After bye, 49ers in better position to draft needed difference-makers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers didn't play a game in Week 11 but those hoping the Niners can at least emerge from this lost season with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft might have got a win.

That's because the Oakland Raiders knocked off the Arizona Cardinals, which left both teams at 2-8, the same record as the Niners. If the NFL season ended today, the Niners would now hold the top pick in the draft based on the strength of schedule tiebreaker.

In fact, now that the Niners have completed a three-game stretch of games against fellow bottom dwellers Arizona, Oakland and the New York Giants, and other games featuring those teams (such as Sunday's Oakland-Arizona matchup) have been played, their draft picture is starting to gain more clarity. They could get an even sharper image of that this week when they travel to Tampa Bay to take on the three-win Buccaneers.

Despite their current position, the 49ers are still not in the driver's seat for the top pick, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. The Niners now hold an 85 percent chance of landing a top five pick and a 20 percent chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick, which is third best among all teams behind Arizona (46 percent) and Oakland (23 percent). Those numbers are based on FPI's projections for how the rest of the season will play out as of Sunday evening.

Obviously, there's still a lot of football left to be played and there are still a handful of three-win teams lurking but it's hard to deny the Niners' need for a top pick that could, if executed properly, give them a legitimate difference-maker at a position of need (think edge rusher or corner).

For evidence of that idea, just look at the Niners' most recent loss.

With a starting quarterback in Nick Mullens, receiver Kendrick Bourne and running back Matt Breida, all undrafted rookies just a year ago and a tight end in George Kittle who was a fifth-round pick in 2017, the Niners battled the Giants until the final seconds before succumbing.

While San Francisco's fifth one-possession loss of the season was maddening for the team and its fans, it was hard not to notice the discrepancy between primary offensive play makers. The Niners deployed Mullens, Breida, Bourne and Kittle while the Giants featured first-round picks like quarterback Eli Manning, running back Saquon Barkley, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and tight end Evan Engram.

The takeaway was this: while the Niners and Shanahan have showed a knack for finding and developing underrated young talent, the clearest path to taking the next step is making sure they hit on the players they take at the top of the draft. That's going to be especially important in the 2019 draft as the Niners appear headed for a top five pick.

To this point, the Niners have gotten mostly disappointing results from top draft picks like defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (No. 3 overall in 2017), linebacker Reuben Foster (No. 31 in '17), cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (third round in '17) and wideout Dante Pettis (second round in '18).

That's not to say all of their picks from the early rounds have failed to meet expectations. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey (No. 9 in 2018) has been quite good and should be a long-term building block. The same could be said for linebacker Fred Warner (third round in '18), who seems to improve weekly.

Adding to the frustration of the losses is the fact that the Niners' injury list has made it difficult to get a full evaluation on players who are still working to establish themselves in the league. Players like Foster, Witherspoon, Pettis, free safety Adrian Colbert, strong safety Jaquiski Tartt and slot receiver Trent Taylor have dealt with injuries that have caused them to miss games and left them at less than full strength when they have played.

Which is part of the reason that some rookies who offered promise a season ago haven't taken the expected step forward this season.

"I told our rookies, we had a lot of rookies finish the year last year on a really high note and it gave us a lot of confidence in some of those guys coming into this year," Shanahan said. "And some of those guys got better or worse in Week 1 and through this year. Some have gone the right direction, some haven't. Very well aware of that."

The final six games of the season won't mean much in terms of 2018 but it will undoubtedly carry weight in the bigger picture. The 49ers should be as healthy as they've been in some time coming out of the bye and Shanahan and Lynch need a chance to get an extended look at some younger players to help shape their approach to the offseason.

"That's stuff I'll look into for these six games," Shanahan said. "Who is going to help lead us into next year? Who is going to help finish us this year? There are lots of things that are very important to us, and we want to know, as I always say, who are we dealing with? We've been here for over a year now. It’ll be two years when it's said and done at the end of the season. We'll have a much better idea of people. And nothing is more true than when you watch us in the final weeks of the season, and lots of guys stepped up at this time last year. I want to see the guys who do it again, and the guys who don't, and see the guys who truly want to be a part of this. ... I feel we're just getting started in finding out what our team is.”