With the height of free agency behind us, attention across the league has turned to the quickly approaching 2023 NFL Draft. The San Francisco 49ers addressed some of their positional needs via free agency, signing or trading for nine players outside of the organization and retaining another nine from the 2022 NFC Championship Game roster. However, there is still more work to be done this offseason with some notable departures that included the following players:
- OL Mike McGlinchey
- QB Jimmy Garoppolo
- DB Jimmie Ward
- LB Azeez Al-Shaair
- DL Hassan Ridgeway
- DL Samson Ebukam
- CB Emmanuel Moseley
- DL Charles Omenihu
- OL Daniel Brunskill
- S Tarvarius Moore
- DL Maurice Hurst
- DL Jordan Willis
The core of the 49ers roster remained intact, so according to general manager John Lynch, depth is the biggest priority heading into the draft. As it stands, San Francisco has a total of 11 picks to work with, beginning in the third round with selection No. 99. Fortunately for San Francisco, their current brass has had plenty of success picking in the later rounds. For the most recent example, you have to look no further than the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft in which the 49ers selected quarterback Brock Purdy out of Iowa State. He went on to start eight games for the red and gold, leading the team straight to the conference championship and breaking franchise and league records along the way.
"The draft sets up well with the way we are positioned this year... To me, the blue chip players, there aren't as many this year, but there is good depth," Lynch said at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "I think there is good value, and we seem to do well at pick 100 and back. We're in our sweet spot. We've got to make them count."
So where exactly do the 49ers need to add depth? This is a hotly debated subject around the NFL, but here are some positions that could be further fortified via the draft (in no particular order).
- Edge Rusher
- Tight End
If the season were to start today, Lynch pointed to fourth-year pro Colton McKivitz as the projected starter at right tackle during the NFL Annual League meeting. In his three seasons with the team, the swing offensive lineman has made 28 appearances (five starts) and has played in five playoff games. McKivitz's only start of 2022 was in place of All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Rams. Behind him, the 49ers have the newly signed Jon Feliciano, who has played at virtually every position on the offensive line, as well as Matt Pryor and Jaylon Moore. However, given the physical play in the trenches, insulating the O-line would be beneficial.
Offensive tackle is ranked as the eighth strongest position group of the incoming 2023 draft class, according to NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein in his prospect breakdown for NFL.com.
"I see Peter Skoronski as this year's No. 1 offensive tackle prospect, although his best position could ultimately be guard," Zierlein said. "When weighed against the last several drafts, most of the top tackles in this draft would fall into Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) territory, in my opinion."
Veteran Charvarius Ward and third-year pro Deommodore Lenoir closed out the 2022 season as the No. 1 and 2 cornerbacks with Jimmie Ward taking over at the nickelback position after Emmanuel Moseley's season-ending injury and the emergence of Tashaun Gipson Sr. as a starting safety alongside Talanoa Hufanga. The free agent signings of Isaiah Oliver and Myles Hartsfield offer the 49ers some additional options to take over the role formerly occupied by Ward, and the team also has Samuel Womack III and Ambry Thomas to compete for the starting nickelback job. However, given the strong talent pool of cornerbacks in 2023, this could be a position of interest in the draft for San Francisco. NFL.com has the cornerback position ranked at No. 1 for depth in the incoming draft class.
"We saw 12 cornerbacks go in the first three rounds last year, including Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner," Zierlein wrote. "There might not be a Sauce in this year's class, but there appears to be a higher number of players who will be starters in the NFL. In fact, there will be big, long, explosive perimeter cornerbacks available in each of the first four rounds. I expect Christian Gonzalez and Devon Witherspoon to be the first two players drafted at the position, but we should see five, maybe even six, taken in the first round."
The defensive line was one of the position groups most affected by free agency departures for the 49ers. San Francisco made a premier addition with the signing of Javon Hargrave, which was a big win for the interior of the D-line. The other additions made to offset free agency exits and bolster the edge were former Oakland Raiders first-round pick Clelin Ferrell and former Detroit Lions defensive lineman Austin Bryant. Lynch also noted at the combine that the team is hoping to see a big jump in Year 2 for former second-draft pick Drake Jackson that would result in more playing time, but that will materialize as offseason programming gets underway. The team is looking for a similar jump from Javon Kinlaw who continued to deal with some lingering knee issues in 2022 following an offseason surgery. Given the way San Francisco likes to rotate its defensive linemen, adding more depth via the draft would be advantageous, and the position group is ranked third-overall in strength.
"If your team is looking for an edge defender, you should hope it addresses the position within the first 75 picks because the depth will start to diminish after that point in the draft," Zierlein wrote. "Will Anderson Jr. and Tyree Wilson have high-end potential and there is a nice collection of future starters with size and/or explosiveness within the first two rounds. Some of the most intriguing prospects include Tuli Tuipulotu, Felix Anudike-Uzomah and Isaiah Foskey, who should go in the second round. Keion White has the versatility to play inside or outside, but for the purposes of this article, I'm classifying him as an edge defender, which strengthens this position group."
Now that sixth-year pro Ross Dwelley is official for 2023, the state of the tight end room looks very similar to what it has for the past three seasons. Dwelley, Charlie Woerner and George Kittle are under contract for the upcoming season, and as of now, the group has room for another if the 49ers want to keep the same amount of tight ends they had on the 53-man roster in 2022.
Kittle has emerged as one of the greats after spending six years in the league, and he's coming off a season in which he earned Second-Team All-Pro honors and scored 11 touchdowns for San Francisco. The 49ers have an opportunity to capture another potentially great tight end via the draft this year given the depth of the position group. NFL.com has ranked the tight end group as the strongest group behind the cornerbacks in 2023.
"This is one of the most promising tight end classes I've seen in a while. Michael Mayer, Luke Musgrave, Dalton Kincaid and Darnell Washington are the most well-known prospects and each is worthy of going inside the first 40 picks," Zierlein said. "But there should be starting-caliber players selected a little later on, including Luke Schoonmaker, Tucker Kraft, Sam LaPorta and Brenton Strange."
The starting duo of Hufanga and Gipson Sr. is back again for another season, and while these two likely won't have to compete to keep their jobs, added depth at this position wouldn't hurt. Gipson Sr., the team leader in interceptions from 2022, contemplated retirement this offseason, and bringing in young talent helps ensure year-to-year success at this position.
The 49ers signed Hartsfield to address some of the depth in question and have George Odum still under contract as well, but the departures of Ward and Moore could further push the team to shop around for a safety in the upcoming draft. A potential drawback, however, is the depth of the safety position in the next crop of NFL talent. Per NFL.com, the safety position isn't deep this year, ranking 10th overall.
"Last year we saw three safeties drafted in the first round. This year, Brian Branch is the only safety I expect to go in Round 1, and some teams will have him slotted as a nickel corner," Zierlein wrote. "Day 2 will offer up a few future starters, with Antonio Johnson and Jordan Battle leading the way and Jartavius Martin impressing at the NFL Scouting Combine. Ji'Avir Brown might fall to Day 3 after not showing ideal speed/explosiveness at the combine, but he is a good football player. Memphis' Quindell Johnson is my Day 3 sleeper from this group."