Before Jimmy Garoppolo took over as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, the 49ers were right behind the Cleveland Browns in the projected order for the NFL draft.
Now, a coin toss on Friday in Indianapolis with the Raiders will determine whether the 49ers pick No. 9 or No. 10 in the first round. Both teams finished with a 6-10 record.
The 49ers’ drop in the draft is a small price to pay for the assurance the 49ers have filled their top priority. After acquiring Garoppolo in a trade with the New England Patriots for a second-round draft pick, the 49ers felt like they landed their quarterback of the future.
But watching Garoppolo play in five games convinced general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan that Garoppolo was worthy of locking up to the NFL’s richest contract.
Garoppolo is under contract through the 2022 season with a deal that averages $27.5 million per season. And, now, the 49ers head off to the NFL Scouting Combine this week with their focus on some intriguing prospects at other positions.
Ahkello Witherspoon made tremendous strides last season after a rough training camp and being declared inactive for the first four games of the season.
Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson opened the season as the starters. Robinson disappointed on and off the field, and was traded to the New York Jets at the trade deadline. Johnson lost confidence late in the season. Although he started every game, he was pulled off the field during a couple of difficult games.
So the 49ers head into the offseason with Witherspoon and nobody else. The other starting cornerback is not yet on the team.
Denzel Ward, Ohio State: What he lacks in size (5-10, 191) and strength, Ward makes up for in athleticism and cover skills. Ward is as good as it gets in coverage, and he can be expected to shine in all the on-field testing at the combine.
Josh Jackson, Iowa: Jackson showed tremendous play-making ability in just 14 career starts. He recorded eight interceptions and 27 passes defensed. Jackson (6-1) has prototypical size for the 49ers’ defensive scheme.
Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State: McFadden (6-2, 198) is adept at being physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing between quarterbacks and receivers. He is also good at an area that has been an issue with 49ers cornerbacks: Turning to find the football. He must prove he can run with top-flight receivers.
The play along the 49ers’ offensive line improved dramatically after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his quick release settled into the starting lineup. The biggest areas of need for this season are on the interior offensive line.
The 49ers re-signed center Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension two weeks ago. Right guard Brandon Fusco, as 16-game starter, is not signed for 2018. Laken Tomlinson started 15 games after he arrived in a trade shortly before the start of the regular season. The 49ers are curious what he can do with a full offseason and training camp. Joshua Garnett will be given an opportunity to compete for a job after spending last season on injured reserve with a knee issue.
The tackle positions also might require some attention. Right tackle Trent Brown, who is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, enters the final year of his contract and his future with the club beyond this season is up in the air. Left tackle Joe Staley finished the season strong. But he turns 34 in August, and it’s unknown how many more seasons he can play.
Quentin Nelson, Notre Dame: The consensus top offensive lineman in the draft is a guard. It is rare that guards are selected within the top 10, and the bust rate seems to be high. But Nelson (6-5, 329) could be different. He is a mauler. But does he have the quickness and agility in space to fulfill the requirements of a lineman in Shanahan’s outside zone-blocking game? Nelson will be out to prove at the combine he has the feet to fit any scheme. For the 49ers, it probably does not matter, though. He is likely to already be off the board when their pick rolls around.
Connor Williams, Texas: The 49ers have an immediate need at guard. And they have a future need at tackle. Williams (6-6, 320) could potentially begin his career at guard before transitioning to a long-term home at one of the tackle positions.
Alex Cappa, Humboldt State: Cappa (6-7, 305) is likely to be available on the third day of the draft. He would compete for a starting job at guard as a rookie and, perhaps, move to right tackle in the future. His nastiness is not questioned. However, his agility and athleticism will be scrutinized during drills in Indianapolis.
Two different general managers and three separate head coaches have been behind the 49ers’ decisions to use their top pick over the past three years on defensive linemen Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas.
The 49ers have been lacking a dominant outside pass-rusher capable of contributing double-digit sacks. There has not been a 49ers player with more than 6.5 sacks since 2013, when Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks tied with 8.5 sacks apiece.
