49ers took 2025 and beyond approach to NFL draft

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Friday, May 10, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- If San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had his way, the roster-building portion of the offseason would look much different.

Since becoming Niners coach in 2017, Shanahan has repeatedly stated a preference for the NFL draft taking place before the start of free agency. His logic is that it would enable teams to stick more closely to drafting the best players available, then use free agency to fill out roster needs.

Alas, that isn't the case and it put the Niners, who boast one of the league's most talented rosters, in an interesting spot approaching April's draft. They would have loved to use their picks on starting-caliber players ready to come in and push for jobs right away.

But armed with the No. 31 pick in a draft in which they gave 22 players a first-round grade, along with a roster with very few glaring holes to fill, the Niners drafted with as much of an eye toward 2025 and beyond as for the upcoming season.

"It's been almost this way three years in a row," Shanahan said. "I think it gets a little more each year because it gets harder each year. And the hardest thing is when you go through the draft and especially when you feel you're a contender and things like that, you want to do everything to just look at your board and how you fill those holes and everything.

"But that's not really how the draft works. It's how it comes to you ... Do you go with what kind of helps us now or what helps us more in the future? And so, you're just constantly weighing that, whether it's the draft, whether that's free agency and everything."

As the 49ers open rookie minicamp this week, they'll welcome eight players they selected in the draft. It doesn't appear as if any of those drafted rookies project as immediate starters in 2024, though there is room for that to change and, at minimum, for many to push for supporting roles.

That's the result of a roster that has pushed the Niners to at least the NFC Championship Game in four of the past five seasons and a leadership group in Shanahan and general manager John Lynch who have been unafraid to take big swings on star players to try to break through and win the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Because that hasn't happened yet, San Francisco's nucleus of stars isn't getting any younger -- or cheaper. A big change already came in March, when the Niners reluctantly let defensive lineman Arik Armstead go, largely because the cost became too high for a player who consistently battled injury issues.

More sweeping changes could be on the way, as wideout Brandon Aiyuk and quarterback Brock Purdy are expected to join the team's most well-compensated stars in the next 15 months. To make room for that duo, others who have been a part of the franchise's fabric will have to exit.

"That's part of the business," linebacker Fred Warner said. "I don't know how long the core group is going to be around and you've got to treat every year like it's your last and you don't know how long you're going to be together, so you got to make sure that you go all out every single season that you have because that window for winning Super Bowls, it's not always open."

The easiest path to keep that window open is for the players the Niners have drafted -- especially this year -- to develop into the next generation of stars. Unlike last year -- when there was a clear need at kicker -- the 49ers didn't see a position with an obvious opening for an immediate starter. And even if they did, they weren't sure they were in place to land one at No. 31.

Still, at the end of the draft, it was easy enough to draw a straight line between many of the team's highly picked players and what the Niners hope they can become. If all goes according to plan, first-round receiver Ricky Pearsall and fourth-round wideout Jacob Cowing will spend this year working into the rotation before becoming potential long-term replacements for Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings as soon as 2025.

Second-round cornerback Renardo Green will have a shot to compete right away, but the long-term hope is he can step into one of the top three cornerback jobs next season, as returning starters Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas are slated to be unrestricted free agents.

A similar situation could play out for third-round lineman Dominick Puni, who could push to play immediately but offers a succession plan at guard, where starters Jon Feliciano and Aaron Banks are in the last year of their deals. Even fourth-round safety Malik Mustapha projects as a potential starter as early as 2025 with Talanoa Hufanga also headed toward unrestricted free agency.

In the meantime, those players will be expected to help on special teams and possibly in cameo roles on offense or defense.

"You try to do both," Lynch said. "You try to say, 'Hey, OK, does this guy have starter in him in some time? Is there some development that he can someday be a starter? But right away can he help?' Special teams is often the avenue.

"It's tough, it's a really good roster so it's going to be tough to crack for these guys. We do believe that they have the skill sets, the mentalities, the makeup that they can come in and find a way."

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