By Cyril Penn
Special to S.F. Examiner
Entering their third draft as a duo, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan need to add some blue-chip talent and mine some late-round gems to get the San Francisco 49ers from merely playoff hopefuls to playoff contenders.
The Shanahan-Lynch regime in San Francisco has been a mixed bag thus far, with two losing seasons marred by injuries, but with promising young players. With only six selections in the draft this year, the pair doesn’t have as much ammunition to make splashy draft-day trades as in previous years.
It will all start with the No. 2 overall pick, but where will San Francisco go from there?
The Pick at No. 2: Nick Bosa, Ohio State EDGE
Nick Bosa headlines a deep defensive line class and would be a perfect fit opposite Dee Ford in the 49ers’ new “Wide-9” scheme. Many have likened the Ohio State product to his brother Joey, but the younger Bosa runs faster, jumps higher and is the bigger gym rat.
Bosa’s selection here suggests Kyler Murray goes No. 1. That has been the collective thinking by experts until Adam Schefter broke news of dinner plans between Arizona front office execs and Bosa. This time of year, however, pre-draft meetings can be used as “smoke-screens” and the Cardinals may just be trying to recoup value for last year’s top selection, Josh Rosen.
If Arizona takes Bosa at No. 1, the 49ers will likely pivot to selecting Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Kentucky’s hybrid edge/linebacker Josh Allen, or trading back to acquire more picks, perhaps a trade back with the Oakland Raiders for the No. 4 and No. 24 selections.
The Pick at No. 36: A.J. Brown, Ole Miss WR
The 49ers haven’t exactly hid their intentions of drafting a wide receiver throughout the pre-draft process. They’ve brought in 15 different receivers for visits and appear to be honing in on a mixture of Day 2 prospects and late-round projects.
A.J. Brown, Hakeem Butler, N’Keal Harry and Deebo Samuel highlight the prospects San Francisco is considering in the second round and Brown is the best of the bunch.
Shanahan values separation and short-area quickness and Brown is a versatile option who pairs elite quickness with strong hands and route running savvy. He makes a mockery of defenders with stop-on-a-dime cuts and can jumpstart an offense by turning short passes into big gains while operating out wide or in the slot.
The 49ers could also look at upgrading their secondary here with a boundary corner or free safety prospect, but some other sleepers to consider are tight end Noah Fant and offensive lineman Dalton Risner.
Pairing Fant (who was brought in for a pre-draft visit) and George Kittle could give San Francisco the best tight end duo in the NFL. Meanwhile, Risner is an elite pass-blocker who could compete for a starting spot at guard and eventually move to right tackle when Joe Staley retires.
The Pick at No. 67: Justin Layne, Michigan State CB
Justin Layne fits the profile the 49ers covet in their cornerbacks, combining 6-foot-2 height and 33 inch arms with high football IQ and natural ball skills.
After committing to Michigan State as a highly-touted receiving prospect, Layne made the switch to cornerback in the middle of his freshman season and almost instantly became an impact starter.
Layne’s days as a receiver have clearly helped him defensively, as his route recognition is top notch and he constantly makes plays on the ball. He plays physically, tackles fearlessly in run support and has the tools to be a bump-and-run corner for the 49ers.
While his lateral quickness looks just average on tape, Layne’s 20-yard shuttle (4.09) and 3-cone drill time (6.90) ranked No. 5 and No. 9, respectively, out of all cornerbacks at the combine. He can compete with Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore for the starting boundary spot opposite Richard Sherman, and may even be able to spot-start at safety in a pinch.
The Pick at No. 104: Marquise Blair, Utah FS
As a thin, slightly-undersized free safety, Marquise Blair could fall to the top of the fourth round due to durability concerns and lack of discipline.
Shanahan surely knows how fierce and competitive Blair is after coaching against the Utah product in the Senior Bowl. And the 49ers would love the chance to add another “Monday guy” who brings passion on every snap.
His intensity can get the best of him sometimes, resulting in over-running assignments, staying too engaged while fighting blockers or being called for targeting penalties. All Day 3 prospects are flawed in some way, but Blair’s range, underrated coverage skills and downhill aggression could make him a future starter in Santa Clara.
Also make sure to keep an eye on two Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger and defensive tackle Daylon Mack, as fourth-round prospects who have piqued the 49ers’ interest enough to garner pre-draft visits.
Day 3 Sleepers to consider:
With their primary needs filled, Lynch can look to take the best player available late in the draft with sixth-round choices at No. 176 and No. 212.
An ideal sleeper the 49ers should be all over is LSU tight end Foster Moreau, who could provide versatility behind Kittle as a solid run-blocker with untapped receiving upside.
If San Francisco looks to double up at receiver, they’ll be intrigued by former Tennessee running-back-turned-receiver Jalen Hurd. About two hours north of team headquarters is local UC Davis product, Keelan Doss, who could prove his worth as a bargain-bin red zone threat.
New Mexico State prospect Terrill Hanks stands out as a late-round fit to provide depth at all three linebacker spots, while making an impact on special teams. Arkansas interior offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt could provide much-needed depth at both center and guard positions.
The Shanahan-Lynch pairing has mined late-round gems consistently, such as George Kittle (No. 146), D.J. Jones (No. 198), Adrian Colbert (No. 229), and role players like D.J. Reed (No. 142), Trent Taylor (No. 177), and Marcell Harris (No. 184).
If their propensity to hit on late-round prospects persists, San Francisco will continue to be flush with cheap young players with plenty of upside.