Brandon Chubb, North Carolina State: Chubb might be the most-perfect player for the 49ers in this entire draft. There is little question he is viewed as the top pass-rusher coming out of college. But the 49ers have no chance at adding him to their pass-rush starved defense because of their late-season surge.
Marcus Davenport, Texas-San Antonio: Davenport dominated against lower-level competition. His size and athletic measurables should compare favorably to others at this position.
Arden Key, LSU: There are plenty of questions about Key, who posted 11 sacks in 2016. Key (6-6, 265) left the LSU football team for about four months during last offseason for “personal reasons.” Each team will determine if he provides satisfactory explanations to those questions. He has all the physical tools. The interviews will be most important part of Key's combine experience.
As was the case with nearly every position group on the 49ers, the wide receivers looked a lot better after Garoppolo took over as the starter. Still, the 49ers would like to add a young, big-bodied receiver to develop.
Marquise Goodwin turned into a great find as a free agent. Pierre Garçon was the team’s leading receiver before his season was cut short due to a neck injury. And rookie Trent Taylor showed plenty of promise in the slot.
The 49ers would like to add more depth and different skillsets at wide receiver, including a player who can be trusted as a target in the red zone. The 49ers got inside the opponents’ 20-yard line 24 times in the final five games with Garoppolo and came away with just 11 touchdowns.
Calvin Ridley, Alabama: In what looks like a weak crop of wide receivers, Ridley (6-1, 190) stands out as the likely top selection. However, he does not come without some questions, too. He’s a smooth athlete and a good route runner, but might struggle with press coverage and had too many drops in his college career.
Courtland Sutton, SMU: He could be the big, red-zone presence that the 49ers could use on the outside in Shanahan’s offense. Sutton (6-4, 218) is durable and plays wide receiver like a power forward boxing out for rebounds under the boards. The combine is huge for Sutton. He must show in the 40-yard dash that he has enough speed to threaten defensive backs. Shanahan looks for receivers who can get open. Sutton has the size to catch contested passes, but he must be able to generate some separation, too.
Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame: St. Brown (6-5, 204) should run well at the combine. His speed coupled with his size is likely to lead some team to believe he can be molded into a big-play machine. Shanahan could find an immediate, specific role for him as a rookie while continuing to develop his overall game.
The 49ers feel very good about how their projected starting inside linebackers fit together on the field.
The team was expecting big things from veteran Malcolm Smith before he sustained a season-ending torn pectoral in training camp. And a year ago, the club ranked Reuben Foster as the No. 3 prospect in the draft.
Smith is still projected as a starter at weakside linebacker. But Foster’s future is a lot more cloudy due to two offseason arrests – one in Alabama for possession of marijuana, and one on charges of domestic violence, threats and possession of an assault weapon in Los Gatos.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office is reviewing the case to determine whether to proceed with formal criminal charges. Foster remains with the 49ers, but he is also subject to potential NFL discipline. While the 49ers have not shown they are anywhere near ready to move on from Foster, they must prepare as if he will not be available.
Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech: Each team might have a different idea about how to use Edmunds (6-5, 250) within their scheme. Edmunds should excel during the drills at the combine, which could see him climb even further up draft boards. The 49ers could use him as any of their linebacker positions, as well as give him a shot as an edge rusher.
Roquan Smith, Georgia: Smith (6-1, 225) is an absurdly athletic player who studies the game and should have no problem stepping into an NFL to relay the calls. He is a strong candidate at a need position for the Raiders, too. So the coin flip could determine whether he is on the board when the 49ers go on the clock.
Jerome Baker, Ohio State: The 49ers would have to take Smith or Edmunds with their first pick. If they go in a different direction in the first round, Baker (6-1, 225) is an option in the second or third round. His strength in the bench press will be monitored, and he will have to impress during any interviews that he has the right mindset to handle the requirements of middle linebacker.