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49ers must avoid making one mistake in critical 2021 draft

/ by Josh Schrock
Presented By Big O Tires
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Chalk the 2020 season up to whatever you want: Injuries, inconsistent play, bad luck, fate. No matter your preferred boogeyman, the 49ers' season was a debacle from jump street, as Kyle Shanahan's snake-bitten crew scratched and clawed to a 6-10 record, good for last place in the NFC West.

A season like that coming on the heels of a Super Bowl berth has many pointing fingers and hoping the 49ers make at least one drastic change this offseason. But the facts are the facts. The 49ers still have a good roster, although the 2021 iteration won't be as complete as the 2019 team that was 10 minutes away from a championship.

General manager John Lynch and Shanahan have holes to file, tweaks to make and edges to sand down. A lot of work awaits them in what is a critical offseason. Get things right, and the 49ers should return to conference championship contender status. Drop the ball and ... things could go the other way.

The 49ers' biggest decision will come in April when they have 10 picks, including the No. 12 overall pick. For Lynch and Shanahan, the draft is the best way for them to keep the roster at its peak and add an influx of young talent. But the draft is full of pitfalls. Teams and front offices step on rakes every April and spend years paying for their draft-week gaffes.

The 49ers' brain trust can't get caught reaching for a need of any sort. That's where mistakes are made, and you end up passing on a better player to check a box.

 

This isn't about the quarterback position. Jimmy Garoppolo, if healthy, will be the 49ers' starting quarterback in 2021 barring an unforeseen change. But that doesn't mean quarterback isn't on the needs list. It just comes after cornerback, edge rusher and offensive line.

At No. 12, the 49ers are in a good position. They have the ability to see how the board starts to fall, which prospects start to slide and which teams behind them might be looking to move up.

If the 49ers are sitting at No. 12 and Justin Fields is still there, should they draft him over Jaycee Horn (CB3), Rashawn Slater (OT2) or Kwity Paye (EDGE 1), even if they plan on Garoppolo starting in 2021? If he's high on their board and they think he has franchise upside, then yes they should. If they have Paye or Slater as one of the top prospects on their board, then the 49ers should draft one of them.

The 49ers are in a position where they can afford to take the best player available. There's no need for Lynch and Shanahan to reach for the third-best cornerback in the class if star Florida tight end Kyle Pitts falls to 12. Adding Pitts to the offensive arsenal would do much more for their 2021 hopes and future outlook than adding a cornerback who they might not view as a top-level prospect.

Let's pivot back to the quarterback idea for a second. Even if Garoppolo is the starter in 2021, it's clear that there are questions about his limitations and ability to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl. What is also clear is that when Garoppolo is healthy and starts, the 49ers win. And they win a lot.

But if Fields slips to 12 or Mac Jones slips into the second round, the 49ers should look to what the Philadelphia Eagles did in drafting Jalen Hurts. The Eagles had Carson Wentz, who played at an MVP level in 2017 before in the injuries and inconsistent play took over, and they went ahead and drafted Hurts, who was high on their board, in the second round anyway, believing that adding another talented quarterback would help them one way or the other. The Eagles eventually benched Wentz for Hurts late in the season and traded Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts last week.

What the Eagles did could have backfired. But they followed their board, trusting that if they were right about Hurts they would have at least one -- and potentially two -- quality players at a premium position.

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That's how the 49ers need to view the draft, at least in the first two rounds. They have needs, yes. Those will become clearer after free agency. But they are not in a dire position. They don't need to gamble on a cornerback or edge rusher they don't fully believe in if a player they have ranked higher falls to them.

 

Two types of teams only draft for need: Those who are poorly run and those who have a gaping hole at a premium position.

The 49ers don't fall into either category, and they should follow their evaluations and draft for talent and long-term success. If that has them land Pitts or Jaylen Waddle in Round 1, Azeez Ojulari in Round 2 and forces them to look elsewhere for secondary help, so be it. Isn't that a better path than drafting a cornerback or offensive lineman who you don't believe is a difference-maker and passing on truly elite talent?

The answer is clear.

The 49ers have been building something. Some remodeling has to be done this offseason, and the draft is a critical part of the roster facelift that will happen.

All the 49ers have to do to ensure success is to follow their draft board and go with the surest thing when it's their turn. Reaching for need can only end in regret and franchise-altering misses.

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