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49ers can gain advantage with loss on Thursday night

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of people predicted that the San Francisco 49ers would be a playoff team with Jimmy Garoppolo this season, but I wasn’t quite there. The Niners looked to be roughly even with the Seattle Seahawks in my eyes, and without Garoppolo, they’d definitely be a complete disaster.

Complete disaster: achieved.

San Francisco opened 1-2, losing road games against the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs, but getting a close 30-27 win over the Detroit Lions at home. Unfortunately for them, Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL against the Chiefs and the 49ers have lost five in a row since. San Francisco’s 1-7 record (which is still three losses shy of the 1-10 record that the Niners had last season before his first start, which is a big reason why I was suspicious of them suddenly being a strong contender) puts them right near the top of the draft order for 2019:

  1. Giants (1-7)
  2. 49ers (1-7)
  3. Raiders (1-6)
  4. Bills (2-6)
  5. Cardinals (2-6)

For now, the tiebreaker between teams that have the same record is strength of opponent, but with half-a-season to go, we’re really just monitoring how many wins each team has. The Niners are one of three teams with one win and on Thursday night they host the one-win Raiders; should San Francisco win, Oakland would hop over them in the draft order, but if the Raiders win, the Niners take at least a temporary hold of the number one spot for 2019 over the Giants.

San Francisco’s opponent the following week on Monday Night Football: the New York Giants.

In one scenario, the 49ers win these two home games against two of the other worst teams in football and improve to 3-7, which makes it very difficult for them to get the top pick. In another scenario, San Francisco drops two games at home to these two horrid teams and are 1-9 while handing wins to their two biggest pieces of opposition towards the number one selection next year.

At this point, it seems safe to root for the 49ers to win.

Since the 1970 merger, San Francisco has only picked in the top-three twice: they selected Alex Smith first overall in 2005 and Solomon Thomas third overall in 2017. (Underrated criticism: nobody ever talks about how the Niners took Thomas over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.) With the top overall pick in 2019, San Francisco would have the inside track on what’s being call the best defensive line class of at least recent memory, including Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa. Should they fall in love with a quarterback (Oregon’s Justin Herbert is the most talked-about QB prospect at the moment), the Niners would not be completely precluded from considering that option either, since Garoppolo is coming off of a significant injury and they could more than afford his dead money hits should San Francisco decide to part ways in the next year or two.

More than likely a defensive lineman is going to be the option, since it’s such a strong class and you can never have enough pass rushers. That would give the 49ers a potentially intimidating line with DeForest Buckner in the fold, depending on if there’s any progress from Thomas and 2015 first rounder Arik Armstead. (San Francisco picked up his fifth-year option, but it’s non-guaranteed and they can move on if he’s healthy and doesn’t pick up production; Armstead has three sacks this season and nine QB hits; he sees likely to return given that the Niners aren’t strapped for cash.)

The last NFC West team to pick first overall was the LA Rams, who traded up for Jared Goff in 2016; the Rams also selected Sam Bradford and Orlando Pace with number one picks. The Arizona Cardinals still have a shot at number one but it is a little less likely given their two wins over the 49ers this season. The Cards have not picked number one since the merger and shockingly they haven’t picked in the top three since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003.

The Seattle Seahawks have also never had the number one pick.

The Cardinals could target an offensive lineman to protect Josh Rosen, but the top-10 seems destined to be littered with edge rushers and defensive interior linemen. This makes it even more important for the Seahawks to retain D.J. Fluker and potentially J.R. Sweezy at guard.

With the lack of success by Kyle Shanahan (now 6-2 with Garoppolo as a starter and 1-15 with anyone else at QB) and Steve Wilks so far this season though, we’ll see how much those upgrades next year end up mattering.