• Zach Pratt

49ers Opponent Draft Recap: Rest of the NFC

Image Credit: Giants.com

The 2018 NFL draft is in the books, and I’m sure you all have gone diving into tape to see how well Mike McGlinchey will fit into the 49ers’ zone scheme, whether Dante Pettis is limited to being only a slot receiver, and what a Jullian Taylor is. However, the 49ers weren’t the only team gathering new players in an attempt to improve their team. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be diving into the 49ers’ regular season opponents and their respective draft classes to see who improved, who left me scratching my head, and who simply missed the mark. Last week, I covered the 49ers’ NFC West rivals, which can be found here. This week, I’m taking a look at their 2018 NFC opponents from outside of the division.

Minnesota Vikings

Living in Minnesota, it is quite an experience watching Minnesota sports and the emotions that go along with their fandom. This state is used to heartbreaking losses. Fans in Minnesota are so guarded that Stefon Diggs and the Minneapolis Miracle had the Twin Cities in such a glow that everyone here forgot that we were experiencing the Arctic lows of January. To Minnesotans, it was sunny and 75 all week. The next week sadly brought Vikings fans back down to Earth, and the offseason began. Kirk Cousins, after being perpetually linked with the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan, kicked off a rare offseason of hope with potentially the highest-profile team change in the league. The Sheldon Richardson signing indicated a strong win-now mindset in Minnesota. The Vikings’ draft class, however, tells a conflicting story.

If there was ever a fit at cornerback for a Mike Zimmer defense, it is Mike Hughes from the University of Central Florida, who Minnesota took in the first round. Hughes has great athleticism and is one of the most physical corners in this class. What Hughes lacks in size, he makes up for in grit and meanness. However, Hughes is still missing some of the refinement needed to be a cornerback in the NFL. Hughes, in essence, is strong at the line of scrimmage, but will struggle if the receiver beats the initial press. While his physical traits may help on special teams, Hughes is a year or two away from making a big impact on this defense, and should be seen more as a Trae Waynes replacement in the future as opposed to an instant upgrade.

Minnesota stuck with the development mindset in the middle rounds of the draft, taking offensive tackle Brian O’Neill from Pittsburgh, defensive end Jalyn Holmes from Ohio State, guard Colby Gossett from Appalachian State, and edge-rushing defensive end Ade Aruna from Tulane. Each of these selections have the chance to develop into a solid contributor, but will need at least a year of development before making any sort of impact. Devante Downs, a linebacker out of California, is likely nothing more than a camp body or special teams contributor.

My favorite pick might be Tyler Conklin, a tight end out of Central Michigan who should immediately step in as a complementary piece to Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph is getting up there in age, and Conklin has the opportunity to replace him fully in a year or two. The most immediate impact, however, might come from kicker Daniel Carson from Auburn, as Minnesota has experienced woes at that position for what seems like decades.

All in all, Minnesota definitely improved in the short term through free agency. Unfortunately, by the time these draft picks are truly able to contribute, Cousins might be at the end of his relatively short deal and out of his prime. It is especially peculiar because Minnesota passed on some players (specifically, guard Will Hernandez out of the University of Texas El-Paso) that were perfect scheme fits and immediately ready to contribute at positions of need. These picks may be good in a few years, but Minnesota fans shouldn’t expect much out of the 2018 draft class in the upcoming season.

Detroit Lions

It seems like the Lions, for as long as I can remember, have been forgettable almost every year. Outside of Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, the Lions roster has been filled with overpaid, underperforming players making their way through town. Matt Millen brought this team to an all-time low during their 0-16 season, and ownership has been struggling to bring them back ever since. This year, Detroit brought in New England’s former defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, as head coach to bring some winning ways to a downtrodden city. Patricia’s blue-collar demeanor, along with an impressive draft class, may be the beginning of an actual above-average team.

In the first round, Detroit upgraded their interior offensive line significantly with the selection of Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas. Ragnow has a rare toughness and intelligence combination that will make him beloved in the city of Detroit. Ragnow should pair well with Matthew Stafford to bring a reliable presence to the line on every play.

Detroit continued the upgrades at positions of need with running back Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn. Johnson is the type of all-around running back that Detroit has desperately been searching for, though I do find it curious that they passed on Derrius Guice at this spot. With their second selection of Day 2, Detroit upgraded the free safety position by selecting Tracy Walker out of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. While he won’t help in the run game, Walker has the size, speed, and range to defend the back of a Detroit defense that will have to see Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins twice a year each.

