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2020 NFL Draft Grades – San Francisco 49ers

Entering the 2020 NFL Draft without selections in Rounds 2-4, the 49ers had to get creative to build upon last year’s Super Bowl run. They did so, nabbing potential difference-makers in rookies Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk in the first round and trading for All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams.
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Given the months and months of build-up to the annual NFL draft, the rush to summarize a team’s rookie draft class in a few sentences and stamp a letter grade on it has never quite made much sense to me.

In the past, I’ve compared this process to patrons at a restaurant complimenting (or complaining to) the chef based on the menu, rather than waiting to actually taste the food.

In much this same way, it obviously takes time to properly evaluate a draft. Given all of the complexities of the 2020 NFL draft, specifically, this is especially true.

So, while we cannot skip years ahead to know for certain which players will ultimately exceed or fail to live up to expectations in the NFL, we can provide a much deeper dive into each team’s rookie class.

Therefore, in a 32-part series, will be providing a detailed breakdown of each of the NFL teams’ rookie hauls, following the original draft order. Each team will be evaluated on the quality, quantity and relative safety of their draft classes (including undrafted free agents), with specific players recognized as Best Player, Best Value and Best Project, culminating in one “final” grade.

Today’s team: San Francisco 49ers

Head Coach: Kyle Shanahan

General Manager: John Lynch

Players selected in 2020:

Round 1, Pick 14 overall: DT Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina

Round 1, Pick 25 overall: WR Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State

Round 5, Pick 153 overall: OT Colton McKivitz, West Virginia

Round 6, Pick 190 overall: TE Charlie Woerner, Georgia

Round 7, Pick 217 overall: WR Jauan Jennings, Tennessee

Key Undrafted Free Agents:

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RB Salvon Ahmed, Washington

RB JaMycal Hasty, Baylor

S Jared Mayden, Alabama

CB DeMarkus Acy, Missouri

DE Darrion Daniels, Nebraska

Overview of the 49ers’ 2020 draft:

Powered by a smothering defense, the best running game in the NFC and the inspirational comeback from injured starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the San Francisco 49ers breezed through the conference in 2019, earning a trip to the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history. As a key member at safety during Tampa Bay’s glory days, 49ers’ general manager John Lynch knows all too well the difficulty in maintaining elite level of play, especially as the contracts catch up. He showed his recognition of this during the midpoint of last season, engineering an aggressive trade with Denver to acquire playmaking wideout Emmanuel Sanders. Despite showing encouraging early rapport with Garoppolo, Sanders bolted to New Orleans after the season, making receiver a key need again. Rather than face a similar conundrum on the defensive line in a year, Lynch traded away DeForest Buckner, one of the league’s best young defensive linemen, to Indianapolis. No general manager wants to trade away a quality young star, but the move simultaneously created cap space to keep most of the rest of a rich roster in place as well as acquired the draft pick necessary to replace Buckner with a younger, cheaper and similarly gifted prospect in South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw. Taking advantage of what certainly appears to be one of the best receiver classes in modern league history, Lynch found a virtual clone of Sanders, as well, in Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, who possesses the elusiveness and straight-line speed to be a perfect complement to the bigger, grittier Deebo Samuel. The “lynchpin” of the 49ers’ 2020 draft, however, was yet another trade, acquiring seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams from Washington for the bargain-basement price of a 2020 fifth round pick, as well as a third round selection in 2021. San Francisco backed up the addition of Williams with the drafting of West Virginia tackle Colton McKivitz in the fifth round, a pick they acquired with yet another trade – this time sending running back Matt Breida to Miami. Clearly the 49ers like McKivitz and it was wise to double-down on the position with Williams, 31, sitting out all of last year in a messy dispute with Washington. Like fellow Day Three picks Charlie Woerner and Jauan Jennings, McKivitz could struggle to find a spot on this talented roster. The same is true, of course, for San Francisco’s undrafted free agents, though rookie running backs Salvon Ahmed and JaMykal Hasty have the juice to surprise as part of San Francisco’s stable.

