In two of the three seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers have elected to emphasize defense in their first-round draft selection, with tremendous success. This year could make it three out of four.
After drafting safety Eric Reid, who turned in a quality 2013 rookie season, the 49ers could still use a boost at either corner or safety, if not both. With their draft slot at the 30th overall selection, the 49ers have often been linked to Texas Christian corner Jason Verrett and Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller.
Coming off their third consecutive appearance in the NFC Championship game, the San Francisco 49ers have managed to maintain their prominence among the league’s toughest division since the beginning of Harbaugh’s tenure in 2011. If they’re to remain near the top of the NFC West standings moving forward, however, they may be headed for an infusion of youth in the coming year.
They 49ers’ success in the past three years has come about by maintaining essentially the same core of veteran players on each side of the ball, a philosophy that they have sought to continue in at least one case moving forward.
The 49ers have gotten considerable mileage out of their more senior skill players in 2013, including receiver Anquan Boldin, who re-signed with the 49ers on Monday with a two-year deal that will earn him $12 million. The 33-year-old Boldin grabbed 85 receptions for 1,179 yards in his first season in San Francisco.
While retaining Boldin buys a bit more time for the 49ers to upgrade the receiver position through the draft, this year could prove to be a prime opportunity, with the 2014 receiver class representing the deepest group in recent memory.
Running back Frank Gore also turned in a 2013 season that belied his 30 years of age, as he ran for 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns. Gore did begin to show signs of wear throughout the year, however, as his 4.1 yards per carry was the lowest figure of his nine-year NFL career.
Should the 49ers look for a successor to Gore outside of reserves Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon, they will likely search in the draft’s latter rounds, as most draft prognosticators do not have a running back being chosen in the first round. General Manager Trent Baalke spoke about the possibility of employing multiple backs moving forward while meeting with media at the NFL Combine.
“I think when you look at it, I’ve maintained for a long time that that position has evolved a little bit,” Baalke said. “You see less and less of the bell-cow backs and more of the rotation system. There are certain teams, and we were one of them last year, that did predominantly use one back. But it’s getting harder and harder to find those guys. And it’s getting harder and harder for those guys to hold up at the NFL level.”
The duo of Baalke and Harbaugh have managed to attain quantity without sacrificing quality in the draft in recent seasons, including receiving 11 picks in last year’s draft. This year, San Francisco could likely receive another 11 selections. The bevy of picks gives the 49ers, whose 36 wins over the past three seasons are the most of any NFC team, fuel to continue building on what has been a vastly successful run under the team’s current leadership.