Cornerback and offensive guard were high needs for the San Francisco 49ers during the 2022 free agency and NFL Draft period.
But what if the ‘Niners took those needs two years ago?
Pro Football Focus played the “what if” game and channeled their inner general manager by revisiting the 2020 NFL Draft on Wednesday, June 22. And the conclusion PFF writer Ben Linsey and company drew: The 49ers would have not taken Javon Kinlaw at No. 14 and Brandon Aiyuk at No. 25.
Who are the replacements for both in this draft rewind? Ironically, the two new picks have this tie-in: One hails from the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that lost their top shutdown cornerback Charvarius Ward to the 49ers this offseason. The other is a versatile offensive option now gearing up for former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel down in Miami. Here’s who PFF went with.
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14th Overall Pick Would’ve ‘Fit Nicely’ in S.F.
And the 14th overall pick in the 2020 draft isn’t the defensive lineman Kinlaw out of South Carolina.
Instead, the 49ers select: L’Jarius Sneed, cornerback, Louisiana Tech.
Yes, the cornerback who went No. 138 overall in the fourth round of the draft and the speedy corner who was once projected to be an “average backup or special teamer” by Lance Zierlein of nfl.com skyrockets to the top 15. Why is Linsey and PFF higher on Sneed? Linsey wrote this explanation:
“Sneed is the type of versatile defensive back who would fit nicely into San Francisco’s defense. Looking at the 2022 roster, he could fill K’Waun Williams’ nickel role, where he’s allowed just an 82.3 passer rating into his coverage as an explosive, bigger nickel and willing run defender. That’s the direction that the position is trending with offenses moving bigger bodies into the slot.
“Sneed can also play on the outside, though. His 74.4 PFF grade from outside alignments over the last two seasons is a top-20 mark among all cornerbacks who have played at least 400 snaps in such alignments. This might seem early for Sneed to come off the board, but he’s been one of the more underrated players in this draft class.”
The downside with Sneed was that not much was expected out of the Bulldog standout from Conference USA. Zierlein had him as a fifth rounder. Bleacher Report gave him a 62 grade before the draft. Plus Kinlaw’s selection was to fill the vacancy caused by the 49ers’ trade of DeForest Buckner. Sneed, though, has since blossomed into a sleeper get for K.C. in this draft class.
The jury is out on Kinlaw following devastating knee injuries including his ACL tear from last season that limited him to four starts. And had the ‘Niners and general manager John Lynch discovered Sneed early, there would’ve been no need to sign Ward.
Kinlaw is since moving quicker and looking leaner since his surgery and Ward has impressed 49er coaches during minicamp.
25th Overall Pick Bolsters Needed OL Area
The 49ers don’t take Aiyuk. But it’s not because they pass on the wide receiver from Arizona State, it’s because he ends up going one selection early to the New Orleans Saints in the re-draft.
So at No. 25, they settle on Robert Hunt out of Louisiana — who once blocked for 2021 49ers lead rusher Elijah Mitchell. Here’s why Linsey has the ‘Niners taking the 39th overall pick:
“The right guard spot was a question mark for San Francisco entering the 2020 season and that remains the case entering two years later,” Linsey said. “Hunt started at right tackle as a rookie before kicking inside to right guard in 2021. He’s been one of the more stable pieces on the Dolphins’ offensive line — earning PFF grades above 65.0 in both years — and that positional flexibility would be intriguing for the 49ers.”
Who knows, the move to get the 6-foot-6, 327-pound Hunt could’ve given the 49ers their eventual replacement for Laken Tomlinson…or at least form a towering and powerful future guard combination with Aaron Banks. Perhaps too Kyle Shanahan would’ve had another red zone option, because of this play:
But Aiyuk has since established himself as a beloved 49er — and even has PFF labeling him a year three breakout candidate for 2022.
Overall, these would be considered tremendous need-filling selections. But, the 49ers are looking like they’re content with Aiyuk’s development plus Kinlaw’s road back.