Best Player of the 49ers’ 2020 Draft: DT Javon Kinlaw

It is easy to venture into hyperbole when discussing Kinlaw’s potential. The reality is, there are very, very few men even in the NFL who possess Kinlaw’s combination of size (6-5, 324 pounds), power and athleticism, with some of them – like Buckner (6-7, 290) Houston’s JJ Watt (6-5, 290) or Kansas City’s Chris Jones (6-6 310) – ranking among the most dominant defensive linemen in the league. Pop on the tape of Kinlaw against Alabama, Georgia, Auburn or the Senior Bowl and you see a player who can wreak havoc almost at will. Watch him against some of the lesser teams on South Carolina’s schedule the past couple of seasons, however, and you see the inconsistencies which labeled Kinlaw – fairly or not – as arguably the biggest boom or bust prospect of the 2020 NFL draft. I believe that by Kinlaw being plugged into a defense as gifted as the 49ers’, Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are both mitigating the risk and, even better, maximizing the rookie’s potential to explode, alongside fellow first rounders Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Dee Ford, among others. Even with San Francisco’s deep defensive line, Kinlaw should start (and perhaps star) immediately, though how the 49ers perform as a team on defense will serve as a fairer evaluation for the rookie, than any comparison to Buckner’s eye-popping numbers in the past.

Best Value of the 49ers’ 2020 Draft: RB Salvon Ahmed

Obviously the addition of seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams for a couple of middle round picks qualifies as extreme value, but let’s dig deeper into San Francisco’s rookie class, including the undrafted free agents, like Ahmed, a speedy back who forgot to prove it at the Combine. While the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted everyone’s lives, the NFL’s reaction to it was particularly hard on the prospects whose Pro Days were cancelled, especially those who either were not invited to the Combine or performed poorly in Indianapolis, as Ahmed did. After consistently timing in the 4.3s and 4.4s before and during his time with the Huskies, Ahmed’s fastest recorded 40-yard dash at the Combine was 4.62 seconds, instantly plummeting the stock of the 5-11, 197-pound back whose success at Washington was predicated on his elusiveness and breakaway speed. Ahmed was though to have played closer to 185-190 pounds at Washington, surprising scouts in Indianapolis with a new, chiseled frame. Dropping some of the extra weight should result in Ahmed regaining his burst. Even with Breida shipped out, the 49ers’ committee of running back is as deep and talented as there is in the league but don’t be surprised if Ahmed turns in a big play or three in preseason snaps to make things interesting.

Best Project of the 49ers’ 2020 Draft: WR Brandon Aiyuk

No fan base wants to heat that their team drafted a “project” in the first round but given that Aiyuk only had one season at the FBS level as a fulltime starter, he warrants being listed here. That isn’t to say that Aiyuk isn’t a phenomenal talent. I firmly believe that he would have been more universally considered a top 25 talent in this class had he been able to participate at the Senior Bowl, instead being held out due to an abdominal strain. After serving second-fiddle to 2019 first round pick N’Keal Harry as a junior, Aiyuk exploded this past season, emerging as the most explosive receiver in the PAC-12. His 40-yard dash time of 4.50 seconds does not give him enough credit for his nearly-instant acceleration and change-of-direction. Those reliant on stats to tell the story should instead consider the 18.3 yards per catch Aiyuk generated on each reception this past season, or the 16.1 yards per punt return and 31.9 yards per kickoff, all among national leaders. Put simply, Aiyuk has wiggle and the straight-line speed to pull away after making defenders miss. Even before the 49ers selected him, Aiyuk’s quickness and route-running potential had earned comparisons to Sanders. It will be fascinating to see if the rookie can develop the same early rapport with Garoppolo that Sanders had. His ability to create yardage after the catch makes him a really nice fit in a passing game that already boasts an elite seam target in George Kittle and a highly physical split end in the second-year pro, Samuel.

Overall Grade for the 49ers’ 2020 Draft: B

Previous 2020 NFL Draft Report Cards: Cincinnati Bengals |Washington Redskins | Detroit Lions | New York Giants | Miami Dolphins | Los Angeles Chargers | Carolina Panthers | Arizona Cardinals | Jacksonville Jaguars | Cleveland Browns | New York Jets | Las Vegas Raiders | Indianapolis Colts | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Denver Broncos | Atlanta Falcons | Dallas Cowboys | Pittsburgh Steelers | Chicago Bears | Los Angeles Rams | Philadelphia Eagles | Buffalo Bills | New England Patriots | New Orleans Saints | Houston Texans | Minnesota Vikings | Seattle Seahawks | Baltimore Ravens | Green Bay Packers | Tennessee Titans | San Francisco 49ers | Kansas City Chiefs