49ers Can Choose Their Own Draft Adventure
The run up to the 2014 NFL Draft has been unlike any other in recent memory.
In addition to pushing the draft back two weeks to the second week of May, one of the deepest classes in years has the league, the media, and fans abuzz about who’s going to go where, which team makes a huge trade up to grab a player, which quarterback drops the furthest, and so forth. With the new rookie wage scale in place, it’s never been easier to make a big move in the first, or even a smaller move to grab the top player on your board. The Niners, just last year proved that, when they threw the Cowboys an early third-round pick to jump 13 spots and grab Eric Reid.
With a whopping six selections in the first 100 picks (with only one being untradeable), San Francisco is again in the cat bird’s seat to move up for an impact player. With the only glaring holes on the roster most notably at wide receiver and defensive back, the team is considered a lock to move up to at least the middle of the first round. While Trent Baalke and company have never been afraid to shake up the draft, the scenarios are nearly endless as to how the 49ers can play the 2014 Draft.
Instead of attempting a mock draft, which at this point, would be the one trillionth of the season, I’m going to break down three possible first-round scenarios for the 49ers. Whichever path San Francisco decides to travel during this draft, after Day 1 we’ll get a pretty good idea of their plans. The only lock in this draft for the Niners is that they won’t make all 11 picks they have. Packaging picks to move up, acquiring future picks for some of this year’s selections are both likely circumstances, but nothing can be ruled out.
The Big Move
Theoretically, moving up into the top 10 shouldn’t be as difficult in this year’s draft as it’s been in the past. With a deep class, contributors and Day 1 starters could be found as late as the fourth or fifth round. That means teams light on depth could auction off a top 10 pick for some combination of first-, second-, third-, and fourth-round picks, and add a stable of depth and potential starters. The Falcons notably made that jump several years ago, moving up to select Julio Jones. They surrendered two first-rounders, a second-rounder, and two fourth-rounders — a veritable haul — which has allowed the Browns to add a multitude of depth over the last few seasons.
The 49ers, with their bevy of early-round selections, would not need to surrender the future picks that Atlanta gave up, but it would be a fairly big move to break into the top 10. Even at a somewhat discount price in a heavy draft and with the rookie wage scale, Baalke would likely have to part with the No. 30, 56, 77, and even a future third or fourth to move up into the top 10.
The only realistic targets with the move would be the consensus top two wide receivers in the draft, Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans. Both could realistically end up getting picked in the top seven, so the Niners would have to target Oakland, or possibly Jacksonville as a trade partner. Even if they give up No. 30, 56, 77, and even the 128th pick, they’ll still have Nos. 61, 94, and 100 picks still left in the second and third round, in addition to their three seventh-round picks. That would provide the Niners with a little more capital to move up.
Do they value Watkins or Evans highly enough to do that? The problem with the “one player away” argument is that it’s the NFL. The team is always changing. Next year, Mike Iupati and Michael Crabtree could walk out the door, along with a possibly retiring Justin Smith, and several cap casualties. The Niners have had a run of success with a very similar core over the last few seasons. But, even with a whiff in the draft in 2012, the Niners have a wealth of players drafted from 2010, 2011, and 2013 to form a formidable young core. However tempting, moving up this high remains probably the least likely of all the options.
Chances it Happens: 20%
The Medium Move
Moving from the #31 overall pick to the #18 selection to pick Eric Reid cost the 49ers the 73rd overall pick in the draft. Would it be reasonable to expect the #14-16th pick back if Trent Baalke packages the #30, #61, and even a 7th round sweetener? I would think so, and by and large, the Niners’ GM has done pretty well trading his draft capital mid-draft. And with a wealth of picks, he can afford to overpay, if ever so slightly.
Once Watkins and Evans are off the board inside the top 10, the second tier of wide receiver talent appears to be the undersized speed types such as Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Marquise Lee. While the 49ers need to start preparing for the departure of Michael Crabtree in free agency and Anquan Boldin to retirement, I would only trade into the middle of the first round for Beckham. It appears the Niners are smitten with the receiver from LSU, as reporters from the national media to the local level have mentioned the connection.
