The 49ers do not control their own draft destiny.
With the No. 9 overall pick, the 49ers’ selection will, in part, be based on what happens in the first eight draft slots. Of course, they could move up or back. But that would involve finding a trade partner.
The answers to these questions will shape the 49ers’ actions on Thursday in the first round of the NFL draft:
Will a linebacker be best on the board?
Reuben Foster’s time with the 49ers might not be over, but it is unclear how much time he is going to miss or how much the 49ers can rely on him to be a long-term member of the organization.
Roquan Smith (Georgia) and Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech) are considered the top two options at linebacker, and either one of them could be the best available player on the board when the 49ers select.
Smith is a high-character, instinctive, athletic player who can step in and immediately become the team’s leading tackler. Edmunds is big, young and raw. Smith is close to a sure thing. Edmunds’ upside is unlimited.
Could Chubb or Nelson be around?
The 49ers have struggled to find a pass rush since Aldon Smith’s departure. Bradley Chubb (North Carolina State) is the best edge rusher in the draft, and would be a nice fit for the 49ers’ scheme. But the 49ers should not hold their breath. Chubb and running back Saquon Barkley (Penn State) are expected be the first non-quarterbacks selected.
Although unlikely, it is possible guard Quenton Nelson (Notre Dame) could still be on the board when the 49ers select. The 49ers believe they have strengthened their guard positions – or at least strengthened the competition – with the signing of Jonathan Cooper. Laken Tomlinson and Joshua Garnett are slated to compete, along with Cooper, for the starting jobs.
Nelson is big and powerful. He is also athletic enough to fit into Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, which places a lot more responsibility on the shoulders of the guards that most systems. Nelson could be chosen at any of the three spots (Indianapolis, Tampa Bay or Chicago) before the 49ers are scheduled to go on the clock. If he remains there at No. 9, the guess is the 49ers would gladly call his name.
Who is the best fit in the secondary?
There are some very good defensive backs who will be drafted within the first dozen picks. But which of those players gives the 49ers what they need or want?
Cornerback Denzel Ward (Ohio State), and safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama) and Derwin James (Florida State) are the consensus top defensive backs available in this draft.
Ward’s speed and coverage skills are outstanding. But his size (5-11, 183) and non-physical style do not match what the 49ers want from their cornerbacks.
Fitzpatrick can play just about anywhere in the secondary. James is tough and aggressive. Strong safety is his best fit.
Fitzpatrick is good in the slot, where the 49ers already have K’Waun Williams at nickel back. At cornerback, the 49ers have presumptive starters Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. Safety Jimmie Ward will play on the outside in the offseason program.
At safety, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are scheduled for unrestricted free agency next offseason, so the 49ers could look ahead to what might be a need a year from now. Adrian Colbert looks to be a keeper.
Will a surprise really be a surprise?
So who is the second-best pass rusher? Who is the second-best offensive lineman? And would the 49ers consider either of those players worthy of a top-10 selection?
The 49ers must look to address their looming issues at offensive tackle, and Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame) could be considered. Joe Staley might have a couple of good seasons left in him. But right tackle Trent Brown couild be gone after this season.
And how about the need for an edge rusher? It would not be much of a stretch for the 49ers to consider Marcus Davenport (Texas-San Antonio) or Harold Landry (Boston College).
Cornerback is also a position the 49ers could consider. Isaiah Oliver (Colorado) and Josh Jackson (Iowa) are the best fits for the 49ers’ scheme.
The 49ers were not willing to spend money for a wide receiver in free agency, so they can be expected to add someone in the draft. But a top-10 pick would seem too high to go target any of the top guys: Calvin Ridley (Alabama), D.J. Moore (Maryland) or Courtland Sutton (SMU).