Nick Wagoner breaks down the San Francisco 49ers' 2017 draft class.
Round 1, No. 3 overall: Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
My take: The Niners clearly were focused on taking the player they viewed as the best available, regardless of position. That’s why they were unafraid to take Thomas, despite drafting a defensive lineman with their first pick for the third consecutive year. I spoke to a scouting director who believes Thomas was the cleanest prospect in the draft and will be a high-level contributor for a long time. Taking it further, the Niners need leaders who can serve as foundational pieces for their rebuild. Would this pick be more appealing if Thomas was a surefire fit for the “Leo” pass-rusher role in coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense? Sure. But if Thomas turns into the Niners’ version of Michael Bennett on the field, while offering captain-type leadership, this is worth it.
A small but wise move: While opinions are sure to be split among the Niners’ faithful on whether Thomas was the right choice, there’s no doubt the trade the Niners made before picking Thomas was a home run. The 49ers played up their interest in North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky enough to draw interest in their pick, and then they cashed in by getting a nice haul from the Chicago Bears. In exchange for moving back one spot, the Niners landed the Bears’ third- and fourth-round picks this year and a third-round pick next year. It’s a heck of a deal for general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan in their first year on the job.
Where Thomas fits: This will be the biggest question facing the Niners and Thomas upon his arrival. The need is for a pass-rusher capable of playing the aforementioned “Leo” spot, and though Thomas is a good athlete, projecting him there is difficult. More likely, Thomas will be asked to be to the Niners what Bennett is to the Seattle Seahawks. Which is to say, Thomas could start out at left defensive end on running downs and move inside on passing downs. That would allow the 49ers to go with DeForest Buckner as the 3-technique defensive tackle on early downs and rush the passer from the inside, along with Thomas, in passing situations. Arik Armstead, meanwhile, has been working as the “Leo” in the offseason program and might get a longer look there with Thomas on board.
Round 1, No. 31: Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama
My take: Without question, there’s risk involved in taking Foster, largely because of a shoulder problem and a positive drug test that was the result of a diluted urine sample at the scouting combine. But the reward outweighs the risk in this case, especially since the 49ers only had to yield a fourth-round pick to move up and get him. This is a defense that desperately needed some fire and leadership and will get both in big doses from Foster and Thomas. So long as Foster’s shoulder holds up and he can avoid any further positive tests, he has the ability to be the steal of this draft.
Trade fever: Never mind that this was Lynch’s first crack at the NFL draft; he, Shanahan and executive Paraag Marathe showed no fear in making moves to bolster a defense that was the worst in the league last season. Marathe handled the trades and all the team gave up to move from No. 34 to No. 31 to land Foster was a fourth-round pick, No. 111 overall, which they earlier got from the Chicago Bears in their initial trade down. Whether the players they chose work out remains to be seen, but this was masterful work in maneuvering up and down the board. And the Niners still have a third-rounder from Chicago this year and next to show for it.
Next in line: One of the first names Foster brought up when talking about coming to San Francisco was Patrick Willis. The second question he was asked was about playing with NaVorro Bowman. That’s no coincidence. The Niners have made a priority of having a strong, talented leader in the center of their defense with Willis and Bowman and will soon look to Foster to be the next in line. Asked where he’d play in San Francisco’s defense, Foster said, “Wherever Patrick Willis played.” The scheme has changed since Willis’ time, but Foster is undoubtedly considered the future bedrock of this defense.
Round 3, No. 66: Ahkello Witherspoon, CB, Colorado
My take: The Niners continued to load up on defense by adding a big, physical corner who fits their scheme and also fills a big need. Witherspoon is relatively new to the sport, earning his first and only letter in football as a senior in high school. Which means Witherspoon is raw and there is work that has to be done to get him ready to play in the NFL. But if Witherspoon develops as the Niners hope, this could turn out to be a nice pick for the long term. Once again, this is a sensible pick that comes with some risk, but that risk is outweighed by the upside.
How he fits: After releasing starting cornerback Tramaine Brock following his arrest on suspicion of felony domestic violence, the Niners had a clear need for a big, physical cornerback who can play on the outside. Witherspoon fits that bill and should have a real opportunity to get on the field right away. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds with 33-inch arms, Witherspoon has the makings of the type of physical press corner that is required in new coordinator Saleh’s scheme.
Round 3, No. 104: C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
My take: It's not surprising the Niners made a move to get a developmental quarterback into the system. It is surprising that it was Beathard, particularly with players including Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs, Miami's Brad Kaaya and Pittsburgh's Nathan Peterman still available. Beathard was considered a late-round pick by various draft analysts, and this looks like a reach from the outside. However, it's notable that Shanahan wanted to trade up for Beathard. Shanahan's history with quarterbacks should earn him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to evaluating the position, and since the Niners aren't drafting Beathard to be their franchise signal-caller, it's worth waiting to see what Shanahan can do with him.