Another option if San Francisco moves up to the teens is a defensive back. While the Niners have done a really good job in drafting and developing defensive back in the later rounds – Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, Tramaine Brock all come to mind in recent history – they need some help in the secondary. Although they signed Antoine Bethea as a two-year replacement for Donte Whitner, if the Niners move up to the middle teens, it's one of the top corners or safeties will be around. There have been murmurs the 49ers could make a move for Justin Gilbert, the consensus #1 corner in the draft, but with the depth of the cornerback class, it may not be worth it. If the front office was enamored with safety such as Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix or Jimmie Ward, either would be a very good pick to put next to Eric Reid, but with Bethea in place, I expect them to hold off drafting a safety until Day 2 or 3.
A trade up to the teens or twenties remains the most likely move for the Niners, but I wouldn't set it in stone. Although Trent Baalke has the capital to move up pretty easily, he could wait for the first night to pass before taking advantage of some discounts on the second day to move up and grab the fallers in the second and third rounds. However, the allure of a Beckham or Cooks, or even a cornerback like Kyle Fuller or Darqueze Dennard could be too tempting.
Chances it Happens: 50%
Stand Pat or Trade Down
In a third scenario, as I started alluding to, the Niners could stay put in the first round, and use their wealth of picks to move up on Day 2 of the draft and poach some of the first-round talents that have slipped into the second and third rounds. With infinite possibilities that could unfold over the first few hours of the draft on Thursday, it's certainly possible the 49ers are unable to find a suitable trade to move up. However, more likely, due to the depth of the receiver and secondary classes, the brass could just wait for whichever first-round talent at WR or CB falls to the 30th overall pick.
If there ends up being a run on offensive tackles or quarterbacks, or both, towards the middle-end of the first round, there will be some really talented players who fall to the end of the first or completely out of Day 1 all together. With a boatload of picks last season, Baalke made some great value picks, like Tank Carradine (2nd), Corey Lemonier (3rd) and Quinton Patton (4th), so he'll be monitoring his draft board throughout Thursday night, and if a move isn't there, he won't make it.
As odd as standing pat may sound, the Niners could probably get away with it in the first round. As unlikely as it probably sounds, trading down is even an option for SF. If teams are clamoring to move up and grab one of the few remaining first-round OTs or QBs, why join the throng of teams and up the price to move up? The Niners traded the first pick in the second round last season to move down 9 spots and picked up an extra third-rounder for this season. Could they do that again? Unlikely, but Baalke will certainly be aware of what's going on. However, he may have already moved up in the first-round by that point.
Chances it Happens: 30%
Despite just the one late pick in the first-round, Thursday will be a defining day for the Niners in this draft. By the end of the first-round we'll know the plan of attack the 49ers have in place for this season's draft.
If they make a substantial move up, inside the top 10, we'll know their plan for later in the draft will be to grab values with whichever picks they still hold. After moving up, to presumably grab Watkins, Evans, or even Gilbert, they'll still be able to select another defensive back, wide receiver, in addition to adding depth in the trenches and a few other luxury picks to add to the mix. While it's unlikely, the move would certainly shake up the draft. Acquiring Evans or Watkins would clearly signal the end of Michael Crabtree's tenure in San Francisco. Crabtree will want to get paid top 10 WR money in 2015, but the Niners won't be in the position to pay him that and will gladly accept a compensation selection for the 2016 draft.
The small-to-medium move in the first-round might be the best of both worlds though. With Odell Beckham Jr. rated as the #3 wideout in the class, a trade for him will give the Niners a potential in-house replacement for Crabtree for 2015, as well as giving Baalke and company flexibility to make moves throughout Friday and Saturday. The front office made a total of four trades over the first two days of the draft last season, so I would expect a similar level of involvement or greater this time around.
That remains the most likely and most logical move, but with plenty of teams looking to move up into the mid-to-late first round, Baalke may zag away from the league. The result may staying put and selecting a wide receiver such as Cody Latimer or Allen Robinson, or a cornerback such as Bradley Roby or Jason Verrett at #30. None would probably present the upgrade a Beckham or Fuller would, but they all look the part of first-round talents. “Settling” for any of those players would also allow the Niners to be super aggressive throughout the second and third days, trading up and sniping value plays wherever they pop up.
It will be anyone’s best guess as to what happens from May 8-10, but we’ll all be watching the organized chaos unfold. Over the next 24 hours, the words “rumors,” “sources,” “stock up,” “stock down,” and “buzz” will be flying around. Do yourself a favor and don’t pay attention, then tune in at 8 p.m. Thursday for all the fun!