The NFL’s new league year began last week and with it came free agency.
The 49ers have welcomed back nearly 20 players from last season’s roster, most notably multiple-time All-Pro athletes in offensive tackle Trent Williams and fullback Kyle Juszcyzk, and the team’s leading rusher last season in running back Jeff Wilson Jr.
On the flip side, San Francisco has said goodbye to (or is expected to part ways with) a handful of players, including five-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman; Solomon Thomas, a defensive end drafted No. 3 overall in 2017; and Ahkello Witherspoon, a cornerback out of Christian Brothers High School who played all four of his NFL seasons with the 49ers.
In a little more than a month, the 49ers will join the rest of the league in welcoming new talent during the 2021 NFL draft, scheduled to take place in Cleveland.
The upcoming draft will be live again a year after the NFL had to go virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. The outdoor event will be built along Lake Erie near the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Cleveland welcomes the 2021 NFL draft to our city,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told NFL.com. “Residents and visitors from around the world will experience Cleveland’s hospitality and see why our city continues to be a destination of choice for large-scale events.”
The 49ers currently have nine picks in the three-day draft which kicks off April 29, including their only first-day selection at No. 12 overall.
So when Commissioner Roger Goodell takes the stage, who might he pose with while holding up San Francisco’s red jersey with a No. 1 on it? Opinions on the choice are spread.
The Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman recently put the 49ers on Michigan edge Kwity Paye.
Paye played in just four games this past season due to a groin injury, but as a junior in 2019 he had 50 combined tackles (26 solo), including 12.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in 10 games for the Wolverines.
“Paye could presumably line up opposite Bosa at defensive end, replace him for spells, or kick inside and wreak havoc against guards,” Biderman wrote Monday. “He would give the group much-needed depth and versatility even if he isn’t a Day 1 starter. Paye might also offer a long-term alternative to (Arik) Armstead and (Dee) Ford, which might be needed if the team wants to move on, given their contracts.”
Now here’s what’s being said across the nation regarding the 49ers’ first-round pick and what’s changed in the last few weeks.
Updated March 23
ESPN offers randomly scheduled mocks from longtime analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.
The most recent post comes from Kiper, who has the 49ers selecting Caleb Farley, a redshirt junior cornerback from Virginia Tech.
Farley opted out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he was a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection in 2019, when he had 20 total tackles (14 solo), four interceptions (including one pick-six) and 12 passes defensed in 10 games for the Hokies.
“My feeling is that San Francisco could instead stay put in Round 1 and address its biggest hole with one of the top cornerbacks. Farley is one of the best pure cover corners in this class,” Kiper wrote. “Here’s a ‘wow’ stat, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: In 2019 … Farley allowed a completion percentage of 24.4% when he was the targeted defender in coverage, which ranked No. 1 in the FBS. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Farley is having surgery on his back Tuesday, but as of now, I don’t think the injury will affect his draft stock.”
McShay, who hasn’t updated his mock since March 4, has the 49ers dealing with the Denver Broncos to move up three spots for Alabama junior quarterback Mac Jones.
In 13 games for the national champion Crimson Tide, Jones led the nation with 4,500 passing yards with 41 touchdowns, second only to Florida’s Kyle Trask, and just four interceptions. Jones doesn’t run much, but he did score a rushing touchdown this past season.
“Jones doesn’t have the rushing ability of the other four QBs, but he processes quickly, has excellent ball placement on short-to-intermediate throws and shows the ability to anticipate,” McShay wrote. “He’d mesh nicely with the Niners’ quick game and could bring more balance to an offense that has run on the sixth-highest percentage of plays in the NFL since coach Kyle Shanahan took over in 2017.”
(Note: An ESPN+ subscription is required to see McShay and Kiper’s full analysis.)
Updated March 23
The league’s official website provides mock drafts from multiple analysts. The most recent post comes from former NFL defensive back Bucky Brooks, who has San Francisco selecting taking Patrick Surtain II, a junior cornerback from Alabama.
In 13 games for the Crimson Tide, Surtain had 37 combined tackles (22 solo), an interception returned for a touchdown and nine passes defensed.
“The likely departure of Richard Sherman could prompt John Lynch to prioritize finding a premier cover corner over draft weekend,” Brooks wrote.
Updated March 24
Like NFL.com, CBS Sports offers insight and analysis from multiple writers. Chris Trapasso is the latest to weigh in. He has the 49ers taking Central Florida senior defensive back Richie Grant.
The redshirt senior played in all nine games for the Knights and led the team with 72 combined tackles (49 solo). Grant also had three interceptions, one sack, five passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
“Yes, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are established safeties in San Francisco, but Grant is too talented for the 49ers not to pick him to add another weapon on defense,” Trapasso wrote.
Updated March 24
Cory McCann Ezring — a writer with Fan Nation, part of the SI network — takes an interesting turn, putting the 49ers on Ja’Marr Chase, a junior wide receiver out of LSU.
Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but as a sophomore a year prior he led the nation in receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) for a Tigers squad which rolled past Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Chase had nine receptions for 221 yards and two scores in that game.
“This pick is a combination of value and need. The 49ers have only three wide receivers under contract after the 2021 season,” Ezring wrote. “Chase is a talented pass-catcher who can operate as both a possession option and a threat with the ball in his hands. What’s more, the LSU product will only get better as he adds nuance to his game.”
Updated March 23
Draft analyst Walter Cherepinsky makes frequent updates to his mock draft. However, he’s stayed the course on his mock, keeping San Francisco on Farley the whole time.
“Caleb Farley opted out of the 2020 season, but he has high upside with nice size and speed,” Cherepinsky wrote.
Updated March 24
Analyst Danny Kelly has changed his pick in his latest mock, putting the 49ers on Farley, who Kelly says has shades of Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback C.J. Henderson.
“Farley’s draft stock could drop with the recent news that he underwent offseason back surgery, but the 49ers shouldn’t hesitate to grab him if they feel confident about the prognosis that he should be ready in time for camp,” Kelly wrote. “San Francisco bolstered its secondary in free agency, re-signing corners Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett to short-term deals while also inking safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Tavon Wilson, but the Hokies star would provide a playmaking boost to a group that’s likely to lose Richard Sherman in 2021.”
Updated March 22
Luke Easterling of USA Today’s Draft Wire has only released a photo gallery of selections in his latest mock. He also has San Francisco taking Surtain.
San Diego Union-Tribune
Updated March 17
Draft analyst Eddie Brown normally updates his mocks each week, but is holding off until next Wednesday. In his latest installment, which came before free agency began, he keeps the 49ers on Rashawn Slater, a senior offensive lineman from Northwestern.
He decided not to play his senior season in 2020 due to COVID, but Slater was on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the best interior lineman in college, and was a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2019.
“Regardless of who the quarterback is, the interior offensive line needs to be upgraded. Slater … handled the mighty Chase Young as a junior while playing left tackle and didn’t allow a single sack the entire season,” Brown wrote. “He’s versatile and talented enough to play all five offensive line positions.”
Like our 49ers coverage? You can support Chris Biderman’s work, and vote for more of it, with a $30 Sports Pass. That’s an annual cost, not a monthly subscription. Sign up now to make your voice heard.