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Top safety prospects could be intriguing for 49ers in draft

Malik Hooker's ball skills and instincts make him an ideal free safety, a position of need for the 49ers. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The 2017 NFL draft is set to begin on April 27 in Philadelphia. The San Francisco 49ers own 10 picks in this year's draft, including No. 2 overall.

With a new regime in coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch in place, it's hard to know what direction the Niners will go with their picks. But the 49ers have plenty of needs as they go about reconstructing their roster.

Here's a look at what the 49ers need at safety:

In place: Eric Reid, Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward (maybe), Don Jones, Marcus Ball, Vinnie Sunseri.

Potential fits:

Strong safety: LSU's Jamal Adams, Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu, North Carolina State's Josh Jones, Alabama's Eddie Jackson, Louisiana Tech's Xavier Woods.

Free safety: Ohio State's Malik Hooker, Washington's Budda Baker, Iowa's Desmond King, Utah's Marcus Sanders-Williams, Florida's Marcus Maye, Boston College's John Johnson.

What’s needed: The value of both safety spots increased dramatically upon the arrival of new coordinator Robert Saleh. In Saleh's scheme, which mimics the Seattle Seahawks', there's a clear prototype for both positions based on the success of Seattle's "Legion of Boom." For strong safety, think Kam Chancellor -- a big, physical, hard-hitting safety who will spend much of his time near the line of scrimmage. For free safety, think Earl Thomas -- a fast, instinctive type with the range to erase just about anything on the back end.

Finding those types of players is easier said than done, of course. In scanning the Niners' current roster, it seems they're far better equipped at strong safety than free, though none of the incumbents are at the level of Chancellor. Reid and Tartt will likely compete for the strong safety job, as both are considered to be better in that type of role. Saleh has even acknowledged that Reid will be more of a box safety in this defense. With Reid set to be a free agent after this year, Tartt could also get a long look.

Of more pressing need is finding the right fit at free safety. As it stands, Ward is the only player on the roster who projects to this position, and even that is no sure thing since he's making the transition from cornerback. The 49ers don't even really know what they have at that spot, and considering it's importance in the defense, it's imperative that they find out sooner than later.

Verdict: Much like cornerback, there's a lot of safety talent to be found in this draft, particularly in the early rounds. Drafting a safety with the second overall pick would be lofty territory for the position, but if it's going to happen, this might be the draft for it. Adams is widely regarded as a clear-cut, top-five prospect and could even theoretically play either position. Hooker has a few more question marks based on small sample size and injuries, but he is the ideal free safety in terms of ball skills and instincts. Neither would be considered much of a reach at No. 2 if the Niners chose to go that way, and it would be even more enticing in a small trade-down scenario. With Lynch as general manager, the importance of safeties for this defense won't be ignored.

Of course, if the 49ers prefer to wait, there are some good options who should be available in the second round. Baker visited with the Niners and is projected to be a late first- or early second-round pick. The same is true of King. Even if the Niners decide they want to go with Ward as the starter, the need for depth is obvious, so one way or another, it's a good bet the 49ers will walk away from this draft with at least one more safety in tow.