2016 NFL Draft: Breaking Down Best Options for San Francisco 49ers in Round 1
By Peter Panacy
The 2016 NFL draft is still a long way away, but that doesn’t mean the San Francisco 49ers aren’t taking a close evaluation of their first pick of eligible collegiate talent.
Eleven weeks into the 2015 season, the 49ers stand with a 3-7 record and probably won’t record more than two or three more wins over their remaining schedule. So let’s assume San Francisco winds up with the fifth-overall pick in the 2016 draft and a position to nab a top-five player.
Who will be the best option given the 49ers’ long list of needs?
It’s a tough question to ask. The 49ers are currently projected to have just over $40 million in 2016 cap space per Spotrac.com, and that number would increase if San Francisco, as expected, parts ways with quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the offseason.
This will influence general manager Trent Baalke’s decision-making in free agency which, in turn, will ultimately affect the 49ers’ draft plans.
Assuming Baalke doesn’t make any major free-agency spashes — he probably will — what are the best options for San Francisco in Round 1?
QB Paxton Lynch, Memphis
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch is the highest-ranked signal-caller slated for the draft per CBS Sports. And he’s the No. 4 prospect, overall.
Nov 21, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) throws the ball against the Temple Owls during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Lynch is, perhaps, the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect. But will he slip to San Francisco as the team looks to find its future franchise QB? There are plenty of other bottom-dwelling teams potentially in the market for a quarterback as well. The Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions could all be in the hunt.
Nov 14, 2015; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff (16) speaks to the media after the game against the Oregon State Beavers at Memorial Stadium. The California Golden Bears defeated the Oregon State Beavers 54-24. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
QB Jared Goff, Cal
“Scoff for Goff” may be the name of the game for San Francisco in 2015, and such an approach would put the team in great position to land Cal quarterback Jared Goff in the 2016 draft.
Goff, a native of nearby Novato, may be the favored pick among 49ers fans. And it certainly seems as if he’ll fall to San Francisco according to Rob Rang and Dane Brugler of CBS Sports. Goff may be raw, and he needs to develop his footwork, but this is about as realistic and enticing a prospect could get at No. 5.
The 49ers will likely keep current starter Blaine Gabbert around for one more year to mentor Goff — perhaps in the same fashion Steve DeBerg did for Joe Montana.
No, we won’t go that far.
OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole’ Miss
The 49ers are in desperate need of help along the offense line and, if you’re like me, you feel a total team rebuild should always happen up front.
Offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil is the best-ranked lineman in this draft. It’s not even close. With left tackle Joe Staley aging, and right tackle Erik Pears not the answer, Tunsil could easily be an immediate upgrade at a position lacking protection and run support.
Tunsil probably won’t last until the fifth pick though. And the 49ers won’t feel the urge to trade up and grab him.
But if he falls…
OLB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
San Francisco could use some additional outside help to supplement linebacker Aaron Lynch. With veteran OLB Ahmad Brooks declining in production, and linebackers Corey Lemonier and Eli Harold making minimal impact, a player like Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith could be a great pickup.
Nov 7, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) puts on the hat of the Fighting Irish leprechaun mascot after defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field. Notre Dame won 42-30. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Smith doesn’t pile up the sack totals as his 4.5 sacks in three seasons suggest. But he does have 22.5 tackles for a loss over that span thanks, in large measure, to his excellent pursuit skills.
If you’re of the mindset defense comes first, Smith is your guy.
DE DeForest Buckner, Oregon
Staying in the defensive mindset, another enticing possibility is Oregon’s DeForest Buckner.
Buckner played alongside San Francisco’s No. 1 pick in 2015, defensive end Arik Armstead, and has the sheer size to match his former collegiate teammate (6’7″, 290 pounds).
Dec 5, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive end DeForest Buckner (44) celebrates after a sack in the second quarter against the Arizona Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship at Levi
But what makes Buckner even more special is his pass-rushing prowess. Buckner has 16 sacks over four seasons — 8.5 in 2015 — and 33.5 tackles for a loss.
Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey is aging and his 2016 campaign is questionable after suffering an ACL tear in Week 11 versus Seattle. And fellow D-lineman Ian Williams also has injury concerns.
Imagine a D-line consisting of Armstead, Buckner and defensive tackle Quinton Dial. That isn’t too bad.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III shouldn’t be the 49ers’ first pick at No. 5. But, given the needs on both sides of the ball, Baalke could easily trade down towards the middle of the pack and land a player like Hargreaves, who is ranked as the No. 11 overall prospect in this year’s draft.
Such a move would be interesting though. San Francisco already has a plethora of young, developing cornerbacks on its roster. DBs Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt could all be good enough in a year or so. Especially Tartt.
But it’s hard to overlook the 49ers’ lack of ability against the passing game. San Francisco ranks 27th in the NFL in passing yards allowed (2,778).
If I had to bet, my money would be on Goff to go to San Francisco in Round 1. It’s clear the 49ers aren’t going to be employing Kaepernick beyond 2015, and Gabbert likely isn’t viewed as a long-term solution either.
Yet drafting a franchise quarterback is a tricky thing. On one hand, a successful pick can set up a franchise for years to come. But if that pick fails, a team frequently remains in the scuffle that mandated a first-round QB selection in the first place.
Things will change between now and draft time. And the 49ers have plenty of pressing needs.
So their first pick better be out of the park.
Next: Way Too Early Look at 49ers 2016 Draft Needs
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Sports-Reference.com and CBSSports.com unless otherwise indicated.