Ranking the 49ers’ draft needs is no easy task.
Realistically, there are few immediate starting jobs available for this draft class. But there could be plenty of chances for rookies to work into key reserve roles that will turn into potential starting jobs for 2016 and beyond.
The following is a ranking of the 49ers’ nine top draft needs, but should not be construed as how the 49ers should prioritize the order of their selections:
Current situation: A healthy NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite should fit well together in the middle of the 49ers’ defense. If Bowman returns to being the sideline-to-sideline presence, Wilhoite can excel in more of a dirty-work role. The team does not have proven depth behind them.
Outlook: A year ago, the 49ers selected Chris Borland in the third round. Since that investment, Bowman is expected to be back in the starting lineup after missing last season due to a knee injury, Wilhoite has proven himself, and Patrick Willis and Borland have walked away from the sport. It remains to be seen if Bowman can return to All-Pro form. And Wilhoite’s current contract situation makes his status beyond this season in question. The current depth chart does not include a backup with long-term starter capability.
Current situation: Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are the starters, and they look like a good complement for each other. Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and, possibly, Jerome Simpson could be just fine as options in the No. 3 role this season.
Outlook: Boldin is 34 and enters the final year of his contract. While it remains to be seen to what extent Ellington and Patton will develop as wideouts, the 49ers have a major opportunity to capitalize on what appears to be a deep and talented class of wide receivers. Any wideout selected within the first two rounds figures to pair with Smith as a full-time starter for at least three seasons, beginning in 2016.
Current situation: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch and Corey Lemonier give the 49ers a solid group at this position for 2015.
Outlook: Smith reworked his contract last month and is signed only through this season. With Brooks’ escalating salary, it’s not known how much longer he’ll be on the roster, either. The addition of a big-time pass rusher on his rookie contract would make it easier for the 49ers to move on if they’re reluctant to extend a lucrative multi-year contract to Smith.
Current situation: Coach Jim Tomsula calls it the deepest line the 49ers have had since he arrived on the scene eight years ago. Regardless of whether Justin Smith returns, the 49ers still have Darnell Dockett, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie. So they have plenty of pieces for their three-man line.
Outlook: None of those six players listed is signed beyond the 2016 season. Williams and Jerod-Eddie have contracts that expire after this year. There might not be an urgent need for this season, but the 49ers will need to get another player to develop for the future.
Current situation: Tramaine Brock is the team's No. 1 cover man, and figures to be a strong candidate to shadow the opposition’s top wide receiver. Shareece Wright and Chris Cook have starting experience. The 49ers have high opinions of 2014 draft picks Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker.
Outlook: Although the 49ers have some likeable young players, they won’t know exactly what they have in Johnson, Reaser and Acker until this season. It can’t hurt to add another talented young cornerback to the mix. The 49ers would likely get a first-year starter if they select a cornerback in the first round.
Current situation: The 49ers have starters – or at least good competition for starting jobs – across the board for the 2015 season. But they have no depth at the tackle positions, and that was a big problem last season. After all, the 49ers have already waived Jonathan Martin, who started nine games at right tackle.
Outlook: There are enough options at the interior positions. But there’s not much behind tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis. Staley is signed through 2017 2019. Davis is signed through 2019 at reasonable base salaries. But the 49ers need a swing tackle in the event Davis’ injury-plagued season is an indication his body is beginning to break down.
Current situation: As he stated upon the hiring of Tomsula as head coach, Vernon Davis promised to take part in the team’s offseason conditioning program. If Davis is fully engaged, the 49ers should be fine at this spot for this season. Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier and Garrett Celek all have experience in backup roles but have battled injuries.
Outlook: This is Davis’ final season under contract, and it’s questionable whether the 49ers have a long-term starter elsewhere on the roster. McDonald ended the season on injured reserve with a back injury, and it’s uncertain how long he’ll be able to hold up.
Current situation: Frank Gore is no longer around, but the 49ers should have a pretty good group with Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter.
Outlook: The 49ers selected Hyde in the second round of last year’s draft for a reason. They envision him being their lead back for at least the next three seasons. Bush and Hunter are on one-year deals. Former Australian rugby league star Jarryd Hayne is a complete unknown at this point.
Current situation: Colin Kaepernick is the starter. Blaine Gabbert is the backup.
Outlook: It’s no secret this is a big season for Kaepernick. The bottom line is he has to prove he is worth his scheduled $14.3 million pay for the 2016 season. Gabbert is on a two-year deal. That said, it’s highly unlikely the 49ers will invest in a quarterback early enough in the draft to open the door of that player becoming an eventual starter.