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Now that the first wave of free agency has concluded, it’s time to re-evaluate the 49ers’ needs heading into the draft. The 49ers made a big splash in free agency signing linebacker Kwon Alexander and trading for defensive end/linebacker Dee Ford, but how do the recent acquisitions affect the team’s priorities going forward?
The team was broken down into ten position groups: Quarterback, running back, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, safety and special teams (kicker, punter and long snapper). I ranked each position group from 1 to 10, with 1 being the highest priority and 10 the lowest.
With the signing of running back Tevin Coleman to go with Matt Breida, Jerick McKinnon, Kyle Juszczyk and Jeff Wilson, the 49ers should not spend any more resources on this position group. With the emergence of Nick Mullens, the quarterback group has become more solidified and therefore should receive very few team resources this off-season, probably nothing more than an undrafted free agent as a camp arm and potential practice squad player. The special-teams group avoided being listed in the high priority group with the signing of punter Justin Vogel. The top four position groups, in order of priority, are listed below.
The number one positional need for the 49ers following free agency is safety. Each player in this position group either struggles with injury, is unproven or both. Free safety is the most important position in the secondary within the 49ers defensive scheme and it showed in the myriad of communication and coverage breakdowns the 49ers suffered in 2018. The safety trouble was not limited to the free safety position, as strong safety also had its share of issues. The leading candidates to start at strong safety in the coming season are the oft-injured Jaquiski Tartt and unproven second-year player Marcell Harris. Thus far, the only move in free agency to address the position was to bring back perennial injured-reserve resident Jimmie Ward. To be fair, Ward has not been allowed to settle into a home at one position during his career, being bounced back and forth between cornerback, free safety and slot cornerback like the child of divorced parents. Ward’s best position might be at free safety, but can he stay on the field and prove it? The 49ers started eight different safety combinations in 16 games last season, so they would do well to upgrade the talent in this position group.
Cornerback checks in as the second highest priority for the 49ers following free agency in spite of the fact that the team addressed the position by signing Jason Verrett. Just like the safety group, the cornerbacks feature a mixture of players who struggle with injury (Verrett) and players that are unproven (everyone not named Richard Sherman). Last season, opposing teams repeatedly targeted the cornerback opposite Sherman, either out of respect for Sherman or a complete lack of respect for the other cornerback, and had great success while doing it. Jason Verrett is the type of high-reward, low risk signing that may pay off in spades, but Verrett cannot be counted on at all; at this point of his career he is a human lottery ticket and the front office needs to do more to hedge their bet. Realistically, the 49ers need to not only find a cornerback to play opposite Richard Sherman but one to eventually replace Sherman.
3. Wide Receiver:
In 2018, Kendrick Bourne led all 49ers wide receivers in yards (487) and Dante Pettis led the group in touchdowns with five. For reference, even in the strike shortened season of 1982, which was limited to nine games, Dwight Clark put up 913 yards and 5 touchdowns. Last year the wide receivers as a group struggled to get separation consistently and had trouble making plays in the red zone. Some of the struggles were due to injuries and a rotating cast of quarterbacks but even when the group was healthy there were few bright spots outside of Pettis. In 2019, opposing teams will force someone other than tight end George Kittle to beat them in the passing game, and it remains to be seen if anyone currently on the roster is up to the task. The Niners added Jordan Matthews, who will bring much needed size and competition to the position group but in no way should preclude the team from using a second- or third-round pick on a wide receiver.
4. Offensive Line:
The re-signing of right guard Mike Person ensures that the starting five from last season will return intact. The depth behind the starting five, however, is a real question mark. Just before the start of the 2018 season the 49ers traded for Shon Coleman, who was not active for any game last season but is now the presumptive swing tackle. Joshua Garnett is still the top reserve at guard although his 49er tenure might be in its final throes and Erik Magnuson, who is versatile enough to play three different positions along the offensive line, is a replacement level player. With Joe Staley’s future beyond this year in question the team really needs to do some future planning. Finding someone in the draft who could get his feet wet at guard and then kick out to tackle when Staley calls it a career would be a great start but regardless of what happens in the draft the 49ers need to get more depth along the offensive line.
Others Receiving Consideration
Depending on how the 49ers plan to deploy Dee Ford, the team could use an upgrade at Sam linebacker to go with Fred Warner and the newly acquired Kwon Alexander.
Last season looked like the sand was running out of the “Celek time” hourglass and providing a true compliment to George Kittle could help add another dimension to the offense in both the running game and passing game.
The defensive line remains the deepest position group on the team and with addition of Dee Ford the team hopes it has finally added an outside presence, but another edge rusher is still very much a need and with Ronald Blair, Sheldon Day, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead set to hit free agency in the next couple of years it is never too early start looking to fortify the group.
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