With the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs underway, the San Francisco 49ers — for the sixth straight season — are sitting at home.
There is one piece of good, though, that comes out of a disastrous 4-12 season marred by injuries and disappointment: The NFL Draft. With San Francisco’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams last week, the 49ers locked up the No. 2 overall pick this April. With that 4-12 record, Kyle Shanahan get the dubious honor of coaching in the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 26.
“[The Senior Bowl] I think it gives Kyle and his staff what you covet: You covet time and in this game,” Lynch said. “We’re not looking for rocket scientists. We’re looking for guys that can play football. We get to see them learn football and apply it to the field. You get to see them in that setting and I think it’s invaluable.”
This will be Shanahan’s third time coaching at the annual contest between college football’s best seniors, and it comes at a crucial time for an organization that quietly hopes to turn a corner in Year Three of the Shanahan-John Lynch regime. That starts with filling positional needs, and there are plenty of names to watch in Mobile.
Draft Need: Pass Rusher
San Francisco will get its starting quarterback, starting running back, top safety and arguably its top two receivers back healthy, but one of those top receivers — Marquise Goodwin — has played precisely one complete, 16-game season in the NFL. In terms of draft needs, wide receiver is third or fourth priority. What stands as the chief need is something the 49ers have not had since Aldon Smith.
Since Smith recorded 19.5 sacks in 2012, San Francisco has not had a single player reach double-digit sacks until DeForest Buckner did so this year, with 12. This season, the 49ers finished 22nd in the NFL in sacks. Luckily for San Francisco, the 2019 draft is lousy with impact edge rushers, starting with projected No. 1 overall pick Nick Bosa.
“I think it’s strong there,” Lynch said. “That’s clear. There’s good pass rushers in this draft. I think that’s a strength of this draft. That will be. Everyone is looking for those guys, so I think we’re excited. Everybody is excited for that.”
One of the top edge rusher targets is going to be playing in the Senior Bowl: Kentucky’s Josh Allen. The former two-star recruit has been massively productive for the Wildcats, with 31.5 sacks in four seasons, and 220 total tackles. His blend of burst, length and flexibility at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds is evocative of Smith.
“Josh Allen is the headliner,” said our NFL Draft guru Tommy Call. “He’s a guy that could only elevate his stock. Wouldn’t surprise me if he challenged Bosa for the top guy consensus. Allen doesn’t have to play in this game and could still go top-five. This game shows his confidence, and he should be the player the 49ers are most locked in on.”
Allen’s vertical push and strength, combined with the ability to vary his attacks, can put stress on offensive tackles, so he’s already got a very strong base from which to work. He probably needs to develop more inside moves and better counters, but he’s a plug-and-play kind of guy. He’ll allow San Francisco some more flexibility in terms of how they use Solomon Thomas, Buckner and Arik Armstead, not to mention opening up more pass rushing opportunities inside for Thomas, who came into his own late in the season.
USC linebacker Cameron Smith will also be at the Senior Bowl, as will Michigan defensive end/outside linebacker Chase Winovich, Mississippi State outside linebacker Montez Sweat and Boston College defensive end Zach Allen.
“A guy I’m going to specifically watch is Oshane Ximines from Old Dominion,” Call said. “A production machine in a small conference. One of the best highlight films you’ll see from a pass rusher, but against inferior competition. He’s a fringe round-two guy right now on skill alone. With a good performance against some Power 5 guys, he could get bumped to top-15.”
With San Francisco having cut ties with Reuben Foster, and with Malcolm Smith’s Achilles still barking at him, some depth at linebacker may also be on the shopping list.
“My favorite guy is Drie Tranquill from Notre Dame,” Call said. “He balled out against Clemson and now will try and parlay that good performance into draft season. He could fit a need in Oakland or SF.”
Draft Need: Offensive Line Depth
San Francisco finished second in the NFL with 125 quarterback hits allowed, second only to the Houston Texans (126). The 49ers allowed 48 sacks — good for ninth-most in the league. That’s not something to which you want to subject a quarterback coming off a major knee injury.
Lynch and Shanahan hit a home run last spring with the drafting of Mike McGlinchey ninth overall. He played in every game and started at right tackle, playing 99.72 percent of offensive snaps. He even slid in to guard in the opener against the Minnesota Vikings, when starting right guard Mike Person went down with a foot injury, and backup Joshua Garnett left on a cart, also with a foot injury. Swing tackle Garry Gilliam went to right tackle and McGlinchey slid down to right guard, which he had never played. By all accounts, McGlinchey was a massive success in his rookie season, and will be an anchor at tackle for years to come, barring injury.
Garnett, on the other hand, hasn’t been the piece San Francisco had hoped for when drafting him 28th overall in 2016. He played just 5.58 percent of snaps this season — not what you want when you spend a first-round pick on an offensive lineman. So, where do the 49ers go?
One option would be Kansas State offensive tackle Dalton Risner, who will be playing in the Senior Bowl. At 6-foot-5, 308 pounds, he’s probably more suited to guard at the next level, and given the torn MCL suffered by Laken Tomlinson (who’s played nearly every snap for the past two seasons), guard may be a spot San Francisco wants to shore up. A weak offensive line class, though, may mean that Risner goes in the first round, and that’s way too high to pick him.
A better-value option could be 6-foot-8 Washington lineman Kaleb McGary, who could get looks from 49ers as an offensive tackle in the third or fourth round.
“He fits Shanahan’s style,” Call said. “A potential new right tackle that slides in when McGlinchey takes over for [Joe] Staley. The 49ers get a jump start on seeing him early.”
Draft Need: Wide Receiver
San Francisco arguably has a No. 1 deep threat in Dante Pettis, but injuries marred his rookie season. If he and Goodwin can stay healthy, they can stretch the field, but Pierre Garcon is out the door, and Trent Taylor still dealt with lingering back issues this past season.
The 49ers need something more in that wide receiver room, if Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. don’t magically appear in Santa Clara at some point this offseason.
South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Massachusetts’ Andy Isabella and West Virginia’s David Sills headline the wide receiver group in Mobile. There’s not a ton to be sure of in this wide receiver class, but a strong performance from any of those three could help clear things up.
“No clear cut No. 1 guy, but guys that Shanahan could fall in love with working with and getting to know,” Call said.
Final Senior Bowl rosters will be announced on Jan. 16.