Only a few short seasons ago, the San Francisco 49ers were a mere four points away from capturing the sixth Super Bowl championship in the storied history of their franchise. They had an efficient offense led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a dominating defense that featured the likes of linebacker Patrick Willis, and a fiery head coach at the helm in Jim Harbaugh making it all work.
Now, their relationship with Kaepernick has deteriorated, several key players like Willis have retired or moved on from the team, and Harbaugh is leading the charge at the University of Michigan. With that, the team is in a serious state of flux as they prepare for the 2016 NFL draft coming off a 5-11 campaign.
More than any pick in the recent history of the franchise, it’s critical that the 49ers find a franchise player with the No. 7 overall pick in the draft. Whether it’s a quarterback, a pass rushing specialist, or an offensive linemen, the team must find a player that they can build around. With plenty of needs on their roster, this pick — along with the rest of their draft class — will likely determine whether or not the team will become competitive again within a few seasons.
Which direction will San Francisco go with that seventh overall selection, though? To answer that inquiry, we have three potential targets for the 49ers.
3. DeForest Buckner, Oregon
Among the many problems the 49ers had last season, one of the biggest issues was their inability to generate a consistent pass rush. Their 28 sacks as a team ranked 29th in the NFL and no player on their roster accumulated more than 6.5 sacks for the season. Overall, the defensive unit had one of its worst seasons in years in 2015, as they ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every significant category. There is a need for upgrades throughout that unit, but starting with a dominant pass rushing force in the draft would make sense. Oregon’s DeForest Buckner more than fits the build.
At 6-foot-7, 291 pounds, Buckner was one of the best players in the nation in 2015. He accounted for 83 tackles — 17 of which were for a loss of yardage — and 10.5 sacks (which led the Pac-12) during his senior campaign. With a huge wingspan that stretches to nearly 7 feet and hands that are wider than a football, Buckner can be a disruptive force even when he’s not sacking the opposing QB.
With vets in place on the 49ers defense like linebacker NaVorro Bowman, Buckner would be a great fit on a team that, plain and simply, needs play makers. Other defensive line options for San Francisco could include Ohio State standout Joey Bosa, but he’s likely to be gone by the time they are on the clock. Seeing as the top two quarterbacks will almost certainly be gone by the time they are on the clock, the 49ers could do a whole lot worse than Buckner at No. 7.
2. Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
San Francisco needs to add a quarterback during the draft at some point. However, if they don’t improve the talent on their offensive line in order to protect that QB, it won’t matter who’s leading their offense. They gave up the second-most sacks in football in 2015 with 53, which was a big reason why their offense was one of the worst the league had to offer. Laremy Tunsil out of Ole Miss is the best offensive line prospect in the draft, but at No. 7, the 49ers would likely have to settle for Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley if they decide to pick a lineman. When you look at Stanley’s career, it hardly feels like they’d be settling.
A three year starter for Notre Dame, Stanley is an experienced offensive tackle who played both sides of the line in college. With his 6-foot-6, 312 pound frame, he has the size to be successful at the NFL level, but his athleticism and quickness set him apart from most other linemen in the class. Stanley is projected as a guy that can step right in from day one and with his durability, he could be the perfect asset for a team looking to rebuild their roster.
If San Francisco decides to go offensive line with their first-round pick, it could set them up to select a quarterback in the later rounds. The second and third rounds will be full of QBs that they could mold into a franchise player, such as Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and the 49ers pick early in both of those rounds, making Stanley a smart selection.
1. Paxton Lynch, Memphis
With the Los Angeles Rams trading with the Tennessee Titans for the No. 1 overall pick and the Philadelphia Eagles trading with the Cleveland Browns for the No. 2 overall pick, it’s a forgone conclusion that the top two quarterbacks in this year’s class — Jared Goff and Carson Wentz — will be well off the board by the time the 49ers first-round selection comes around. Therefore, if they want to draft their QB of the future in the first-round, they might have to reach for the third best prospect in the class, that being Memphis’ Paxton Lynch. Giving the state of quarterbacks in the NFL today, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the 49ers take this risky move.
Lynch is an impressive looking player at 6-foot-7, 244 pounds who has drawn comparisons to Marcus Mariota. He is a dual-threat player that can excel through the air and on the ground with the ability to withstand the heat in the pocket thanks to his large frame. While Lynch clearly has the physical tools to start in the NFL from day one, including an impressive deep ball, many believe that he needs time to sit on the bench and learn the game from an established veteran QB. With that, the 49ers could have what it takes to develop Lynch next season.
Even though Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick (if he’s still on the roster) isn’t the greatest quarterback situation, San Francisco has the veteran players that can play next season while Lynch learns the pro game. If they like his physical traits enough and feel like his potential as a franchise player is high, Lynch could be the perfect fit for the 49ers, even though he is a high risk, high reward type of prospect.