The 49ers 2021 NFL Draft will always be judged on what they did with the No. 3 overall pick.
Instead of being ridiculed by their fan base and chastised by the media over which quarterback they selected, the coach Kyle Shanahan and the Niners went with dual-threat Trey Lance out of North Dakota State over Alabama’s Mac Jones.
But while the Niners expect Lance to become the shining star in this draft class, it will be the other seven players who will help strengthen the foundation that crumbled during the 2020 season and sent the team from the Super Bowl to last place in the NFC West.
“We got better during this draft process and I feel strongly about that,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said.
Based on what the 49ers did in Saturday’s final four rounds of the draft, the offensive line and secondary were the main concerns.
With three picks in the fifth round, the Niners took Western Michigan offensive lineman Jaylon Moore (155th overall), Oregon cornerback Deommodore Lenoir (172nd) and USC safety Talanoa Hufanga (180th). The final pick was sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell (194th), a running back out of Louisiana.
Add those four to Lance, Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks (second round), Ohio State running back Trey Sermon (third round) and Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas (third round).
Following all of the injury issues the Niners had last season, Lynch and Shanahan made sure to take a closer look at the medicals of players and consider whether they were a high or low risk of getting hurt in the future. Making the evaluation process tougher this draft was players opting out of the 2020 season and medicals not being available as early in the process as it has been.
“I’ve been to a lot of places where a guy we love is taken off a board (due to injury concerns) and then you watch him go play somewhere else for 10 years and you got to go against him, and so you’re like, ‘Man, I’m never doing that,’” Shanahan said. “And then we’ve been here, and we’ve had a few guys we’ve had injury issues with and or they’ve had a history but we liked the player and we’re willing to take that risk and some have worked in some haven’t. What I’ve learned with some of our luck here, especially last year, also in our Super Bowl year … when too many of those add up it’s hard to compete. And I think that hit us harder than anything last year, that hit us before COVID, and that’s something we can’t do again.
The 49ers also took care of some housekeeping by officially exercising the fifth-year option on starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s contract. McGlinchey was the ninth overall pick in the 2018 draft and will make $10.88 million this season.
Moore, 6-foot-4 and 311 pounds, was recruited out of high school as a tight end, then converted to defensive tackle after gaining 25 pound before stepping onto the Western Michigan campus and was flipped to offensive left tackle the next spring. Shanahan and Lynch said Moore would be looked at first as a guard, but could slide back out to tackle. While Moore seemingly fits well into the Niners’ zone blocking scheme, he has trouble moving defenders and those with longer arms. He started the final 32 games he played in (only six in 2020) beginning with his sophomore season.
Lenoir, 5-10 and 199 pounds, was a terrific high school athlete at Salesian High School in Los Angeles, playing multiple positions. He became a full-time starter at the beginning of his sophomore season at Oregon and started the final 34 games he played (seven in 2020). Lenoir is a physical corner who battles for the ball and is a sure tackle, but he lacks a little speed and struggles to identify routes quickly.
Hufanaga, 6-0 and 199, was a first-team All-American at USC in 2020. He was second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 0.67 interceptions per game and sixth with 6.7 tackles per game. But Hufanaga also has injury questions, having had a broken collarbone, a concussion and a shoulder sprain. He should be a key special teams contributor and could even see time at linebacker.
“Love him at safety, hits like a linebacker,” Shahan said. “His mentality is, he’s an old school badass, as we say. So, we’re excited to get him here, see what he can do on special teams, hope he can earn a role there first to start, we’ll try him safety. If it’s better at linebacker, that will eventually happen, too. But we’re excited to get the football player.”
Mitchell, 5-10 and 201 pounds, is the second running back the 49ers drafted this week and shows excellent athleticism. Mitchell has work to do as he lacks patience and creativity, but he does hit the hole well and runs with terrific effort. He could factor in as a return man as he clocked 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. He rushed for 3,267 yards and 41 touchdowns.
One position that the Niners did not address that was seen as a need entering the draft was an edge rusher. Also, their streak of drafting a receiver ended at 18 years. Regarding both positions, Shanahan said the way the board fell, the players the Niners selected were rated higher and better fits, which is why they ended up drafting two guards and two running backs.
Stanford center Drew Dalman went to the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round (114th overall), Cal cornerback Camryn Bynum to the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round (125th) and Stanford wide receiver Simi Fehoko to the Dallas Cowboys in the fifth round (180th).