NFL Draft 2019: First-round options and sleepers for 49ers to become serious NFC contenders
The San Francisco 49ers’ season effectively went in the tank when Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL on Sept. 23, but despite their 2-7 record, the Kyle Shanahan-led club doesn’t have a plethora of roster holes.
Seriously, they’re probably one draft and a solid free-agency period away from legitimately contending in the NFC, although they will have to deal with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West for a while.
With what they hope is the franchise quarterback in place for 2019 and beyond in Garoppolo, who’s shown signs of being capable of high-level play at the position, let’s pinpoint potential first-round picks and identify sleepers San Francisco can pick after Round 1 to build around their quarterback while adding pieces to the defense.
Potential first-round picks
Even if we assume Nick Mullens turns into Garoppolo 2.0, we can safely slot the 49ers into the top 10 of the 2019 Draft. Two of the last three teams initially slated to pick No. 10 overall went 6-10 the previous season. The other went 7-9.
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N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
San Francisco has to get Garoppolo an alpha wideout, someone who can win consistently on the outside and in the red zone. The 49ers currently field a respectable receiver group, but Pierre Garcon is running on fumes, and the rest of the pass-catching group consists of smaller speedsters (Marquise Goodwin), and quick-twitch YAC wideouts (Trent Taylor, Richie James, Dante Pettis). The 6-foot-1 Kendrick Bourne is the outlier, and he’s provided decent contributions in a limited role over the past two seasons. But he’s not a future WR1.
Harry is a dominant perimeter wideout, and that’s been the case since he stepped foot on campus at Arizona State in 2016. He isn’t going to run 4.40 at the combine, but his game is predicated on deceptive long speed, surprising athleticism with the ball in his hands, and a power-forward like ability to use his body to box out and make catches outside his frame. After accounting for just under 35 percent of the Sun Devils’ receiving yardage in 2017 — anything above 30% is good — he’s almost to 37% this season, and he’s currently accounted for 60% of the team’s receiving touchdowns. High market-share figures are solid indicators of future NFL success. Rarely does a wide receiver have low market-share numbers in college then suddenly blossom into a star the next level.
Harry would be the ideal complement to Goodwin, Pettis, Taylor, and James and give Shanahan an intimidating presence similar to what he had in Atlanta with Julio Jones and in Houston with Andre Johnson.
Other option at same position: A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
Richard Sherman has been tremendous for the 49ers this season but will be 31 in 2019 and, if cut, he’d save the club a little over $9 million. Set to have the seventh-most cap space in the league, per OverTheCap.com, San Francisco probably could afford to keep Sherman and his $10.050 million cap hit, and they have a solid CB2 in K’Waun Williams. But in planning ahead to stop in-division teams like the Rams or in-conference clubs like the Saints, GM John Lynch may want to add a premier talent to his cornerback room.
Williams is a 6-2, 185ish-pound corner capable of making plays in zone or on an island in press man. After a six-interception, 10-pass-breakup 2017, he has two interceptions and five pass breakups thus far in 2018, including a defended pass in each of his last four games. Blessed with great speed and super-fluid athleticism, Williams will be ready to make plays on the outside in the NFL. He’ll probably be in a battle with Georgia’s Deandre Baker to be the first cornerback off the board in 2019 but does have a noticeable size advantage to his SEC rival, as Baker is listed just under 6-0.
Other option at same position: Amani Oruwariye, Penn State
Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama
To potentially fortify the position beyond Jaquiski Tartt, the 49ers could look at safety in Round 1, especially considering the injuries at the other safety position this season. Adrian Colbert flashed in 2017 but got off to a slow start before recently landing on IR with an ankle injury.
Thompson has a chance to join the exclusive club of safeties to be picked in the top 10 because of his two-way game and impressive athletic talents. Right when you think he’s solely a deep center fielder after he ranges from the deep middle to knock down a pass down the sideline, he flies downhill to fill a run lane to stop a running back after a short gain.
He may not have the production — three interceptions and six pass breakups in 2017 and 2018 combined — to go this high, but it’s hard to find a true hole in Thompson’s game.
Other option at same position: Taylor Rapp, Washington
Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson
The 49ers will have a difficult decision to make in the offseason regarding former first-round pick Arik Armstead. He’s slowly but surely drifted away from bust status yet hasn’t been a true difference-maker in what is now his fourth season in the NFL. If he’s on the roster by the start of the new league year in March, he’ll represent a cap hit of just over $9 million in 2019. If San Francisco moves on from him, the cut wouldn’t include any dead cap.
Let’s say Armstead isn’t part of the team’s future plans — after all, neither Lynch nor Shanahan were involved in picking him. That’d leave a decent-sized hole at the edge-rusher spot for the 49ers, even with the presence of 2017 first-rounder Solomon Thomas, who is experiencing a similar beginning to his pro career to that of Armstead.
Ferrell is your classic 4-3 defensive end, as a long, strong edge-setter with above-average burst, bend, and a good but still developing array of pass-rushing moves. He would instantly slot as the right defensive end in San Francisco and could be a quality three-down player in Robert Saleh’s defense.
Other option at same position: Zach Allen, Boston College
Potential non-Round 1 sleepers
Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina — At this point, Edwards has become more of an intriguing draft prospect than Deebo Samuel. At 6-3 and 220 pounds with a ferocious “my ball” mentality and strong hands, Edwards would fit the big-body mold the 49ers need.
Julian Love, CB, Notre Dame — A likely Day Two pick, Love won’t be the biggest, fastest, or most athletic corner at the combine but he’s been insanely productive for the Fighting Irish. He has 33 pass breakups — not a typo — and four picks in 2017 and 2018 combined.
Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia — Another playmaker in the secondary, Thornhill has 11 interceptions and 24 pass breakups since the start of 2016 for the Cavaliers. He has NFL safety size at 6-0 and 210 pounds. He’s currently nursing an ankle injury.
Joe Jackson, EDGE, Miami — A lengthy and muscular defensive end, the 6-5, 258-pound Jackson is ready to set the edge at the NFL level. When he decides to use his hands as a pass-rusher, he’s typically effective, he just has to trust his pass-rushing moves more often.
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