”The teams that have been successful for a long period of time are teams that aren't drafting to need on that given year. They're drafting a year, maybe even two years, ahead of need." --49ers GM Trent Baalke, April 17, 2013
Trent Baalke does not share much insight into his draft philosophy, but his statement two years ago on drafting for need is more relevant than ever.
After all, the 49ers did not hit on some positions that were seen as the most thin spots on the team's depth chart. But, perhaps, this draft sheds light on what areas the 49ers envision will be positions they must fill a year from now.
The 49ers chose this offseason not to re-sign cornerbacks Chris Culliver or Perrish Cox, who started a combined 28 games last season. Rather than reach down their board for a cornerback, the 49ers decided to stand pat. They did not draft a cornerback, and they have yet to sign an undrafted rookie.
[MAIOCCO: 49ers thwarted in attempt to add CB, LB]
A year ago the 49ers anticipated they would not re-sign Culliver, who was projected all along as a starter in 2014. So the 49ers went heavy on cornerbacks in the 2014 draft.
In essence, the 49ers selected two cornerbacks they considered of fourth-round value. Dontae Johnson showed a lot of promise while getting significant playing time as a rookie. The 49ers picked Keith Reaser in the fifth round, knowing he would not be available at any point in his rookie season due to knee surgery.
Kenneth Acker, who had an impressive training camp, was stashed on injured reserve for the regular season with a stress fracture in his left foot. He likely would have made the 49ers’ 53-man roster – or ended up with another team – as a rookie.
The 49ers made mid-round draft selections at wide receiver the previous two years, grabbing Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington, with the full understanding Michael Crabtree was going to be nearly impossible to retain on his second contract. However, the 49ers eschewed getting involved with the top of those deep receiver classes.
It’s apparent the 49ers also figured heading into last year’s draft that running back Frank Gore and guard Mike Iupati were likely playing their final seasons with the organization. So, the 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round and made a third-round investment in second-round talent Brandon Thomas after he sustained an ACL tear during a pre-draft workout.
Of course, the 49ers selected an inside linebacker last year, too. But Chris Borland is no longer around, as he moved from the depth chart to the reserve/retired list. As it turns out, although they tried, inside linebacker is the only position the 49ers did not address a year ahead of the need. Instead, this offseason the 49ers signed a couple of veteran free-agents, Desmond Bishop and Philip Wheeler, as insurance behind presumptive starters NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite. And the addition of Lance Briggs remains a possibility, as well.
So what does this year’s draft tell us about where the 49ers’ roster is heading next year?
--Defensive lineman Arik Armstead was selected in the first round. Even if Justin Smith decides to play this season (many around the team believe he has come to grips with moving on), he certainly will not be back in 2016. Nose tackle Ian Williams is also in the final year of his contract.
--Safety Jaquiski Tartt’s selection in the second round should pay immediate dividends on special teams, but it’s also a pick made with an eye to the future. Backup Craig Dahl is in the final year of his contract, and Antoine Bethea’s salary rises to $5 million in 2016 and $5.75 million in 2017.
--The selection of outside linebacker Eli Harold is definite insurance against the possibility that neither Aldon Smith nor Ahmad Brooks will be back next season. Smith enters the final year of his contract. The 49ers’ track record is that they do not get into bidding wars for free agents. So if Smith hits the open market, it seems unlikely he will be back. Also, Ahmad Brooks’ contract takes another leap in 2016 – and it’s not known at this point if the 49ers consider his $4.85 million price tag this year is considered too steep.
--Tight end Vernon Davis enters the final year of his contract after having his worst NFL season in 2014. Moreover, 2013 second-round draft pick Vance McDonald has yet to assert himself as a potential starter. That explains why the 49ers selected tight end Blake Bell in the fourth round and Busta Anderson in the seventh.
--Hyde will be around through 2017, but backups Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter are on one-year deals. Running back Mike Davis, a fourth-round pick, figures to be the primary backup next season. Davis is also the most logical every-down option behind Hyde.
--The 49ers do not need a starting wide receiver this year with Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith in place. As noted earlier, the team used mid-round picks the past two years on Patton and Ellington. Next season, DeAndre Smelter has a chance to be a factor as he spends most of this season getting back to full strength after ACL surgery.
--The 49ers will figure out where offensive linemen Ian Silberman and Trent Brown are best-suited to play. At this point, it would be a surprise if disgruntled right guard Alex Boone is back with the club in 2016. One or both of this year's draft picks could be in the starting mix next season.
--The selection of punter Bradley Pinion puts immediate heat on three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee. The 49ers do not figure to have the luxury of keeping both Pinion and Lee around, so the club will have to make a decision this summer. Both players are likely to be on NFL rosters this season. And the 49ers get to decide which punter they’ll choose for themselves.