Day 3 saw a couple of picks with great value, as Detroit snagged defensive end Da’shawn Hand from Alabama in the fourth round and Tyrell Crosby out of Oregon in the fifth, the latter of which can play upwards of four positions along the offensive line. Each fell for various reasons, but presented great value in Day 3. Detroit rounded out the draft class with another backfield talent, this time selecting quarterback-turned-fullback Nick Bawden out of San Diego State. Bawden is exactly the type of hardnosed player you take in the seventh round when you are trying to transform the mindset of a locker room used to mediocrity.

Matt Patricia’s fingerprints are all over this 2018 draft class, and that’s a good thing. The Lions were able to bring in a bevy of talent at positions of need without reaching for anyone in particular. While I question the selection of Johnson over Guice in the second round, it’s at least defensible. Detroit should see some immediate contributions from this draft class, and should not be overlooked as a potential wildcard contender this year.

Green Bay Packers

After suffering a collarbone injury in 2017, Aaron Rodgers returns this year to a team that very clearly is not overrun with talent. After starting the season 4-1, Green Bay finished the season 3-8, with their only wins coming against the lowly Bears, Buccaneers, and Browns. Rodgers, being one of the best quarterbacks in the league, is certainly able to elevate the talent Green Bay has, but there were numerous holes on this roster to begin the offseason. With 11 picks in this year’s draft, Green Bay had the opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately for Packers’ fans, Green Bay failed to capitalize.

While one hole on the roster was at cornerback, I’m puzzled as to why Green Bay spent both of their first two picks on the position. I’m even more puzzled as to why Green Bay selected two players with such different ideal scheme fits in Jaire Alexander out of Louisville and Josh Jackson out of Iowa. Alexander, despite his limited size, excels in a man-based scheme, while Jackson is an ideal Cover-2 zone corner. I struggle to see a scheme in which both players are able to succeed on any given play without telegraphing exactly what the defense plans to do.

Another hole on the roster was at the wide receiver position following the departure of Jordy Nelson. Opting for quantity over quality, Green Bay used three of their 11 selections on wide receivers (J’mon Moore out of Missouri, Marquez Valdes-Scantling out of the University of South Florida, and Equanimeous St. Brown out of Notre Dame). However, each of these receivers fits the mold of a tall receiver with great straight-line speed who is seen as raw in other facets of the game. While it’s almost certain that one of these will hit (my money is on St. Brown), it seems unwise to spend three picks on the same type of player when the roster is full of other holes.

Green Bay still had six more draft picks, and certainly could have used them on picks at valuable positions. Instead, they selected a punter (JK Scott out of Alabama) and a long-snapper (Hunter Bradley from Mississippi State). With the remainder of their late-round selections, Green Bay took linebacker Oren Burks from Vanderbilt, offensive lineman Cole Madison from Washington State, defensive end James Looney from California, and edge Kendall Donnerson from Southeast Missouri State. Oren Burks may see some run in a porous linebacker group, but the rest of this group is simply underwhelming.

Aaron Rodgers is trying to become the highest paid quarterback in NFL history this offseason. If he is able to bring this lifeless roster to the playoffs yet again, he deserves double whatever he is going to get paid.

New York Giants

The New York Football Giants were the talk of the town before the NFL draft. Everyone knew that Cleveland was going to take a quarterback, but nobody knew what direction the Giants new front office, led by Dave Gettleman, would take. Eli Manning is getting up there in age. Would the new sheriff in town want to use the second overall pick on his preferred quarterback of the future? Would they trade back to some other team desperate for a quarterback, acquiring a bevy of picks in return? Or would the Giants take high-level talent to build around one last push for Eli and the G-men?

It’s safe to say that Gettleman believes in Eli for at least another couple of seasons, as the Giants stayed put at the top of the draft and took running back Saquon Barkley out of Penn State, my personal top player in the draft. Similar to the Lions, it seems like the Giants have been searching for a true RB1 ever since Tiki Barber retired. In Barkley, New York took the best running back and the best receiver in the class, all rolled into one absolutely chiseled package.

An offense with Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., and Evan Engram is deadly, but Manning still needs time to get them all the football. New York attempted to do just that with their second selection, guard Will Hernandez. Outside of Quenton Nelson, Hernandez is the best run-blocking interior lineman in the class, while also managing to hold up in pass protection. Furthermore, Hernandez is plain mean, and he will surely bring a swagger to a soft offensive line.

