SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Barring a trade, the San Francisco 49ers won't make a first-round selection in the NFL draft Thursday night (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN, ESPN app) for the first time since 1996.
Unlike last year, when they traded up to the No. 3 overall pick to choose quarterback Trey Lance, the Niners have been happy to remain under the radar. But just because San Francisco doesn't have a first-round pick doesn't mean there aren't opportunities to improve the roster in this draft, and the Deebo Samuel trade request has caused plenty of drama in 49ers-land as well.
The 49ers enter the three-day event with nine picks, including three on Friday. And while there is at least one obvious scenario in which the Niners could end up getting involved in Thursday's festivities, they seem perfectly content with where most of their selections currently fall.
"We don't have a first-round pick -- we’re not used to that -- but I think when people ask me the signature of this draft, it’s the depth of it, so it's a good year," 49ers general manager John Lynch said.
The Deebo situation
As the draft approaches, nothing the 49ers can do will overshadow the question of what happens with the receiver, who has requested a trade. The Niners aren't particularly interested in accommodating that request. Could that change? Sure, but only if they get an offer too good to refuse.
The first night of the draft is a logical benchmark to work from, since any trade involving Samuel would almost certainly include at least one first-round pick. Again, the Niners' clear preference is to keep Samuel.
"He's one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL," ESPN senior NFL draft analyst Todd McShay said. "He's the franchise to the 49ers."
If the Niners were to swallow hard and trade Samuel, they would have to quickly shift their attention to the top prospects. That doesn't mean they'd have to draft a receiver -- Ohio State's Garrett Wilson and USC's Drake London are considered the best in the class -- but someone like Arkansas' Treylon Burks could be an intriguing possibility later in the first round.
Other mid-to-late first-round possibilities at other positions of need are Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, Boston College guard Zion Johnson, Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth Jr., Georgia safety Lewis Cine and Minnesota pass-rusher Boye Mafe.
Names to know
The 49ers' offseason went just about how they expected it. They lost guard Laken Tomlinson and defensive tackle D.J. Jones while making a splash at cornerback with Charvarius Ward. The Niners lost some depth elsewhere and made a concerted effort to bolster their special teams.
They enter this draft with needs but none that are so overwhelming they must draft those positions. They have some wiggle room when it comes to their earliest picks (Nos. 61, 93 and 105 overall) and the best players available. The priorities -- if need and value align -- should be the interior of the offensive line, edge rusher, nickel cornerback, safety and receiver.
"The great thing for the 49ers is that all of their weak spots on the depth chart align well with the strengths of this year's draft class," ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid said.
At offensive line, Tomlinson's departure, the tenuous status of center Alex Mack (who could retire) and the forthcoming free agency of guard Daniel Brunskill leave questions at all three interior spots. Aaron Banks, a 2021 second-round pick, is a rational, if unproven, replacement for Tomlinson, while Brunskill could return at right guard or move to center if Mack decides to walk away. Former fifth-round choices Jaylon Moore and Colton McKivitz could also factor into the mix. Regardless, the Niners need more competition and have right tackle Mike McGlinchey entering the final year of his rookie deal.
Reid believes the interior of the offensive line has "some bright spots early on, and that continues on into Day 2." Among the centers who Reid believes fit the Niners are Nebraska's Cam Jurgens and Memphis' Dylan Parham, both of whom are expected to go on Day 2. A later option could be Arizona State's Dohnovan West. At guard, UCLA's Sean Rhyan and Wake Forest's Zach Tom are among the possible fits.
If the Niners continue their method of loading up the defensive line, they could dive into an edge rusher class that Reid said is "by far the strongest position group this year." San Francisco has plenty of depth, but a long-term complement opposite Nick Bosa would be appealing. Oklahoma's Nik Bonitto, Western Kentucky's DeAngelo Malone and Cincinnati's Myjai Sanders are among the Day 2 possibilities.
Others who could be a match, according to Reid: Baylor defensive back Jalen Pitre (second round), Houston cornerback Marcus Jones (fourth round), Maryland safety Nick Cross (second or third round), Illinois safety Kerby Joseph (third or fourth round), Coastal Carolina tight end Isaiah Likely (third or fourth round) and San Diego State tight end Daniel Bellinger (fourth or fifth round). Additional intriguing players the 49ers have shown pre-draft interest in are Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker, SMU receiver Danny Gray, Tennessee wideout Velus Jones and Alabama running back Brian Robinson.
The X factor
Just about every year a player projected to go early in the draft falls into the second day (or beyond). This year, one player who could fit that bill, through no fault of his own, is Michigan edge rusher David Ojabo. Reid projected Ojabo to be a top-15 pick before he suffered a torn Achilles during his pro day in March.
Last year, San Francisco emphasized durability in the draft, so this would be a big swing that runs counter to that. But it's fair to wonder if Ojabo's upside and easy fit as the weakside end opposite Bosa might be too enticing for the Niners should he slide.
"I still expect him to be a top-50 pick," Reid said. "Because of the position he plays, I still expect him to be a hot commodity on Day 2 of the draft."