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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.