The depth at the wide receiver position, coupled with the lack of top-flight talent at defensive tackle, helped the 49ers execute their strategy for the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night.
The draft was known to be deep at wide receiver, so there would not be a steep decline in talent at the position if the 49ers sat out the first run of receivers.
In the 10 picks after the 49ers selected South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw at No. 14 overall, four receivers were selected. One was Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb, whom 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan gave high marks in his draft evaluation.
But another receiver Shanahan coveted remained untouched. And that prompted the 49ers to move up six spots to select Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk -- a player the 49ers said they would have considered with their first selection if Kinlaw had not been available. The 49ers traded with the Minnesota Vikings to take Aiyuk at No. 25.
“He was my favorite receiver I evaluated,” Shanahan said Thursday. “There is no doubt on that. CeeDee Lamb was a hell of a player who can make a lot of plays. … And so, that was the guy who was competition with him. But, in terms of the receiver and just all the positions and developed, this guy was there from the first time we watched him.”
There were no other defensive tackle prospects whom the 49ers figured could come close to approaching what DeForest Buckner gave them over four seasons before he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick. The Carolina Panthers selected Derrick Brown at No. 7 overall. Then, the 49ers traded back one spot and still got Kinlaw.
The only issue with Kinlaw (6-foot-5, 324 pounds) is concern over knee tendinitis that prevented him from working out at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
“I was down there at the Senior Bowl,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said Thursday. “He went and absolutely decimated folks down there, and then got out after a couple of days. And apparently the knee did flare up.
“Our guys did as extensive of a medical check as they could have. We got to the point where we were comfortable there. And we liked the player so much. It's a guy who missed one game in college and played at an incredibly high level. We just think he's a tremendous fit.”
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So if the 49ers passed on Kinlaw at No. 14 to select the next defensive tackle later in the first round, whom might they have chosen?
The NFL will have to wait for that answer at some point on Friday night because there were no other defensive tackles who teams deemed worthy of being first-round draft picks.
The way the 49ers played the draft on Thursday enabled them to get two players at positions of need who were high on their draft boards. Kinlaw and Aiyuk are expected to be starters as rookies, effectively replacing Buckner and veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who signed with New Orleans as a free agent.
“We added two guys that without a doubt are starting-caliber players who will make our team better, who are going to be contributors on their first contracts and for a long time,” Shanahan said. “And that'll really help us in free agency next year. That'll really help us in the draft next year, and it'll really help the 2021 49ers.”
The variety of the wide receiver class worked to the 49ers’ benefit, too.
Lynch made the observation at the combine that there were wide receivers who provided all kinds of different options.
“You can kind of get whatever flavor you want,” Lynch said two months ago.
Aiyuk does not possess the speed of Henry Ruggs or the nuanced route-running of Jerry Jeudy or the slot expertise of Justin Jefferson. But what Aiyuk has to offer is exactly what Shanahan wanted – versatility to do everything and the desire to do it all at a high level.
“He has on tape that he can run every single route and he can do it outside the numbers and he can do it inside the numbers,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan compared Aiyuk to the best-case scenario for Dante Pettis, who was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft due to his versatility. But Aiyuk appears to play with a greater sense of urgency and is comfortable catching the ball in the teeth of a defense.
“He's got the speed to get on top,” Shanahan said of Aiyuk. “He's got the quickness to play in the slot. He's got the toughness to go over in the middle. And the guy is just completely committed to me in to being as good as God ever intended him to be.”