Ohio State corner Bradley Roby (No. 1) is expected to be a first-round pick, and perhaps a player of interest for the 49ers. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Offense or defense? Wide receiver or cornerback?
With still more than two months to go before the NFL draft in early May, draftniks are uncertain which way the 49ers will go in the first round. Most observers believe the Niners will address either the wide receiver or cornerback positions, but general manager Trent Baalke rarely gives any clues about which way he’s leaning.
But the two biggest needs seem to be a fast wide receiver who can stretch the defense and complement the talents of Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin (who is expected to re-sign with San Francisco), or a cornerback who can tighten up the secondary and make an impact the way rookie safety Eric Reid did in 2013.
On the 49ers’ website, a draft tracker feature lists some of the latest mock drafts of NFL analysts across the nation, and of the 11 mock first-round picks, five have the Niners taking a cornerback (Bradley Roby of Ohio State, Jason Verrett of TCU or Marcus Roberson of Florida), four target a wide receiver (Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State, Allen Robinson of Penn State or Jarvis Landry of LSU) and two predict a defensive lineman (Ra’Shede Hageman of Minnesota or Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame).
Though the 49ers pass defense definitely needs to get better, it’s the passing attack that seems more in need of an upgrade.
In 2013, the 49ers ranked 30th in the NFL in passing offense, averaging just 186.2 yards per game. Even the run-oriented Seahawks were better, at No. 26 (202.2 yards per game).
The 49ers’ pass defense ranked No. 7 in the NFL, giving up 221 yards per game.
As Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee recently wrote, this is believed to be a good year for wide receivers in the draft. With a dozen picks, the 49ers could package several to move up from their No. 30 position to get one of the best, although Barrows noted that the No. 1 ranked wideout, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, “probably is out of their reach.”
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, who covers the 49ers on a daily basis, believes a wide receiver is San Francisco’s “greatest need.”
“A dynamic receiver would change this offense,” he wrote late during the regular season. “USC’s Marqise Lee could be a trade-up option as well.”
Because the 49ers will play the Seahawks twice in 2014, they know that Seattle’s standout cornerback Richard Sherman can almost take one wide receiver out of the game. If that means Sherman is matched against Crabtree or Boldin, the 49ers’ acquisition of a speedy, playmaking wideout can go a long way to opening up the passing game.
In the NFC Championship Game, a 23-17 Seattle victory, Kaepernick was able to throw for just 153 yards, and while Boldin (five catches) and Crabtree (four) made some plays, only one other wide receiver, Quinton Patton, had a reception – and that was for just 2 yards.
In a recent mock draft, Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN has the 49ers taking LSU wideout Odell Beckham Jr. with the 30th selection. He believes the 49ers must improve at wide receiver.
“The 49ers have been a different team with a healthy Michael Crabtree, but I don’t think they should be in the position again of having only one wide receiver with a really dynamic skill set on the roster given how much Crabtree not being healthy limited the offense,” he wrote.