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NFL draft: 49ers should find starters at edge rusher, wide receiver

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NFL draft: 49ers should find starters at edge rusher, wide receiver

The 49ers should be able to net major contributors – one on offense and one on defense – in the upcoming NFL draft.

But a few other newcomers will have an opportunity to work themselves into key roles if some of the projected starters stumble or are sidelined.

After filling some of the team’s starting needs in free agency, here’s a look at the 49ers’ top positional priorities heading into the draft, which opens Thursday in Nashville with the first round:

Edge rusher

Behind quarterback, the edge rusher spots are the most important positions on a football team. The 49ers added Dee Ford in a trade. The Kansas City Chiefs initially prevented Ford from becoming a free agent by tagging him with their franchise designation.

Now, the 49ers need another threat on the outside to complement Ford and inside pass rusher DeForest Buckner. More than likely, the 49ers will place a checkmark next to this position with their first-round draft pick.

Assuming the Arizona Cardinals select Kyler Murray at No. 1, the 49ers are widely expected to go with Nick Bosa. If Bosa is gone, then they could eschew an edge rusher to select another defensive tackle, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams. But outside linebacker Josh Allen is also a strong possibility in that spot.

A year ago, the 49ers top edge rushers were Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair. Marsh was cut shortly after the acquisition of Ford. Blair and Marsh tied for second on the team with 5.5 sacks. Blair is solid, but the 49ers’ defense would be a lot better if his role were reduced because they were able to bring in someone better.

Wide receiver

It is a high priority for the 49ers to add a starting-caliber wide receiver in the draft, in order to have the luxury of dialing back Marquise Goodwin’s role in order to accentuate his strengths and make him more effective.

Among the wide receivers the 49ers are known to have brought into their Santa Clara facility for pre-draft visits are A.J. Brown (Mississippi), Hakeem Butler (Iowa State), N'Keal Harry (Arizona State), Jalen Hurd (Baylor) and Deebo Samuel (South Carolina). All of those players could be available when the 49ers pick at No. 36 overall.

Dante Pettis, the 49ers’ second-round pick a year ago, looks to be on solid footing as a starter. Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne and Jordan Matthews have opportunities to work into significant roles on the outside. But the 49ers need to find another wideout who can carve out a niche. The newcomer does not need to be an every-down player. He just needs to have a unique skill set that coach Kyle Shanahan can implement.

Safety

The 49ers entered the free-agent signing period with Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert and Marcell Harris as the most-likely starting options. Then, they re-signed Jimmie Ward.

Despite Ward's history of injuries, the 49ers coaching staff – every 49ers coaching staff over the time he has been with the organization – has a high opinion of Ward because of how hard he plays. When he exited the lineup last season with his second season-ending fractured forearm in two years, Ward was playing better than anyone else in the team's secondary.

So Ward at free safety and Tartt or Harris at strong safety is how the 49ers envision opening the season. The 49ers could add more competition to the mix if they select a safety such as Jonathan Abram (Mississippi State), Darnell Savage (Maryland) or Nasir Adderley (Delaware) in the second round.

Cornerback

Among a group that features Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore, the 49ers should pluck out two starters and good depth. But there are enough questions about each of those four players that should prompt the 49ers to look hard at this position in the draft again.

Sherman is a bit of a mystery. He did not appear to be moving nearly as well as he did during his time with the Seahawks. That is understandable, considering he was returning from a torn Achilles. But Sherman was never really challenged because the 49ers had such large issues on the other side.

Verrett is a starter, but he has been unable to remain healthy. Witherspoon and Moore, the team’s most-recent third-round picks, have the size and skills to be reliable NFL starters. Now, they have to prove it through consistency.

Offensive line

The starting offensive line appears solid with tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, guards Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person, and center Weston Richburg. The 49ers need to cover themselves with better depth.

Guard is a spot where a newcomer can step in and conceivably beat out Person and Joshua Garnett. The 49ers could use a mid-round pick on a versatile lineman who could start off at guard and eventually transition into tackle.

[RELATED: Jimmy G opens up about work with Mike Shanahan]

Other needs

Outside linebacker: Malcolm Smith and Mark Nzeocha are in line at the team’s starting strongside linebacker. More competition could be on the way.

Tight end: The 49ers would like to bring in a tight end to serve as George Kittle’s backup or pair with him in two-TE formations.

Punter: Bradley Pinion signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Justin Vogel, who was out of the NFL last season, is the only punter on the roster. Day 3 could be the spot for the 49ers to draft a replacement.

Kicker: Robbie Gould is conceivably locked up. But the 49ers showed that they are at least entertaining the thought of bringing in someone else when they showed interest in New England’s Stephen Gostkowski before the Patriots re-signed him.

Solomon Thomas is excited to prove he's worthy of No. 3 overall pick

Solomon Thomas is excited to prove he's worthy of No. 3 overall pick

SANTA CLARA – Defensive tackle Solomon Thomas had a pedestrian rookie season after the 49ers chose him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft.