The rest of the draft was big like Leann Rimes, because it was all about value. After the second round, the Giants were able to walk away with edge Lorenzo Carter from Georgia, defensive tackle B.J. Hill from North Carolina State, and defensive tackle R.J. McIntosh from Miami, each of which I would grade at least a round higher than where they were selected. The last member of their 2018 draft class was quarterback Kyle Lauletta out of Richmond, who many had as their quarterback sleeper of the class. I’m a bit more skeptical about his chances of success as a starter in the NFL, but with an aging Eli Manning, he’s worth a shot in the fourth round.

The Giants, if healthy, could see a big jump in wins this season. Many 49er fans may want to mark them down as a win when they come to town for a Monday Night Football game in November, but you might want to do it in pencil.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In a modern world where everyone wants to have their hipster team (“I liked them before they were good and totally called their rise before anyone else!”), it seems like Tampa Bay has been just that ever since they drafted Jameis Winston in 2015. For any number of reasons, this success has not come to fruition, and the Buccaneers found themselves picking in the top-10 yet again. However, after seeing who they managed to select in this year’s draft, I came away impressed with the front office down in Tampa. As history often repeats itself, I can see the Buccaneers being a popular pick, yet again, to be this year’s surprise team.

Taking advantage of a Buffalo team that desperately wanted Josh Allen, Tampa Bay picked up a number of picks to move back a few spots and still select their guy in defensive tackle Vita Vea from Washington. This behemoth will instantly upgrade a spotty run defense, and will eat up blockers so that linemate Gerald McCoy can wreak havoc in the backfield. While he has a ways to go as a pass rusher, Vea has a very high floor due to his strength in the run game, while still maintaining a Hall-of-Fame-level ceiling due to his sheer size, strength, and athleticism.

On Day 2, Tampa Bay was able to snag four players that should each have an immediate impact on the field. Running back Ronald Jones from the University of Southern California should give the Buccaneers their best back since Warrick Dunn was running the ball behind Mike Alstott. Acknowledging their horrendous secondary, Tampa Bay selected two complementary cornerbacks in MJ Stewart from North Carolina and Carlton Davis from Auburn. Both excel in man-heavy schemes, giving us an indication as to where Tampa Bay envisions its defense in the future. At the end of Day 2, Tampa took offensive lineman Alex Cappa from Humboldt State, who could be plugged in at any position on the line outside of center as an immediate starter.

Tampa Bay rounded out their draft class with a run on reliability, selecting safety Jordan Whitehead out of Pittsburgh, Justin Watson out of Pennsylvania, and linebacker Jack Cichy out of Wisconsin. While none of these selections may wind up being Pro Bowlers, they each have a skill set that complements the players already on the roster and should provide good production in their various roles. Overall, I think Tampa Bay had an excellent draft. However, if I had to pick one team who had the best draft in the NFL, it very well may be the…

Chicago Bears

After the 49ers took advantage of the Bears on draft night in 2017, part of me felt bad for them. Its safe to say that I feel no longer feel any remorse, as Chicago was masterful in 2018. It’s extremely rare that a team walks away from the draft and can say that they potentially took the best player at three different non-special teams positions. Chicago managed to do just that.

In the first round, Chicago took linebacker Roquan Smith out of Georgia. Smith has everything you want out of a modern linebacker in a slightly undersized package. While he may be swallowed by blockers, I’m confident that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will do everything he can to get Smith playing in space, where he is an absolute monster. The comparison to Patrick Willis may be overly optimistic (Willis could shed linemen like they were children), but Smith still has the best chance to be the top linebacker in this class.

In the second round, Chicago walked away with interior offensive lineman James Daniels out of Iowa and wide receiver Anthony Miller out of Memphis. Each player is a perfect scheme fit for what new head coach Matt Nagy wants to implement in Chicago, and there are highly respected draft pundits who had each as their top player at their respective position. I can very easily see Chicago’s top three selections making a Pro Bowl in the next two to three years.

After the three home run picks to start the draft, anything else Chicago was able to manage is simply gravy. The Bears finished the draft with the selections of linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe from Western Kentucky, defensive lineman Bilal Nichols from Delaware, edge Kylie Fitts from Utah, and wide receiver Javon Wims from Georgia. While I don’t expect any of these selections to amount to anything more than special teams or rotational players, it doesn’t matter. Chicago drastically improved their team through the draft. Chicago’s front office is putting Mitch Trubisky in the absolute best position to succeed with a huge influx of talent around him (Chicago also signed wide receiver Allen Robinson as a free agent). The Monsters of the Midway are certainly heading in the right direction, the 49ers’ Christmas weekend matchup against them will be a lot tougher than it may seem.

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