The 49ers will pick either ninth or 10th in this spring’s NFL draft. Their biggest need is at cornerback, where countless players have been shuffled in and out over the last few seasons.
But general manager John Lynch believes in drafting the best player available when his turn comes around, so the Niners could wind up with an offensive lineman, edge rusher, wide receiver or running back. It’s hard to say.
Though No. 1 running back Carlos Hyde had a good season for the 49ers and has said he’d like to remain with the team, 2017 was the final season of his four-year rookie deal with the team, signed in 2014. San Francisco could let him depart as an unrestricted free agent. If that happens, it’s possible the 49ers could draft his successor in the first round, and some have projected that Saquon Barkley of Penn State could fall to the 49ers.
Though the current thinking in the NFL is you can get productive running backs later in the draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars struck gold in 2017 when they selected Leonard Fournette of LSU as the No. 4 overall player. Fournette was terrific in rushing for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in just 13 games, while also catching 36 passes as the Jags reached the playoffs.
Barkley could add the same kind of juice to the 49ers offense, especially in Kyle Shanahan’s system that values running backs as receivers. This past season Barkley had 54 catches to go with 1,271 yards rushing. He’s also a strong blocker.
The NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock sees Barkley as a gem in this draft.
“So far he’s the best player I’ve seen on tape,” Mayock said late in this past season. “He’s got more upside both on and off the field than Zeke Elliott (now of the Cowboys).”
Of course, a lot of things would have to fall into place for a 49ers-Barkley pairing to become a reality. And, too, the 49ers may love another running back, such as San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, who could be nabbed in the second round.
But Shanahan hasn’t said that he’d pass up an elite running back in the first round.
“It’s been proven that you can get guys later,” he said. “But that by no means makes it that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high. When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that. A big-time running back, whether it’s Fournette, whether it’s Adrian Peterson, who was a top-10 pick, whether it was Terrell Davis in the sixth round, whether it’s David Johnson, who I think was a third-rounder, or Le’Veon Bell, I think is a second-rounder, all those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all found different places.”