Roster weaknesses: Every team has them, and the draft is often the best way to address them. With the 2014 NFL Draft fast approaching, NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah will be taking an up-close look at the main areas of weakness -- and the prospects who could fix them -- for all 32 squads in the league. Be sure to catch "Path to the Draft" on NFL Network at 7 p.m. ET Monday through Friday for more in-depth analysis.
The San Francisco 49ers haven't made huge splashes in free agency, but they have made smart, calculated decisions that have positioned them well heading into the 2014 NFL Draft. After letting Donte Whitner walk, they swiftly replaced him with Antoine Bethea. Rather than allow Colin Kaepernick's security blanket, Anquan Boldin, to land elsewhere, they re-signed him for two more years.
Still, the Seattle Seahawks remain the NFC West's top dog, and if the Niners want a chance to unseat their division rival -- and turn a possible fourth consecutive NFC title game appearance into a second Super Bowl trip in three seasons -- they'll need to use some of their 11 picks (six in the first three rounds) to bring in playmakers at cornerback and add speed on offense.
Here are four positions of need for San Francisco -- and four prospects who could fill them.
The Niners released starting cornerbackCarlos Rogers earlier this month and saw his counterpart, Tarell Brown, join the Oakland Raiders shortly after. San Francisco still has some intriguing corners on the roster, such as Chris Cook, who has a lot of talent but has been inconsistent in his four years in the league. Safe to say, I think this is a position they need to address early in the draft.
If Bradley Roby is available when the Niners select at No. 30 overall, he'd be a perfect fit in Vic Fangio's defense. The former Ohio State defender has tremendous speed and toughness, and has the ability to cover both shifty slot receivers and deep threats on the outside. If Roby's off the board, Jason Verrett could be a suitable alternative. Although he's coming off shoulder surgery and lacks ideal size for the position, he demonstrated rare instincts and ball skills while at TCU.
2) Inside linebacker
With three-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman coming off a gruesome knee injury and six-time All-Pro Patrick Willis entering his, surprisingly, eighth NFL season, I believe the 49ers will look to add depth to their linebacker corps with one of their early picks. Ryan Shazier's game tape at Ohio State shows he's every bit as athletic as the two talented backers, and what he lacks for in pure instincts, he makes up for in raw speed and versatility; he can drop back into coverage effectively and be used in a variety of blitz packages.
3) Wide receiver
Unlike his brother John, Jim Harbaugh didn't let Boldin walk in free agency. Keeping the strong-handed wideout to pair with a healthy Michael Crabtree will help the offense sustain drives, but neither pass-catcher has the speed to consistently take the top off of defenses. Second-year pro Quinton Patton has a lot of potential, but he's more of a slot receiver in Harbaugh's offense.
The Niners could use a dynamic receiver like Brandin Cooks, and if the Oregon State product is still available at No. 30, they should race their card up to the podium. But I don't think he'll fall that far. Paul Richardson from Colorado is one of the most explosive players in the draft -- don't be surprised if San Francisco snatches him up in the first round.
4) Defensive line
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I think San Francisco can wait until the middle rounds to add depth to the line, and one player to keep an eye on is Josh Mauro from Stanford. Harbaugh should be familiar with the 6-foot-6 defensive end, who has experience playing the position in a 3-4 scheme. He is stout against the run and has upside as a pass rusher.