Draft Preview: 31. San Francisco 49ers

dashon-goldson2

So long, Dashon.

Yesterday, our draft preview train chugged through Raven town, a cold and barren place that defense will soon forget. The plague of free agency has left the defending champs short on, well, defenders, and they’ll now have to either claw through the second wave of free agency, or hope that many voids can be filled during the draft. The price paid for their championship season was a painful one.

The 49ers have paid a fee too for running through the NFC, and coming only four points short of a Super Bowl win. But their price wasn’t nearly as steep, with Anquan Boldin a significant upgrade over the departed Randy Moss, and Phil Dawson (a Brown forever) providing a similarly vast improvement in the kicking game over David Akers. Then there’s also the matter of the 49ers’ abundance of early-round picks, with the most recent addition to that stockpile coming after the Alex Smith trade that netted a second-round pick. Between the picks acquired through trades and compensatory picks, general manager Trent Baalke has 14 picks to work with, five of which come over the first three rounds.

Which is good, because the few holes that are left after free agency are a little glaring, especially in the defensive backfield. Dashon Goldson intercepted nine passes over the past two years and defended 20 more, and he’s now left for Tampa. Then there’s the defensive line, with Isaac Sopoaga part of the Eagles’ latest free agency haul, and behind him Ricky Jean Francois — who supplied quality depth when Justin Smith was injured — signed with Indianapolis.

So which of those holes should be addressed first? Or even better, which of those holes needs to be addressed first? I brought that kind of hard-hitting questioning during a little draft talk with James Brady, the editor of SB Nation Bay Area, and a writer at Niners Nation.

1. Justin Smith is still highly effective, but he’s entering the final year of his contract, and he’ll turn 34 next December. Is young depth on the defensive line the top priority in the first round, especially after Ricky Jean Francois and Isaac Sopoaga walked?

The 49ers really saw their pass rush evaporate when Justin Smith was injured (though it was also revealed that Aldon Smith played hurt), but obviously, confidence remains high in him continuing to play at a high level even at his age. That said, it’s safe to say that getting a defensive lineman early on is one of their priorities. They wanted to hold onto Ricky Jean-Francois and Isaac Sopoaga, but figured they’d be gone from the onset. I wouldn’t consider it their absolute top need, though, which is fortunate since that they hold the No. 2 pick in the second round, in addition to their own.

2. Safety is also a possibility with Goldson gone. If Matt Elam falls or if Eric Reid is available, will Baalke go in that direction? He can address a lot of needs early with five picks over the first three rounds.

Tying into the question above, I’d suggest that safety is their top need right now. Craig Dahl is certainly not the answer, and given that this is the deepest safety class in years, the timing seems perfect. Elam seems like a Baalke guy but after that guys like Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, and A.J. Jenkins have been high picks seemingly out of nowhere, there’s no telling which safety the team actually has their eye on. They’ll probably have one-to-two guys singled out, and they’ll draft them late in the first or early in the second regardless of the rankings.

3. Some early mocks have also speculated about replacing Delanie Walker and using an early-round pick on one of the top tight ends. Despite the importance of multiple tight ends in today’s NFL, that seems like a misplaced priority early in the draft with Vernon Davis still relatively young, and under contract until 2015. Agree? Disagree? Sort of agree?

I wouldn’t call it a misplaced priority per say. San Francisco took Walker and made him fit in their offense, and he has them to thank for the otherworldly transformation he made as a blocker. Now, they have a chance to get the guy they want who physically fits their needs. They probably want a big body, and their multiple second- and third-round picks makes drafting a No. 2 tight end — who will basically be a starter, mind you — a much easier pill to swallow. Remember they have their first, two seconds, two thirds and two fourths in the draft. Getting a tight end who can catch but can block as well as Davis would be huge, as Davis was kept in to block an awful lot in recent years.

4. Can we expect a backup quarterback to be drafted after the Alex Smith trade, especially with Colin Kaepernick’s playing style that can leave him vulnerable at times?

It would be shocking if a quarterback wasn’t drafted at some point, possibly even relatively early (here, early means about a fifth-round pick). We’ll likely see a backup QB competition as well, especially if a veteran is signed.

5. On either side of the ball, who’s the one prospect you most want the 49ers to land? Also, are there any sleepers you’re eying?

It’s all about the safeties, honestly. Jonathan Cyprien is getting hot, and Eric Reid is very solid. Getting a safety who can come in and start and keep Craig Dahl on the bench is basically crucial. There’s not one big name in particular.

As far as sleepers go, tight end Gavin Escobar visited with the 49ers recently and he could be a special talent with the way TEs are evolving in the NFL. His stock seems to be rising and he might not count as a sleeper, though.