It’s not every day a team that loses the Super Bowl gets to select in the upper half of the ensuing NFL Draft, but that’s the strange — and potentially franchise-altering — position the San Francisco 49ers find themselves in after trading Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts.
With Buckner seeking a lucrative contract extension and fellow defensive lineman Arik Armstead hitting the open market, the 49ers — tight against the salary cap and unable to keep both players long-term — made a decision that shocked many but is actually quite reasonable when one puts it like this: Would you rather have Armstead, the 13th overall pick in one of the best wide receiver drafts in recent memory and a few extra million dollars in salary cap space or just Buckner?
The 49ers chose the former, and now must determine what to do with their shiny new selection. The team has a smattering of options, but there is seemingly common-sense thing the team should not do with that pick.
Popular suggested selections at 13 include the draft’s top three receivers, all of whom have received glowing NFL player comparisons. Draft analysts have hyped up Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy as the next Odell Beckham, his college teammate Henry Ruggs as the next Tyreek Hill, and Oklahamo’s CeeDee Lamb as the next DeAndre Hopkins. These comparisons are not as hyperbolic as they may sound.
Any of Jeudy, Ruggs or Lamb would be immensely helpful to a 49ers offense that saw wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders depart for the New Orleans Saints this offseason, leaving the team with Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne as its top-two wideouts. There isn’t a bigger need elsewhere on the roster and given the star potential of the aforementioned trio, landing one of the three should be the team’s Plan A.
However, the Denver Broncos could potentially foil this plan as general manager John Elway is reportedly looking to trade up from pick No. 15 to leapfrog the receiver-needy New York Jets at 11, Las Vegas Raiders at 12 and 49ers at 13 in their own quest for wideout. Denver trading up could trigger a chain of events where the Broncos, Jets and Raiders walk away with Jeudy, Ruggs and Lamb, leaving the 49ers to pivot to Plan B.
If an early run on receivers happens, it would presumably push some of the draft’s top-tier offensive line talent down to 13 for the 49ers. Left tackle Joe Staley is assumed — but not guaranteed — to return for the 2020 season. In any case, a long term successor will be needed sooner rather than later. The 49ers also currently have a hole at right guard after releasing 2019 starter Mike Person, but the team is quite lucky that there are two prospects who could potentially solve both problems. Alabama’s Jedrick Wills and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs are both highly-graded versatile players who could thrive at right guard in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s zone-heavy run scheme before ultimately moving out to tackle upon Staley’s retirement.
Of course, there is no guarantee Wirfs and Wills are the linemen who fall to the 49ers in this scenario. The “fallers” could easily be Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Mekhi Becton — pure tackles unlikely to help the 49ers in 2020 if Staley returns. However, good offensive tackles are hard to come by in the modern NFL, so the 49ers could certainly make the case they’re wisely playing the long game since they may not get a better chance to select a legitimate successor for Staley. Thomas or Becton at 13 would certainly be a Plan C, but there is always value in ensuring the quarterback is well-protected.
A reasonable Plan D would be trading down, since after their own selection at pick No. 31, the 49ers will not pick again until the fifth round. There is a definitive need to recoup draft capital in the middle rounds, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the team is exploring trading down from both of their first-round selections.
This brings us to the one thing the 49ers should not do in the scenario where the three receivers and four offensive linemen are off the board. The 49ers made the Buckner trade believing a defensive line anchored by Armstead, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford will still be formidable, and the 13th pick provides value, either in the form of an offensive difference-maker to help a unit whose fourth quarter struggles cost the team a Lombardy Trophy, or instead as a means of adding more selections in the middle of the draft.
The one thing the 49ers should not do is stay at pick No. 13 and select South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, a high-upside defensive tackle who is another popular selection for the team in mock drafts since the draft’s top defensive tackle, Auburn’s Derrick Brown, is projected to be selected long before the 49ers pick at 13. Brown has drawn comparisons to Ndamukong Suh and may very be well worth taking at that spot, but let’s assume he’s off the board. While Kinlaw has exciting traits, the consensus among draft analysts is that he’s largely an unfinished project who also comes with some medical red flags. Teams are reportedly concerned over the hip surgery Kinlaw underwent in 2018 as well as unspecified knee issues that held him out of the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine.
Even when disregarding Kinlaw’s shortcomings as a prospect, it would make very little sense for the 49ers to trade DeForest Buckner and then turn around and use that pick on a defensive tackle. Teams across the NFL would likely classify the 49ers’ defensive line situation as an embarrassment of riches, as in addition to Armstead, Bosa and Ford, the team has capable role players in D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair and Julian Taylor. The 49ers likely figured they could slightly downgrade at a position of strength to potentially massively upgrade at a position of relative weakness, such as wide receiver. Or at the very least, they could use the compensation for Buckner to recoup the middle-round draft picks they’ve traded away in recent years. This is not to say the 49ers do not need another body on the interior of the defensive line, but does that player need to be selected in round one?
Finally, selecting Kinlaw at No. 13 would create direct comparisons to Buckner, which would be unfair to Kinlaw as Buckner is, and likely will always be the superior player. Derrick Brown is another story, but we’re assuming he’s long gone before 13. If Kinlaw’s injury issues cause him to slide, trading back from 13 and taking him around pick No. 20 would be more palatable, as the comparison is no longer directly Buckner v. Kinlaw, but rather Buckner v. Kinlaw and other players taken in the middle rounds.
Kinlaw has stated the team he wants play for most is the 49ers. Unfortunately for Kinlaw, selecting him is the one thing the 49ers absolutely should not do on Thursday night. Not at pick No. 13, at least.