Following last year's decision to move up nine spots to ultimately select quarterback Trey Lance, the San Francisco 49ers are currently preparing for this year's NFL Draft void of a first-round selection.
This marks the first time since 1996 that the 49ers are not scheduled to make a first-round selection, dating back to when San Francisco traded its 1995 first-, third- and fourth-round picks and a 1996 first rounder to the Cleveland Browns for a 1995 first-round selection that went to drafting wide receiver J.J. Stokes with the 10th-overall pick.
As it stands now heading into the 2022 NFL Draft, the 49ers won't make their first pick until midway through the second round. However, NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah believes there are a lot of quality starters beyond the first 32 picks, including two target areas for the 49ers come April: cornerback and offensive line.
San Francisco dealt with a number of injuries in its defensive backfield in 2021, particularly at corner. In the season opener against the Detroit Lions, the 49ers lost veteran corner Jason Verrett to a season-ending ACL injury. Verrett, who is scheduled to become a free agent this March, returned to San Francisco on a one-year deal after an encouraging 2020 campaign. The corner appeared in at least 13 games for just the second time in his seven-year career and showed flashes of his Pro Bowl-caliber production of play.
Aside from Emmanuel Moseley, who missed six games due to his own injuries, the 49ers were forced to rely on their rookie corners, Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir , to step up at various points of the season, in addition to veterans like Josh Norman and Dontae Johnson who also made several starts.
Verrett, Johnson and Norman each enter the 2022 season with expiring contracts. Nickel cornerback K'Waun Williams, who spent the last five seasons in San Francisco, is also set to hit the open market.
Looking at San Francisco's depth at cornerback, Jeremiah pinpointed Kaiir Elam out of Florida as a potential Round 2 pickup for the 49ers this April.
"I think it's a solid group of corners," Jeremiah said. "Where (the 49ers) are picking, I'll be curious to know where Kaiir Elam ends up going. (He's) really, really tall. He's a press corner. He's got big-time makeup speed. There's some stuff in the transition that he struggled with a little bit, gave up a little bit of separation, but I think there's a lot to like about him in kind of that range of where they are."
The 6-foot-2, 196-pound corner notched 78 tackles, five interceptions and 20 pass breakups in 30 games with the Gators. His father, Abe Elam, is a former defensive back who played seven years in the NFL.
Entering his junior season as one of the top corners in the country, injuries marred his season, ultimately hurting his stock in what has him projected to go in the late first to mid-second round of the draft.
On the contrary, San Francisco could have some questions along their offensive line in 2022. One of the biggest free agents for San Francisco is left guard Laken Tomlinson, who is ranked as the 26th top free agent according to Pro Football Focus. The former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2015 has missed just one game over his seven-year NFL career and has developed into one of the best guards in the league since joining the 49ers in 2017.
Additionally, the team anticipates the return of right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who suffered a torn quadricep midway through the season. Per PFF, the 49ers O-line finished the season as the third-best unit in the NFL, but with questions surrounding a number of starters, San Francisco could look to bolster Lance's protection with their first pick in this year's draft.
"With the offensive line, you're going to be able to find tackles pretty much throughout this draft," Jeremiah continued. "A guy like Max Mitchell would be intriguing to me from Louisiana.
He's got really good feet. He's a really good athlete, and he's got the ability to reach and seal guys in the run game. You think about the run game with the Niners and what they ask of those guys movement-wise, he'd be up for the challenge. He can really move. He would be a fun one, I think, that would fit really well there."
Mitchell (6-foot-6, 299 pounds) is a versatile tackle who can play on either side of the offensive line, and, due to his lighter size, many have pegged as a tackle-to-guard convert. He has appeared in over 1,000 pass-blocking snaps during his time with the Ragin' Cajuns and has allowed just five sacks across that span.
Mitchell earned a 92.9 PFF grade in 2021, ranked first among all college football offensive tackles and allowed a 2.1 percent pressure percentage over the last two seasons, the third-best mark among 2022 offensive tackle prospects.
With free agency set to kick off on March 16, much can change between now and Day 1 of the draft on April 28, including San Francisco filling various needs via available veteran talent or retaining their own key players. Nonetheless, both Elam and Mitchell will be among the 324 participants in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, beginning March 1.
Tune in to NFL Network to catch the workouts, media availability and other prospect highlights.