Cornering the Market: Making the Case for Drafting a Cornerback with the Thirteenth Pick
The fans and the countless mock drafts that populate the internet are mostly in agreement on the position the 49ers should address with the 13th pick in this year’s draft: wide receiver. Wide receiver is a sexy position that puts points on the board and it is certainly a position of need for the Niners, so there is no real surprise there, but could the team put its first choice to better use?
The 49ers do not have a lot of holes on the roster heading into the draft and return 44 of 53 players from the Super Bowl, including 18 starters. Missing from the starting line ups that took the field in Miami are right guard Mike Person, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and defensive tackles Sheldon Day and DeForest Buckner, so it’s no coincidence that players from those positions are among the most commonly mocked to the Niners.
Beefing up the interior of the offensive line (the only position the 49ers have not drafted for in the Shanahan-Lynch era) is a must for the 49ers. If the protection had been better during the Super Bowl, Kyle Shanahan and company would likely be picking at number 32 instead of 31, but in order to justify taking a guard with the 13th pick one of the top tier tackles would have to fall to that spot. A player like Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs would be ideal given his athleticism and versatility. Wirfs could slot in at guard until Joe Staley retires and then move out to tackle, filling both an immediate and long-term need.
The deepest position group in this draft class is, without question, wide receiver and the Niners are in position to get one of the elite receivers with their first of two picks in round one. The 49ers added Emmanuel Sanders midway through the season last year and his acquisition was the boost the offense needed to make a run to the Super Bowl. Losing Sanders in free agency creates a void that CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, or Henry Ruggs would fill nicely. Since taking over, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have drafted five wide receivers, including one each in the second and third rounds in 2019. A former college receiver, Shanahan loves the position (he has drafted five of them since taking over in Santa Clara) and the temptation to get his hands on one of the top-tier guys might be too great to pass up.
The biggest hole (figuratively and literally) was created when DeForest Buckner was traded earlier in the offseason and there are some options that could intrigue the 49ers early in round one. The most likely candidate to be on the board when the Niners pick is South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who draws comparisons to the recently departed Pro Bowler. The 49ers also lost defensive tackle Sheldon Day in free agency as well. The loss of Day has gone under the radar for the most part, but he played thirty-two percent of the snaps in 2019 and was a key depth piece. Depth became an issue along the defensive line as the season went on due to some injuries and the Niners could continue to reinforce its strength.
Using a pick in the top half of the first round to replace a starter from a Super Bowl team makes a lot of sense, but the 49ers might be best served to use the 13th pick on a position where they return each starter and the top reserve: at cornerback.
Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, K’waun Williams, and Ahkello Witherspoon all return in 2020, but each is a free agent after the season (Moseley is a restricted free agent), and the 49ers are at the point where they are going have to start making tough decisions on who to pay in free agency and with members of their young core set to get extensions in the near future (Kittle and Warner), a multi-year extension for Sherman at the money he is likely to command might be where they draw the line.
Asking a rookie to replace Sherman is a lot to ask because of all Richard brings to the team from a leadership standpoint, in addition to his outstanding play. Sherman’s ability to communicate the finer points of cornerback play to his teammates, however, could be leveraged by selecting one of the top cornerbacks in this draft and giving him a year to learn before taking over as CB1.
In his ranking of the depth of the 2020 draft class by position, NFL network’s Lance Zierlein has cornerback ranked sixth out of eleven position groups, but the class is not without first-round talent.
The consensus top cornerback in this year’s draft, Jeffrey Okudah out of Ohio State, will be long gone by the time the Niners pick, but picks 13 through 16 should be the sweet spot for C.J. Henderson. Henderson, a junior from the University of Florida, has the elite physical tools it takes to be a lockdown cornerback in the NFL. At 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, Henderson has the size to play bigger receivers like Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf and his 4.38-second time in the 40-yard dash gives him the speed needed to keep pace with the league's fastest receivers. Former NFL and Arena League defensive back, Eric Crocker, who writes for Fourth and Nine, is a fan of Henderson and thinks he would be a good fit for the Niners.
The 49ers have not used a first-round selection on a cornerback since taking Ahmed Plummer (24th overall) at the turn of the century and using a first-round selection on one here might seem counterintuitive because of the relative depth at the position already on the roster but with the depth of the wide receiver class in this draft, the quality of receiver the 49ers can expect after the 13th pick is greater than at cornerback. A well-run team always draft one year ahead, and draft to win its division. With Arizona adding DeAndre Hopkins to its Air Raid offense and a division that already features receivers like D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, the Niners will need as many good cornerbacks they can get.
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