Your move, Raiders: 49ers jump to lead in race for top draft pick

SEATTLE -- The San Francisco 49ers' latest loss should have come as no surprise given the opponent and the location. Sunday's 43-16 defeat was San Francisco's ninth consecutive regular-season loss against the Seahawks and 10th straight to them overall.

And, really, since quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 3, the most optimistic Niners fans knew it would be difficult for a team in the second year of a major rebuilding project to contend in 2018.

For those looking for a silver lining, the 49ers' chances of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft continued to increase with their latest loss. ESPN's Football Power Index live projections now list the Niners' chances for the top choice at 49 percent, making them the odds-on favorite for that spot, just ahead of the Oakland Raiders.

The 2-10 Niners' pursuit of the top pick also got some help from other bottom-dwelling teams who offered surprising results Sunday afternoon.

The Arizona Cardinals won their third game by knocking off the Green Bay Packers on the road. The New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars claimed their fourth victories, knocking off the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, respectively.

When the dust settled, only the Niners and Raiders were left with just two victories and in prime position for the top pick, a contest that figures to give new meaning to the "Battle of the Bay."

While the Niners could certainly benefit from having the top pick -- the need for a true difference-maker is undeniable -- their two most recent performances have also left a more bitter taste in their mouths. In losing by a combined 45 points to the Buccaneers and Seahawks after the bye, the 49ers have looked increasingly like a team deserving of the No. 1 overall pick rather than one in contention largely because of the loss of Garoppolo.

"We’re just beat up," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "You think about the guys we have out there, we lose our No. 1 receiver, No. 2 receiver, No. 1 quarterback, No. 2 quarterback, No. 1 running back, the thing, it just ends up adding up. You lose your starting safety, you lose your backup safety, you lose person after person, you lose two of your Will linebackers and then [Malcolm Smith is] kind of beat up. It’s just guys beat up, but guys are fighting hard and giving us the best chance."

As Sherman points out, the 49ers have been playing shorthanded for much of the season beyond just the loss of Garoppolo. They've been without starting receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin the past couple of weeks, running back Jerick McKinnon was lost to an ACL injury before the season began and fellow back Matt Breida had been limited by a recurring ankle issue. On defense, injuries to the secondary and linebacker corps have been a factor all season.

But where injuries have created opportunities, the Niners would undoubtedly like to see more from their young players stepping into expanded roles. Receiver Dante Pettis, a 2018 second-round pick, has set an ideal example, racking up nine catches for 206 yards and three touchdowns over the past two weeks. Running back Jeff Wilson Jr. also showed up Sunday, with 134 yards from scrimmage on 23 touches, offering hope he could be a future running mate for Breida. And quarterback Nick Mullens continues to at least provide hope that he has a future as a backup, putting up 414 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns Sunday for a passer rating of 95.3.

Still, given the number of young players in prominent roles, the 49ers would like to see more in the coming weeks. This Niners team has some youngsters playing by choice and others who have been thrust into important jobs by injury. Over the season's final four games, it's imperative that the Niners find out not only who belongs but whether those who do can play a significant role.

And, as defensive tackle DeForest Buckner points out, that work can't be limited to the field.

"Guys have just got to own their jobs, pay more attention, study a little more, I guess," Buckner said. "The past two weeks we got a little lackadaisical and we have just got to go back to the drawing board. Like I said, we’ve got another opportunity next week to show up and the next couple games are home games and hopefully guys take advantage of that."

It's one thing to be losing close, hard-fought games with young players still learning how to win. It's another if many of those young players are showing few signs that they can be part of the solution.

With four games left to play, there's still time for the young Niners to develop. Given the injuries that dot the roster, there will undoubtedly be plenty of chances for that to happen. Perhaps the 49ers could even play spoiler against teams in the playoff mix like the Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Bears, or a team jockeying for home-field advantage like the Los Angeles Rams.

Coach Kyle Shanahan and veteran leaders like Sherman constantly drive home the importance of those opportunities for the present and the future.

"These are grown men, so they have to be accountable for what they do," Sherman said.

And if they aren't? Well, a team that has looked deserving of the top pick over the past two weeks will need a whole lot more than just to get healthy if it wants to be better in 2019.