One year later, improved roster changed 49ers' approach to draft

The 49ers drafted NC State defensive end Kentavius Street as a "redshirt" pickup, something they wouldn't have considered doing a year ago. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- About an hour after the 2017 NFL draft, I walked out of Levi's Stadium and found 49ers general manager John Lynch and some of his staff celebrating the completion of their first draft together. In the three days preceding that moment, the Niners had selected 10 players. In the hour or so since the final pick was made, they had signed the majority of their initial class of 18 undrafted free agents.

Normally, teams find themselves working late into Sunday night to sign those undrafted rookies, but the 49ers did it in about 60 minutes. When I mentioned that to Lynch, he smiled and responded "This is the land of opportunity." Lynch, of course, was referring to the fact that the Niners were still in the beginning stages of a drastic roster overhaul. At that point, Levi's Stadium might as well have had a Vegas-sized neon sign reading "Help Wanted" hanging outside.

After the San Francisco 49ers put the finishing touches on the 2018 draft class on Saturday, I brought that moment up to Lynch. He smiled again and thought back to just how desperate his team was for talent last year and pondered how things have changed since.

"I'm chuckling because last year, the land of opportunity got a little out of control," Lynch said. "I think we had 85 at our rookie minicamp, our tryout camp ... I think we'll be a little more tame with that, pull back the reins a little on our numbers.

"We did a lot of favors last year, I think. This guy was my roommate in college and his cousin's son kind of has a shot at being in the NFL, [so] they were here."

That won't be the case this year. And it certainly wasn't the case as the 49ers approached the 2018 draft, either.

After closing out last season on a five-game winning streak, the Niners have already cemented their position as a team many are expecting to take a big step forward in 2018. That doesn't mean they didn't have issues to address, but if one needs another example of how far they've come in just one year under Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, just look at how they approached the 2018 draft.

Last year, nine of the 49ers' 10 drafted rookies landed a spot on the 53-man roster with the lone exception -- running back Joe Williams -- landing on injured reserve. Beyond that, eight undrafted rookies spent at least a chunk of the season on the active roster. Three more stuck around via injured reserve. Many of those rookies played a prominent role last season, as the Niners got a league-high 4,798 snaps from 17 rookies.

This year, it's fair to wonder just how many of the Niners rookies will even make the roster, let alone get extended playing time. Tackle Mike McGlinchey, receiver Dante Pettis, linebacker Fred Warner and defensive back Tarvarius Moore are all but locked in as picks from the first three rounds. After that, however, the competition figures to be stout.

"Last year was a little more role specific," Lynch said. "Hey, we need someone to play the slot. Let's identify these traits. This year, we kind of went more to, 'Hey, we want some cornerstones. We want some players that are going to be here for a long time.'

"Were there tougher decisions? Yes, because I think our roster is better this year ... We are in Year 2 of the process. It should be tougher to find a spot on this roster and we hope it's tougher next year.”

How that applied to this draft was most evident in how the Niners approached the third day. Armed with five picks in Rounds 4 through 7, the Niners didn't appear to land any instant contributors like they did last year with slot receiver Trent Taylor and tight end George Kittle. In some sense, that was by design.

Take defensive end Kentavius Street as an example. Street suffered a torn ACL in a pre-draft workout with the New York Giants. With the injury so recent, Street is all but certain to use 2018 as a redshirt season. Still, the Niners used a fourth-round pick on him with the idea that he could be a long-term replacement at big end for Arik Armstead, who is entering the last year of his rookie contract (in a bit of a surprise, the Niners exercised the fifth-year option on Armstead on Monday, which guarantees his contract for injury only for 2019 at around $9 million).

From there, fifth-round cornerback D.J. Reed will have to compete for a spot as a nickel corner, sixth-round safety Marcell Harris will push for a backup job at strong safety, seventh-round defensive lineman Jullian Taylor will try to break through at big end and as a 3-technique defensive tackle, and seventh-round wideout Richie James will attempt to earn a role behind Marquise Goodwin as a backup "X" receiver. All will need to prove capable on special teams to win a roster spot. Nothing is guaranteed.

“It wasn't as fun [Saturday], but it showed a big difference between now and last year is just coming in this morning and looking at what we have on a 53, not a 90, and looking what you have up on game day and going through the depth chart of everything and before the draft starts and seeing our board on who is available," Shanahan said. "Regardless of how good they are, who has a chance to make this team, where are the slots that are open. There wasn't as many people as there was last year and there weren't as many positions and that makes the draft harder. But that's the goal. You want it to get harder and harder each year and hopefully that's how you develop depth and sometimes you don't always need to use them all.”

To be sure, the 49ers' roster still has some holes. Shanahan and Lynch aren't attempting to convince anyone otherwise. Rather, their belief is that they've graduated from the "Land of Opportunity" to the "Land of Competition."

"Last year, Kyle and I kind of looked at it as almost not a blank canvas because we had some spots, but we were putting people in that they knew were going to have a great opportunity to play right away," Lynch said. "I think we still felt like coming into this year there's pieces to be added to the puzzle, but it's going to be certainly more competitive and that's what you want on your team. You want competition at every position. You also have to fill numbers at each position, both in the short and long term, and we feel really happy with where we came out in terms of that with this year's draft."