the traits to be an All-Pro performer early his career.
While Scherff initially won't be the down-hill blocker in the running game Iupati was, he would be an upgrade as a pass protector. And he might be a better fit in a zone blocking scheme under new offensive line coach Chris Foerster. The 49ers struggled to field a consistent back-up tackle behind Anthony Davis last year and released Jonathan Martin this offseason. Scherff could handle that role. He's viewed as one of the few "can't miss" prospects in this year's class.
Scherff's versatility, size and toughness make him an instant-impact player along any offensive line. In a division loaded with imposing defensive fronts, you can never invest too heavily in offensive linemen. Scherff would be the third first-round pick along that offensive front. Remember, the offense dominating the line of scrimmage played a large role in Kaepernick's ascension in 2012. It's no coincidence he took a step backwards behind an offensive line that struggled last season.
Todd Gurley (6-1, 222), Running Back, Georgia
Snatching up Gurley, viewed by many as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, would be a classic best-player-available scenario.
No, the 49ers don't have a pressing need at running back, but landing Gurley to pair with Carlos Hyde as a one-two punch would make San Francisco's backfield the envy of the league. Having two tough runners that could stay fresh by having their work loads limited could go a long way in a division packed with good defenses - the ultimate luxury for a run-first offense.
It's no secet what a strong running game does for Kaepernick and the play-action game, which has its best deep threat in years in Smith. Having Hyde could allow Gurley to take his time rehabbing his ACL and make sure he's fully healthy before getting back on the field. If you're a fan of physical football, what could be better than watching Gurley and Marshawn Lynch face off twice a year?
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