SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In going from the No. 2 overall pick to the No. 31 selection, as the San Francisco 49ers did in the span of one year, plenty has changed in the best way possible.
The Niners’ rise from the bottom of the league to less than 10 minutes away from being world champions also meant a drastic change in how they approach the NFL draft. When you pick second, the options are obvious. When you pick 31st, the choices are as clear as mud.
As recently as February’s NFL combine, that was a new reality that San Francisco general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan were happily preparing to take on.
“It’s different, definitely,” Shanahan said. “You can eliminate a lot of people at number two. You don’t have to put as much time into everyone. You still do it, but when you’re at 31, you’ve got to be ready for anything. … There’s always trades, there’s always different draft picks, so you’ve got to still go through the same process, but there’s not as much pressure on getting to know all the top guys in the draft.”
Whether he knew it then or not — chances are, he did — the 49ers have already proved the second part of Shanahan’s statement true. The Niners can attest to that after making one of the biggest and most shocking trades of this offseason when they agreed to send star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick in this draft.
And while the No. 13 pick doesn’t come with the ease of use of the No. 2 pick, it significantly changes the equation for the 49ers. Now, the Niners find themselves in a prime spot to land an immediate impact player. Considering that they traded Buckner away while still in their Super Bowl window, they can’t afford to miss. They must find a player who can make a difference right away.
In addition, the Niners now have far more flexibility in the draft with their two first-round picks. After No. 31, they aren’t scheduled to pick again until the fifth round (No. 156 overall). Which means the 49ers are likely to trade down with at least one of those choices to regain some middle-round picks.
Without a normal allotment of mid-round picks, the Niners have to capitalize on the top picks they do have. Losing Buckner was a big blow to the defense, and considering the Niners’ increasing need to use their salary-cap resources to re-sign their own players — guys like tight end George Kittle, cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker Fred Warner, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, safety Jaquiski Tartt and defensive tackle D.J. Jones could all be due for extensions in the next year or so — the 49ers must replenish the roster through the draft with talented, cost-effective players.
“The ultimate goal, and I do think it gets more tricky, is how do you improve your team?” Lynch said. “We like where our team was this year. We’ve got the right kind of guys, we’re a very talented football team, but Coach [Jon] Gruden, Kyle, they all subscribe to it, I’ve heard it so many times, you never stay the same. You’re either getting better or getting worse. We’re into getting better.
“It becomes trickier with less draft equity and things of that nature, but we’ve got a lot of good players that are part of us moving forward as well. Being creative in the draft, free agency, via trade, whatever, how do we find a way to get ourselves better? That’s what we’re working each and every day to try to do.”
At first glance, the No. 13 pick should offer a legitimate opportunity to improve the team, even if the player they land isn’t as good as Buckner.
Having lost receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers could use a top wideout to pair with emerging star Deebo Samuel. At least one of Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb figures to be available at No. 13. Draft analysts are split on which player is the best of the group, but they would each fit in with the Niners.
Of course, this receiver class is thought to be one of the deepest in recent memory. San Francisco has drafted a wideout in 17 straight years, so it’s all but certain they’ll take one at some point, but they might want to wait if a player at a thinner position is available. They also have Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor returning from injury and are hoping for a bounce back from Dante Pettis.
If the Niners choose to go another direction, there are plenty of other choices that make sense. They could use a long-term answer at cornerback to eventually replace Sherman and at left tackle to be Joe Staley‘s heir. Florida cornerback CJ Henderson would make sense, and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. would be logical tackle fits who could also play guard.
There’s also the possibility that the best player on the board will be a defensive tackle who could step right into Buckner’s shoes. Auburn’s Derrick Brown and South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw are options in this case, with TCU’s Ross Blacklock in the mix.