What’s the opposite of filling a need? Filling a want? Filling a whim?
Maybe it’s just called “gluttony,” which would definitely seem to be the 49ers’ approach to drafting these days. Most NFL teams try to build around the edges of their roster, plugging holes to shore up the overall structure. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch seem to be taking a much different approach.
Thursday, in the first round of the NFL draft, Shanahan and Lynch took strengths on offense and defense and made them stronger. They are betting that what works right now in the NFL, or at least what works for this particular team, isn’t to fill in gaps but rather to stack certain areas until they become an overwhelming problem for the opposition.
The defensive line looks like one of those stacks again. The 49ers had arguably the most dominant front four in the NFL last year. Even when they traded DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis for the No. 13 overall pick, it was a position of strength – a deep rotation with fearsome edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford on the outside.
Shanahan and Lynch weren’t willing to take a step back. They traded back one spot from 13 and selected Javon Kinlaw, a defensive tackle from South Carolina.
It was the fifth time in six years San Francisco selected a D-lineman in the first round, Kinlaw following the path worn down by Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Nick Bosa before him. That’s a lot of capital to expend on one position group. That sort of one-sided team building tends to get front offices in trouble, and yes, it didn’t do wonders for Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly.
It took some chutzpah for Shanahan and Lynch to revisit that route. Then again, they have earned some leash, courtesy of last season’s Super Bowl appearance.
In drafting Kinlaw at No. 14, the 49ers are banking that a powerful defensive line can mask other deficiencies. Really they could have used a cornerback or a safety more than a 3-technique defensive tackle. But they know from recent experience that relentless pass pressure can demoralize an opponent, especially an opposing quarterback.
Maybe your secondary doesn’t have to be fantastic if they have to cover for only three seconds per snap.
“I’m always down to go defensive lineman if the right guy’s there. And I was surprised Kinlaw was there,” Shanahan said at the end of the round. “Ask my old high school friends. My first pick was always (defensive end Michael) Strahan, and theirs was always Randy Moss.”
Can Kinlaw be a major player in that pursuit? Maybe not right away. He is an immense talent, but far from a polished product. Scouting reports questioned his technique and pad level, one reason it was a bit of a surprise the 49ers took him when they did. Buckner is a fully formed NFL Pro Bowler, a D-tackle who does everything well. Kinlaw will take some time to get there, if he ever does.
Man, he’s got some positive traits, though. He’s 6-5, 324 pounds and moves like a big cat. Super powerful and explosive, with long arms. He will command double teams.
This pick wouldn’t have made sense for the 49ers a couple years ago. They needed safe choices when they were a bad team. On the other hand, Thomas felt like a safe, if not spectacular pick in 2017. Bosa had a higher risk-and-reward quotient in 2019, if only because of his injury history. Clearly, Bosa turned out to be the better pick. Kinlaw isn’t as NFL-ready, but the fact that he is joining a top-tier defense makes the wait acceptable.
“I love calling plays for an offense that’s more talented than everyone offensively,” Shanahan said, pointing to the 2016 Falcons, for whom he was the offensive coordinator. “But it’s easier to call plays for what we had Weeks 1 to 8 last year, when our defense was healthy. … Nothing’s more fun than having a defense like we had last year.”
If defensive line wasn’t an obvious need for the 49ers, wide receiver was. They have a lot of bodies there, but the only person you’d really bet a starting position on is Deebo Samuel, a rookie last year. In that way, taking a receiver at No. 25 wasn’t a surprise at all.
The curveball was the type of wideout they took. Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk shares a lot with Samuel. They aren’t clones, by any means. But their size – Samuel is 5-11, 214 pounds; Aiyuk in 6-0, 205 – athletic traits and skill sets contain a lot of overlap.
Most important, in the perspective of Shanahan’s offense, is that both can run the ball like a running back once it’s in their hands. You know that about Samuel already. He had more rushing yards on reverses in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl than he did receiving yards. Well, it is Aiyuk’s most impressive skill, too. He led the NCAA Division I in yards after the catch as a senior last year.
It isn’t just these two, of course. Tight end George Kittle makes his living on YAC. It was a big part of Emmanuel Sanders’ game, too. That’s the man Aiyuk is expected to replace in 2020. Kendrick Bourne… Dante Pettis… even fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Raheem Mostert. All of them are expected to turn those little gains into big gains with regularity.
Aiyuk adds to the strategy. You can picture Shanahan dreaming evil dreams when he lay down to sleep Thursday night, eligible receivers dragging linebackers and slot corners all over the field in every direction. Once again, the 49ers are saying too much of a good thing is the goal, not the problem.
The 49ers doubled down in one other regard Thursday. They came into the night with seven total draft picks, and none in the second, third or fourth rounds. Lynch acknowledged earlier in the week that the Niners weren’t opposed to trading one of their first-rounders if it allowed them to reap multiple mid-round picks.
By bedtime Thursday, they had fewer picks than when they had started. The 49ers picked up a fourth-rounder in the trade with Tampa Bay, then gave it to the Vikings, along with a late fifth-rounder, in order to move up from No. 31 to No. 25 and snag Aiyuk.
A lot of teams would have been nervous about a void in the middle rounds of the draft. Maybe the 49ers are, too. But they proved once again that they are willing to go to extremes for the players they want, and for the scheme they prefer.