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NFL Draft Preview: 49ers looking for depth in draft

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For a team that lost an inordinate number of key players this offseason and has made just two key free-agent acquisitions, the San Francisco 49ers are in surprisingly good shape on the eve of the 2015 NFL Draft.

If their new coach can actually coach, that is. But that’s another matter.

The 49ers will go into the 2015 season without running back Frank Gore, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, guard Mike Iupati, defensive end Ray McDonald, inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, and cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.

Former Baltimore Ravens standout Torrey Smith replaces Crabtree and ex-Arizona Cardinals star Darnell Dockett steps into McDonald’s spot.

But before you conclude that general manager Trent Baalke has his hands full entering the draft, consider this:

–The 49ers have a recent second-round pick (Carlos Hyde) to replace Gore and a third-rounder last year (Brandon Thomas) who has the potential to transition smoothly into Iupati’s spot.

–Throw in the acquisition of Smith and you could argue the 49ers’ greatest need on offense is a backup quarterback.

–If any team is well-suited to replace a pair of standout linebackers like Willis and Borland, it would be the 49ers. After all, they do return two super stars — inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith on the outside — to cover up for the two other projected starters (inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite and outside man Aaron Lynch) who might not need covering up for in the first place.

–And the defensive backfield, despite the losses, returns its top cover corner (Tramaine Brock), one of the best strong safeties in the league (Antoine Bethea) and the club’s last two first-round picks (safeties Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid.

So the 49ers, who made three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game with arguably the deepest roster in the league within the last four seasons, are going to have to put that depth to the test in 2015.

And in the draft … well, that’s simple. Baalke once again will have the opportunity to do what he does best — stockpile even more depth.

2014 Record: 8-8, 3rd in NFC West

First Draft Pick: #15 Overall

BEST FIT: QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

The 49ers have moved on from their coach, Jim Harbaugh. So why not move on from his hand-picked quarterback?

With absolutely no must-address needs, here’s why taking Mariota would make more sense than a wide receiver with the No. 15 pick: If the Oregon standout were to land in their laps at 15, the 49ers would be getting a star-quality talent who was sliding (remember Aaron Rodgers?), rather than reaching for perhaps the third-best wide receiver (if Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White were gone) who many projected to go lower.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Wide receiver: Perennial disappointment Michael Crabtree is gone, as are Nos. 3-4 Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd. They are replaced by Torrey Smith, an upgrade over Crabtree, and Jerome Simpson, an even bigger question mark than Johnson and Lloyd combined. While two is greater than three in this case, the team’s biggest weakness at the position — a lack of a downfield threat — has not been addressed. In a draft class dripping in game-breaking potential, it would be no surprise if the club used its first pick — No. 15 overall — on a deep threat.

2. Offensive line: If the chief problem in the passing game wasn’t quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then it was either a lack of quality receivers or a troubled offensive line. The fact that one of the league’s most mobile quarterbacks got sacked 52 times — third-most in the league — indicates the latter might have been the case. Losing Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati doesn’t help, especially when the first in line to replace him (Brandon Thomas) didn’t play in 2014. Journeyman Jonathan Martin started nine games last season, and Martin has been since released. Depth here, if not a starting guard, must be addressed.

3. Defensive end: Some would say a secondary that lost two of its top three cover corners has to rate among the three chief needs. But the club does return its top cornerback (Tramaine Brock), has used its last two first-round picks on safeties Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid, and invested big bucks in safety Antoine Bethea last year, so the cupboard hardly rates as bare. Meanwhile, defensive end Ray McDonald won’t be back, bookend Justin Smith isn’t sure he wants to be and the position’s former coach, Jim Tomsula, is now in charge, so you know where the priorities will lie.


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