PHOENIX — Theoretically, the San Francisco 49ers’ plan for the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft doesn’t have to go much further than waiting on the Arizona Cardinals to pick a player No. 1, identifying the best player on their board and turning in the card with that player’s name on it.
Of course, it’s never that easy. That is why, in the painstaking time between the end of the season and the start of the draft, teams spend copious amounts of time looking at the draft from every possible angle.
One of the biggest questions: Stay at No. 2 and increase the chances to land a premier player such as Nick Bosa or seek a trade that could help fill multiple holes on the roster?
As the Niners get deep into their draft meetings, they won’t stop at figuring out who their top two players are, ranking them in order and just drafting the highest-ranked guy left when their turn arrives. Instead, the week before the draft is filled with thought exercises that lay out options that have the Niners drafting from multiple positions.
The process includes scouts, coaches and even Angela Bannister, general manager John Lynch’s administrative assistant.
“We do fun exercises the week of the draft where we’ll pull everybody out,” Lynch said. “‘Who you taking, Angela?’ And that’s kind of team-building stuff, but it’s also, you want to play out different scenarios. That kind of stuff is not only fun, but it’s useful, just to put yourself in different scenarios that might happen.”
In reality, Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan, CEO Jed York and the rest of the Niners organization are intensely aware of how important it is to get it right with the No. 2 selection.
After a 4-12 season, the Niners hope to not have that pick again anytime soon. Because of the injury to QB Jimmy Garoppolo and a host of other health issues, the Niners believe they already have a roster that is better than their lofty draft status would indicate.
“It’s a debate that anybody will have and everybody will continue to have,” York said. “… You have to add really, really talented players, or you have to get a ton of capital to be able to move back so you can make up for maybe not getting that No. 2 guy in the draft, but you’re getting a lot in return if you’re going to give that opportunity up.”
Striking that balance is easier said than done, and for the Niners, there’s a lot to consider.
While Lynch and Shanahan are confident that the roster makeover they’ve done in their first two-plus years in San Francisco has the team in a much better place, it’s fair to say that the team is still lacking top-end talent. Last season’s team featured just three Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Of the 28 players who were first-team All-Pro for the 2018 season, only three were not on a playoff team. For most Super Bowl contenders, the number of blue-chip players on the roster is somewhere between seven and 10.
That means the Niners, even after signing linebacker Kwon Alexander and edge rusher Dee Ford, still have a need for the type of players who can swing a game in their favor. Although the draft offers no guarantees, many pundits and analysts believe that this year’s crop of prospects includes players who fit that description.
If Arizona takes Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray with the first pick or trades the choice to someone who does, the Niners could have their choice of the best non-quarterbacks in the draft. Someone such as Bosa could provide Ford a dynamic tag-team partner while giving the Niners another “closer,” as Shanahan likes to call game-altering players.
Some would consider landing Bosa with the second pick a stroke of luck for the Niners, but if they traded down, chances are they’d be out of the running to land him. If they moved down too far, they could also miss on Kentucky’s Josh Allen and Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.
The question would then become just how big of a gap the 49ers see between that trio and players such as Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Florida State’s Brian Burns, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and a host of others, plus whatever additional compensation they’d acquire in a trade.
Those are the conversations the Niners have been having the past three months and will continue to have until the draft.
Two years ago, the 49ers had the second pick and were prepared to take defensive lineman Solomon Thomas with that choice. A week before the draft, they got a call from the Chicago Bears expressing interest in moving up one spot. Without knowing whom Chicago was targeting, the Niners talked through their options and made the move on draft night to drop back one spot and acquire additional picks.
Although the Niners landed Thomas anyway, they haven’t lost sight of the importance of having a plan for any move, no matter how big or small. For what it’s worth, Shanahan said last week that he believes that compared to the last time the Niners picked No. 2, this draft is “almost a little stronger.”
If that’s the case, it could mean the Niners give even more consideration to a trade if the right offer comes along and they have a group of players ranked similarly.
“Those are all the things we’ll be doing the next month,” Lynch said. “All this preparation goes in. Now we have the coaches engaged in the draft. And this is when it really gets fun. You’ve put in all the leg work, all the pro days are happening, so you get new numbers and new information. But you really start to synthesize and bring in all this information and say, ‘Hey, here’s what our mindset is.’”