San Francisco’s already-talented roster does not have room for 13 incoming rookies, making the team a prime candidate to move up to the midpoint of the first round to address a critical need. But aside from safety – the only position where the team lost a true starter in free agency – there isn’t one position that stands out more than the others.
The interior of the defensive line is due for an influx of depth. The receiving corps could use an explosive playmaker to complement the sure-handed Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. The departure of Delanie Walker could mean the addition of a tight end that can make catches in traffic. And there could never enough pass rushers coming off the edges.
Here’s a look at six players the 49ers could target if they elect to move up to the middle of the first round:
Sheldon Richardson, DT Missouri (6-2, 294)
Coming into the draft, the 49ers don’t have a ton of talent behind their top-three defensive lineman, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey. If the team believes that Richardson could eventually replace the 34-year-old Smith over the long run, then he might be their guy.
Richardson was very productive in his final collegiate season, making 75 tackles and 10.5 sacks, an impressive number for an interior player. And although the 49ers technically run a 3-4, his skill as a three-technique lineman in a 4-3 could translate when the team uses two down lineman and two outside linebackers to get to the passer. Richardson’s effort remains in question, according to scouting reports, which should be a correctable problem under line coach Jim Tomsula. As an added plus, Richardson attended the same school as both Justin and Aldon Smith.
Barkevious Mingo, OLB/DE LSU (6-4, 241)
The 49ers might have to trade in the top 10 if Mingo is their target. But the speedy pass rusher could be a big time weapon in passing situations and be a nice complement to Aldon Smith. A year ago, there were reports San Francisco had heavy interest in Bruce Irvin, who wound up going 15th-overall to Seattle and registered eight sacks his rookie year. Mingo grades out as a very similar player. His athleticism could be a big asset in trying to defend read-option quarterbacks, most notably Russell Wilson.
If there’s a downside to Mingo, it’s his slight build that might be a detriment against the run. Early on, he would likely be a one-dimensional player, which could be the difference in whether or not the team elects to pay the price to move up and get him. It should be noted Smith was used almost exclusively in passing situations his rookie year.
Tavon Austin, WR West Virginia (5-8, 174)
Last year’s addition of LaMichael James represented the versatility the 49ers were looking to add to their offense. Gore and Kendall Hunter represented the meat and potatoes of the running game, while James offered the dynamic play-making ability those two might have lacked.
Adding Austin would fall in the same line of thinking, only at the receiving position. After running a 4.34 40-yard dash at the combine, he would be a great compliment to Crabtree and Boldin. Pairing him with offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s ability to get players into space could be a scary proposition for opposing defenses. Austin originally went to West Virginia as a running back and could be used in read-option sets with Colin Kaepernick. And given his return abilities, he would be the 49ers’ answer to the Seahawks acquiring Percy Harvin. There isn’t a more explosive player in the draft.
Tyler Eifert, TE Notre Dame (6-5, 250)
The loss of Delanie Walker will not go unaddressed in this draft. The question is when.
Although the 49ers have Vernon Davis, he’s limited in his ability to catch passes in traffic and works much better in space where his speed is on display. He often catches balls with his body and struggles when he has to turn his hands over. Eifert is a tight end that can win jump balls in the red zone - an area that could have been the difference in the team winning the Super Bowl.
It might be a stretch to think the 49ers would trade up to the mid-first round to find a player at a position that’s already solidified. But given the type of mismatch problems Eifort could create with safeties and linebackers, it is something worth considering. San Francisco loves to run two tight-end sets and Eifert could be a big time weapon in traffic over the middle, perhaps in a Jimmy Graham mold. Otherwise, the team could go for Zach Ertz with its current pick at the back end of the first round of early in the second.
Kenny Vaccaro, S Texas (6-0, 214)
Safety is clearly one of the deepest positions in this draft. But as deep as it is, one name stands out from the rest. Vaccaro is our only five star-rated safety on the board and won’t last long. The departure of Dashon Goldson could mean the 49ers have targeted Vaccaro to fill in as the starting free safety from Day 1.
There aren’t many weaknesses in Vaccaro’s game, except for occasionally being over aggressive and taking poor angles. But he was incredibly productive in his final year with the Long Horns, registering 92 tackles and two interceptions. He can play both in the box supporting the run and deep in coverage.
But given the depth at the position, San Francisco might not need to trade up to get their long-term solution at safety. The team could wait until it picks at the end of the first for play-maker Matt Elam (Florida), Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International), or Eric Reid (LSU). They could also wait until later and select D.J. Swearinger from South Carolina.
Sylvester Williams, DT North Carolina (6-2, 313)
Williams isn’t slated to go as high as some of the other names mentioned here, but it’s likely the 49ers would still need to trade up to get him. He’s a guy with a great story, tremendous character and a high motor. He didn’t have the grades to earn a Division I scholarship out of high school but worked his way to a starting position at a junior college before landing at North Carolina, where he continued to improve and turn into a potential first-round pick.
If San Francisco believes the late bloomer can continue to grow his game to pair with his high motor, he could be the long-term answer to the interior of the defensive line. But given the team rarely used a true nose tackle last year, they could wait until later in the draft to address that position. Need aside, Williams will be a tremendous asset to any locker room.