How he fits: The Niners have veterans Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley on the roster, and Beathard will slot in behind them on the depth chart as a prospect they can develop over time. In an ideal world, he can become a starter down the road, but if the Niners get a solid backup out of the deal, it's OK.
Round 4, No. 121: Joe Williams, RB, Utah
My take: The Niners are clearly serious about adding to the competition at running back as they moved up for Williams moments after trading for Denver running back Kapri Bibbs. But Williams is exactly the type of sleeper who Shanahan and his father have maximized throughout their coaching careers. Williams rushed for 1,407 yards in only nine games last season. This is an excellent fit of talent, coach and scheme.
How he fits: After the trade for Bibbs and adding Williams, the Niners now have a crowded backfield that also includes Carlos Hyde, Tim Hightower, DuJuan Harris, Mike Davis and Raheem Mostert. Williams will have some work to do to climb the depth chart, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he did. His combination of speed and playmaking ability could allow him to get on the field quickly and help spell Hyde as a rookie.
Round 5, No. 146: George Kittle, TE, Iowa
My take: This is another late value pick that has a chance to contribute right away for the Niners. Kittle was considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft, which should give him a chance to get on the field and help in Shanahan's outside-zone running game. But Kittle is a better pass-catcher and playmaker than he gets credit for. He ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash and has shown the ability to make plays down the field.
How he fits: The Niners aren't exactly loaded at tight end, but Kittle walks into a room that also includes Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, Blake Bell and Je'Ron Hamm. None have necessarily separated themselves as surefire starters, and Kittle has the versatility that Shanahan values. Like Williams at running back, don't be surprised if Kittle quickly works his way up the depth chart and gets plenty of snaps as a rookie.
Round 5, No. 177: Trent Taylor, WR, Louisiana Tech
My take: This is the first wide receiver the 49ers have selected this year. Though Taylor isn't the No. 1 type of wideout they need, he brings a whole lot of productivity to the Bay Area. He posted 136 catches for 1,803 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016 and also brings experience as a punt returner.
How he fits: At 5-foot-8, Taylor is best suited to play in the slot but will have no shortage of competition there in San Francisco. The Niners have Jeremy Kerley and Bruce Ellington in place and Kerley will probably hold the primary slot job. But Taylor could have a chance to unseat Ellington, who has struggled with injury issues. Offering flashes as a punt returner during the preseason would bolster that case.
Round 6, No. 198: D.J. Jones, DT, Ole Miss
My take: The 49ers needed another big body for the interior of their defensive line, particularly one who can help clog the middle and improve the run defense. Jones fits that mold at 6-feet, 321 pounds. He started every game at nose tackle for the Rebels last season. It's a worthy addition to bring some more depth to the defensive line.
How he fits: There will be plenty of competition for a roster spot for Jones as he heads toward training camp. Earl Mitchell is the expected starter at nose tackle, leaving room for a backup role for Jones. He'll have competition from the likes of Chris Jones, Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell in his pursuit of a roster spot.
Round 6, No. 202: Pita Taumoepenu, DE, Utah
My take: The Niners have doubled down on defensive linemen in the sixth round, but Taumoepenu brings a different element than Jones. Taumoepenu had nine sacks last season for the Utes and some scouts believe he still has plenty of upside. The 49ers need pass-rush help, and if he can make the roster and contribute anything in that regard, this will be a worthwhile pick.
How he fits: The 49ers' new-look defensive scheme needs someone who can play the "Leo" defensive end spot. Taumoepenu isn't likely to fill that void right away, but he does bring some potential. If he can push his way on to the roster, he could help out long term. That won't be easy, though, as Arik Armstead, Aaron Lynch, Ronald Blair and others will be ahead of him on the depth chart when he arrives.
Round 7, No. 229: Adrian Colbert, CB, Miami
My take: The Niners need bodies for the secondary, especially someone who can help out at free safety. Colbert has the versatility to play multiple spots and did so throughout his college career. He doesn't have much of a track record and missed some time to injury as a senior, but he does offer good size at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds.
How he fits: After drafting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in the third round, the Niners still needed some depth in the defensive backfield, and Colbert can add that. He'll have to compete with Prince Charles Iworah, Keith Reaser, JaCorey Shepherd, Don Jones and K'Waun Williams for a roster spot. But Colbert can't be counted out because he does project to help on special teams. If he's to make the roster, that's where he'll likely to stand out.