49ers are back in first round of NFL draft after two years off

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the first round of the NFL draft unfolded in each of the past two years, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan spent those nights sharing the same feeling: boredom.

The malaise was the product of a trade the Niners made in 2021, dealing their first-round pick for that year, as well as for 2022 and 2023 (along with a third-round pick in 2021) to the Dolphins to leap from No. 12 to No. 3.

That move generated considerable interest in the Niners' first pick, as endless debate raged about which quarterback San Francisco would select for the month between the trade and the selection of quarterback Trey Lance. The lack of a top pick the past two years has made for almost wholly uninteresting 49ers drafts, at least in real time.

"It's pretty miserable not having a first-round pick just sitting there and watch it and have nothing to do that day," Shanahan said.

That two-year wait is over. The Niners are slated to return to the opening night of this year's draft, set for April 25 in Detroit. After coming up just short in overtime against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII, the Niners hold the No. 31 selection to go with nine more picks, six coming in the top 135.

The Niners' first-round return has far greater roster-building consequences than giving Shanahan, Lynch and their respective staffs something to do. It's the ticket to extending their Super Bowl window beyond 2024.

When Shanahan and Lynch took over in 2017, they vowed to rebuild through the draft. Although they've had their share of notable misses, particularly at the top, they managed to find All-Pro talent throughout the draft.

Tight end George Kittle (fifth round, 2017), linebacker Fred Warner (third round, 2018), defensive end Nick Bosa (first round, 2019), receiver Deebo Samuel (second round, 2019) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw (fifth round, 2019) formed the nucleus of a team that has been to at least the NFC Championship Game in four of the past five seasons, making the Super Bowl twice.

The Niners' successful draft-and-develop approach also came with a pair of long-term implications.

For one, it increased San Francisco's urgency to push its chips in on trades that could get it over the top while eating away at its cache of valuable draft picks.

Second, the ascent of players such as Kittle, Warner, Bosa and Samuel to superstardom resulted in lucrative contract extensions that made the roster increasingly top heavy, especially without the benefit of top picks to provide valuable competition and/or depth.

"I think we're in a good problem where you have a lot of guys that we've drafted that we've paid and given contracts to and you can't keep everybody all the time," owner Jed York said. "I wish that you could, but that's the reason why you have to continue to go back to the draft. At some point, you have to build through the draft."

This year's draft is as much a callback to San Francisco's roster-building roots as it is a return to the first round. Kittle, Warner, Samuel, Bosa, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, left tackle Trent Williams, running back Christian McCaffrey, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and cornerback Charvarius Ward rank among the top 12 at their positions in the NFL in terms of average annual salary.

That doesn't account for wideout Brandon Aiyuk and quarterback Brock Purdy, both of whom the team hopes will sign big-money extensions in the next 16 months or so. Free agency offered a glimpse of San Francisco's readjusted approach, as the Niners opted to rebuild the middle class of the roster instead of more swings for the fences on a star player or two.

This requires the Niners to make even more difficult decisions like what they did in March in releasing defensive lineman Arik Armstead. The easiest path to replenish the roster is finding more starters and key contributors in the draft.

That starts with the opening round, where many expect San Francisco to target an offensive lineman, cornerback or maybe a wide receiver. Regardless of position, the Niners can't afford another first-round miss.

Of the seven first-round players the 49ers have drafted under Lynch and Shanahan, only Bosa has signed a second contract with the team, though they hope Aiyuk becomes the second. Tackle Mike McGlinchey (2018) was a solid starter for five seasons and priced himself out of San Francisco, but the rest of the Niners' first-round choices -- DT Solomon Thomas (2017), LB Reuben Foster (2017), DT Javon Kinlaw (2020) and Lance -- performed well below their draft status.

"The higher you are in the draft, the better players you're going to get to look at," Lynch said. "I think this is a deep draft at certain positions especially. So be it first round, second round, I just think you're likely to get a bigger pool of quality players at the top end. And so that's nice to be back there."

Beyond the first round, the Niners find themselves needing more players capable of contributing soon and starting later to prepare for a future without some of their stars.

It's perhaps no coincidence that, without a first-round pick and a handful of other early- to mid-round choices because of trades, San Francisco hasn't gotten much from its past two drafts.

Although the Lance pick turned into arguably one of the biggest draft whiffs in NFL history, San Francisco found important players in the later rounds. In 2023, the 49ers got 3,548 snaps (10th in the NFL) and 50 starts (seventh) from a 2021 draft class that includes guard Aaron Banks (second round) and cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and safety Talanoa Hufanga (both fifth round).

The playing time and production from the two following classes took a significant dip. Had the 49ers not stumbled into Purdy with the last pick in 2022, there would be little to show for the past two drafts.

In 2023, the Niners got 2,254 snaps (26th in the NFL) and 29 starts (tied for 25th) from their 2022 class, a group held together by Purdy and guard Spencer Burford (fourth round). Last year's class offered even less, with safety Ji'Ayir Brown (third round) accounting for all five of the Niners' rookie starts (30th in the NFL) and the 1,705 combined snaps from the class ranked 28th, with kicker Jake Moody (third round) the team's most consistently productive pick.

It's worth noting that the Niners haven't needed much yet from their past two draft classes. The book on those groups is far from closed, and Shanahan doesn't believe the lost picks from trades have left many scars, an assertion backed by the Niners' recent run of success.

"Before we did that [Lance trade] we felt pretty good about where our team was," Shanahan said. "We thought we could do it. We knew it was risky, but we thought where our team was that we didn't absolutely have to have those picks and I think it's worked out well."

As currently constructed, there aren't many obvious spots for a rookie to start in 2024. But that time will come soon. Which is why this draft, more than any in the recent past, will go a long way in shaping the 49ers' future.

"You always have to make sure that the draft is the lifeblood," York said. "That's the only way to have sustained success."

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