By Sam McPherson
After finishing with a 5-11 record in 2015, the San Francisco 49ers spent two first-round draft picks in April 2016 on defensive end DeForest Buckner and offensive guard Joshua Garnett. Overall, the organization spent four of its first five draft picks on defensive players and chose not to select a quarterback until the sixth round, when the 49ers grabbed Jeff Driskel out of Louisiana Tech.
Buckner has been a nice addition to the defensive line, registering two sacks and 38 tackles in seven games. Meanwhile, Garnett has started three games for the offensive line. Driskel isn’t on the active roster, however. With San Francisco ranking last in the league on defense for points and yards allowed, the offense is 29th in yards gained due to QB inconsistency and other problems.
Now with the 49ers sporting a 1-7 record halfway through the 2016 regular season, it’s clear the San Francisco organization once again will have a premium pick come draft time. But can the team make better decisions this time around?
The Case For A Franchise Quarterback
In the NFL, you really cannot win without competent QB play. The Denver Broncos just won Super Bowl 50 with a downtrodden Peyton Manning at QB, but he was good enough still to not make mistakes that cost his team the chance to win. Since the 49ers lack the defensive prowess the Broncos have at this time, they need a QB that’s capable of winning games for the club.
Neither Blaine Gabbert nor Colin Kaepernick is that sort of quarterback right now, and it’s debatable whether either ever could be the type of player San Francisco needs at the position. The 49ers were spoiled for many years at the position, thanks to Joe Montana and Steve Young. Even Jeff Garcia led this franchise to two straight postseasons (2001-02). If the draft were today, San Francisco would have the No. 2 overall pick, and a franchise QB is almost always available in that position.
The Case For Rebuilding A Top Defense
In recent seasons, the NFL has seen a resurgence in historically great defenses winning Super Bowl championships. Sometimes those teams had competent offenses, too, but sometimes they did not. The 49ers had a Top 5 defense for several seasons before the injuries and retirements took their toll in 2015. They can build another one with excellent drafting and free-agent signings.
The Broncos are a perfect example right now: They have struggled on offense due to inconsistent QB play and injuries to key players. But with a 6-3 record, Denver is still competitive in the playoff landscape. A good defense keeps you in every game, and the 49ers built their recent winning ways around that concept. Why not repeat the experiment?
There might only be one real franchise QB in the next draft: Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. Whether or not he can be a fit in Head Coach Chip Kelly’s offense is the question the team will have to assess. According to experts, there is a big drop off from Kizer to the next tier of quarterback talent.
If the Cleveland Browns, currently at 0-9 and projected for the No. 1 overall pick, don’t draft Kizer, then the 49ers would have to seriously consider it. But look at what Kaepernick was able to do against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday. Maybe with a full offseason of dedicated hard work, the San Francisco offense could be just fine with Kaep at the helm.
It’s easier to trade down from No. 2 and collect some extra picks from which to build serious defensive depth and talent. In the end, that’s what may serve the 49ers franchise best right now. It’s not sexy, and it’s not the “San Francisco” way that onetime coach Bill Walsh would have chosen. But it might be the best thing for the 49ers to do in 2017.