But that was nothing compared to Year 2, when he faced unimaginable tragedy with the suicide death of his older sister. Understandably, he was unproductive on the field as he struggled with his emotions and saw reduced playing time until a late-season surge.

Thomas’ name surfaced in trade rumors during the NFL draft.

Thomas said he is often guilty of over-thinking. But this time he did not give it much thought. He said he did not yearn for a fresh start elsewhere, because he wants to justify the faith general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan showed in him.

“In this business, whatever happens, happens. You don’t control it,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “But I love this organization. I love being here. And I want to finish what I started. I want to come here and want to show everyone why John and Kyle drafted me No. 3 and be who I am.”

After recording 41 tackles and three sacks in 14 games as a rookie, Thomas managed just 31 tackles and one sack in 16 games last season. The grief he felt off the field seemed to impact his performance at work.

“Last year I just wasn’t me,” Thomas said. “I’m not making excuses. I didn’t play well, and that’s on me. I should’ve played better. But I’m not making excuses for any of that. But what I’m saying that I wasn’t me last year. I put pressure on myself. But that’s over.”

Thomas said he sought therapy to better help him deal with the death of his sister, Ella. He continues to be an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness.

“That’s been a long process,” Thomas said. “It’s been hard to find. The first year was really hard for me, all the phases of anger, depression, sadness, guilt, grief, all that kind of stuff. So it’s hard for me to get healthy, and it took me a while. And once I was, I was a different person. I was light on my feet and could finally walk and move again.”

Shanahan said he sees an improvement in Thomas, who believes the team’s scheme adjustment under new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek fits his skills as an undersized defensive tackle. Thomas is expected to play defensive end in the 49ers' base defense, then move inside to rush the passer from defensive tackle.

“We all know what he went through and stuff, but you can see he’s got his aura back to him,” Shanahan said. “You can see it in his eyes. You can feel his energy a little bit better, and it definitely seems like he’s in a better place.

“We all know grieving can be as hard as it gets and takes people a long time, but you can see he’s doing better.”

After reports of the 49ers shopping Thomas in a trade, Lynch called Thomas into his office and denied the club was trying to get rid of him. Lynch talked to Thomas about how he should thrive in his new role.

“I can use my quickness and my explosion, being able to use that and just move, and having the green light,” Thomas said. “That’s what I need. I don’t need to be reading and sitting back. I need to be going and be able to press guards, get on the edge and crush tight ends. That’s how I play, and that’s the kind of scheme that can bring out my strengths.”

Thomas said he has always been a perfectionist. He admits that he often gets in his own head when he is dissatisfied with his own performance. He views this season as a fresh start without the change of scenary.

[RELATED: 49ers hopeful Kocurek can unleash Thomas]

“Everything in the past, is in the past,” he said. “I had probably my worst season ever in my life last year and I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my career right now. That says a lot. I’m ready to move forward and show everyone who Solomon Thomas is and what I’m going to bring to the table.”

Why Dee Ford isn't worried about Nick Bosa's past social media usage

Why Dee Ford isn't worried about Nick Bosa's past social media usage

SANTA CLARA — 49ers first-round pick Nick Bosa was scrutinized heavily for his social media use, but veteran edge rusher Dee Ford isn't bothered by it one bit. 

"Yeah, he’s a great guy,” Ford said. “Social media is social media. I could care less. Honestly, who you are at work is important to me and he’s a great guy. I don’t even have a social media. I’m not even up to speed with the quotes and all that. I don’t care.

“Who he has presented to us is a great guy that’s ready to work and that’s all that matters to me.” 

Bosa pulled up short in practice with a hamstring injury and was unable to finish individual drills with his position group. Ford took it upon himself to speak to the rookie, offering encouragement. Ford knows the pressure of being a first-round pick and admires Bosa’s drive. 

“He works very hard,” Ford said. “He’s a really good guy. You hate to see that for a rookie because he’s really progressing and he’s going to be important for this defense. And that D-line room is really starting to mesh. He’ll get healthy. He’ll get back. He’ll be fine.” 

Ford even offered Bosa advice as far as the extra attention he’s received for what he has done off the field.   

“It’s important as a rookie to stay the course,” Ford said. “Don’t get down. You got a lot of stuff to go through as a rookie. I told him once ball gets here, it’s all about ball. All the extra stuff will be over.”  

Ford was also complementary of Bosa’s skill set, and compared Bosa to former Chiefs teammate Justin Houston. 

"[Bosa] has a unique ability to actually execute his moves,” Ford said. “He’s very fluent. He actually reminds me of Justin. He’s not going to jump off your screen as far as speed, but he’s fluent as an athlete and fast enough.

[RELATED: Lynch, Shanahan confident in Bosa's character]

“He’s very strong and he can execute his moves with his hand-eye coordination, which is what you like to see in the rush game. And in the run game he can make plays front side and back side.” 

It’s only Day Two of phase three but it appears that Bosa is fitting in with his teammates as well as could be.