The NFL Draft is the best way to build a great team. In a salary-capped league, cheap, effective talent is worth its weight in gold.
But apparently not red and gold.
Now, there are some common league-wide beliefs about how to best select players and what expectations should be placed on those players.
One of those beliefs is that top-100 picks — players selected in the first three rounds (often before compensatory picks) need to be immediate-impact players. If a player is selected that high, the team has placed a premium on their talent, and that talent needs to be prolific enough to carve out an immediate role on the 53-man roster.
As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the 49ers don’t disagree with this expectation when they enter the draft.
In practice, though, their disagreement is unmistakable.
The 49ers have selected five players, total, in the top-100 picks of the last two NFL Drafts. Those five players are supposed to be the team’s young core.
In all, those players took 30 snaps Sunday vs. the Lions, with 86 percent of those snaps came from the recent draft pick who could easily be dinged as the most disappointing.
No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance took four snaps Sunday, throwing for a touchdown and not doing a thing with the other three, strange, peculiar opportunities.
Meanwhile, Brandon Aiyuk, who averaged nearly 70 yards of total offense a game last season, saw only 26 snaps, as he was relegated to wide receiver No. 4 for Week 1. He saw zero targets against Detroit.
And that’s the good news.
Aaron Banks, the Niners’ second-round pick in the 2021 Draft, didn’t play. He missed a nice chunk of the preseason, but he was officially a healthy scratch.
Trey Sermon, the running back Kyle Shanahan traded up to select in the third round in the 2021 Draft, was also a healthy scratch Sunday.
And rounding out the five, Javon Kinlaw, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was scratched with a nagging knee injury. Remember when he claimed at the beginning of Training Camp that he wasn’t injured?
Five picks — minimal impact, at best. If not for Lance’s touchdown throw, you could make the argument that the Niners recent high draft picks had no impact in the contest against the Lions.
Now, Lance will eventually be the 49ers’ starting quarterback. When that day comes is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t look imminent. I don’t think he should be held in the same regard as the other recent picks — the Niners have a different plan for him.
So let’s start with Sermon, who was benched for 2020 undrafted free agent JaMychal Hasty on Sunday. Hasty was unremarkable against the Lions and his only special teams role is on the punt team.
All in all, not that impressive. Maybe that’s good news for Sermon playing next week.
Or, you can view it the other way — isn’t it jarring that Sermon was deemed the worse option going into the game? Hasty didn’t have much of a role, but he really do anything to disqualify himself, either.
Indeed, Sermon’s best bet to see the field in the coming weeks is for Raheem Mostert, the Niners’ No. 1 back, to be sidelined with injury.
This is an inauspicious start for the Ohio State product.
Banks is going to need a lot more time than Sermon. He famously had a 0.0 rating from Pro Football Focus in pass protection the Niners’ first preseason game (a grade that was unfair, but not dramatically off), and didn’t impress in the limited practice time he had after that game. The No. 48 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft has made no impact on this team — there’s a fair 0.0 rating — and as the weeks progress, the best-case scenario is that status has more to do with injury than quality.
Kinlaw is dealing with a knee injury — the dog just won’t stop barking. When he’s on the field, he’s looked fantastic, but those times are few and far between these days. The Niners sure could have used him on Sunday. While San Francisco’s pass rush was strong, their run defense was poor, particularly up the middle. Having a human as large and strong as Kinlaw at defensive tackle might have mitigated some of that.
And then there’s Aiyuk, the most hated man in fantasy football.
As I wrote multiple times throughout the preseason, Aiyuk’s drops in Training Camp and exhibition games had become a real problem. You know Shanahan, who is ruthless with receivers, noticed that. Aiyuk’s sub-par blocking in the run game had to be a factor, too.
Yes, the writing was on the wall that Shanahan’s trust in Aiyuk was fading this preseason, but I didn’t see it as being this low this early.
Aiyuk might be an insane athlete and pass-catcher, but Shanahan wants to firmly re-establish this Niners team as a ground-game power. If the majority of snaps — in a perfect Shanahan world — don’t include the ball being thrown, then why would you effectively punt those snaps by playing Aiyuk instead of the more polished Trent Sherfield (who isn’t a bad pass-catcher himself)?
The bigger question: How does Aiyuk work his way out of the doghouse?
Blocking better is a good start. That’s how Kendrick Bourne went from being Shanahan’s least-favorite receiver to being the team’s third-down maestro.
But for every Bourne, there’s a Dante Pettis, a receiver who never found his way under Shanahan.
Neither of those players had the talent of Aiyuk, so this will be a fascinating saga to watch unfold.
The good news for the Niners is that, despite their top-100 problems the last two seasons, they have done well in the later rounds.
Deommodore Lenoir, a fifth-round pick in 2021, was stout as the team’s starting cornerback opposite Jason Verrett. (We won’t dive deeper into pick No. 102 Ambry Thomas, also a cornerback, who played mostly special teams Sunday.)
Mitchell, a sixth-round pick, had more than 100 yards in his debut.
And tight end Charlie Woerner, a sixth-round pick in 2020, has been significantly better in his sophomore campaign to date.
There are teams around the NFL that can not just survive, but thrive, with only late-round picks.
The Niners’ NFC West rivals, the Rams, stand out. Seattle is in the same boat, to a lesser degree.
The difference between those teams and the Niners, though, is that the Rams and Seahawks are trading top-100 picks for established NFL players and then counting on their scouting to find top-100 talent in the final 100 picks of the draft.
With the number of busts the Niners have pulled in the top-100 since Shanahan took over — Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, Dante Pettis, Jalen Hurd — and this new cast of question marks, it’s fair to wonder if the Niners should go the way of their rivals.
They’ve already traded away multiple first-round picks to select Lance. With needs at cornerback and a few other spots on the roster, what’s stopping San Francisco from moving future second and third-round picks, too?
After all, they might as well get some use from them.