49ers 2021 NFL Draft grades: Eight picks all earn passing marks

Matt Maiocco
·6 min read
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How Maiocco grades 49ers' eight picks in 2021 NFL Draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The 49ers entered the 2021 NFL Draft with nine picks. They ended up selecting eight players after dealing two fourth-round selections to move up to grab a running back in the third round.

The organization has done a remarkable job in finding under-valued running backs for legendary position coach Bobby Turner.

The one time the 49ers drafted a running back in the first four years, they swung and missed badly with Joe Williams in 2017.

The 49ers drafted two running backs this year. That’s a surprise.

RELATED: Lance's qualities as QB, person that stood out to Shanahan

What else was surprising is that the 49ers did not address the slot receiver. The club’s streak of 18 consecutive years of drafting at least one wide receiver is over.

Here’s a look at the 49ers’ eight draft picks and some knee-jerk grades (final marks will not be logged into the system until January of 2025): 

First round (No. 3): Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

Lance certainly was the popular pick over Alabama’s Mac Jones. Justin Fields would have been met with a similar high approval rating from the 49ers fan base.

And as it turns out, the 49ers probably would not have needed to trade up to No. 3 to select either Jones of Fields. (We cannot say definitively, because some teams took themselves out of the quarterback picture after the 49ers made the trade.)

The 49ers, however, opted to be bold and take all doubt out of the equation with their move up to No. 3 overall.

CEO Jed York told Jim Trotter of the NFL Network that Jones was the safety net, and coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch wanted to conduct deep dives on Lance and Fields.

Lance was the player/person who most-impressed the 49ers. There is little question that Lance was the best selection, but it comes with its own set of risks. He turns 21 on May 9, and he has not played just one game over the past 15 1/2 months. 

We have no qualms with the selection of Lance. But the price of doing business -- giving up two future first-round picks and a third-rounder -- was exorbitant. It might turn out to be the best move in franchise history.

But until then …

Grade: B

Second round (No. 48): Aaron Banks, G, Notre Dame

Really, the only position on either side of the ball that was unsettled is right guard. The 49ers strengthened their offensive line with the selection of a large, powerful, aggressive offensive guard who also is nimble and athletic enough to excel in the 49ers’ outside zone blocking scheme.

Banks steps in as a starter from Day 1 -- or, at least, he should. And this also strengthens the team at every position. Daniel Brunskill has experience at every position. He could very well be the team’s top backup at both guard and tackle positions, as well as center.

The 49ers made this pick after trading back five spots. Lynch said Banks was the person they would have chosen at No. 43. And you know what? We actually believe him.

Grade: A-minus

Third round (No. 88): Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State

The 49ers already had good players at running back with Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Wayne Gallman Jr.

Sermon might not be the same kind of breakaway running threat as Mostert, but he has good initial quickness that enables him to blast through holes. He is a strong fit in the 49ers’ unique and creative running scheme.

It would have seemed the 49ers would have targeted a player who is more of a threat as a route-runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield. And maybe he can develop those skills. But with all of their other backs on one-year contracts, it makes sense the 49ers would want to lock in a young player for the next four seasons.

But this came at a cost, as the 49ers traded both of their fourth-round picks to select him.

Grade: C

Third round (No. 102): Ambry Thomas, CB, Michigan

Hey, anyone who attracts the attention of Adam Peters, the 49ers’ vice president of player personnel, is good enough for us. Lynch said Peters “championed” Thomas as a second-day prospect at a position of need for the organization.

Thomas has good size, speed and toughness. It seems unlikely he will step in and make a serious challenge to Jason Verrett or Emmanuel Moseley for a starting role. But the 49ers’ cupboard of backup cornerbacks is alarmingly thin. Thomas should work his way into a significant backup role while also making a contribution on special teams -- both on coverage units and as a return man.

This checks the box as filling a position of need with a strong all-around candidate.

Grade: B-plus

Fifth round (No. 155): Jaylon Moore, OL, Western Michigan

Not every offensive lineman is a good fit for what the 49ers do on offense. The ones who combine the athleticism with optimal size and strength are difficult to find. But Moore is a reasonable projection as someone who could remain in the building -- more specifically, the weight room -- to grow into a position where he can be a backup guard after playing tackle in college.

He will be a challenge to make the team, and it’s unlikely if he does he will be in uniform as backup for regular-season games early in his career.

Grade: C

Fifth round  (No. 172): Deommodore Lenoir, CB, Oregon

The 49ers are thin at cornerback behind the presumptive starters, so Lenoir joins Thomas as the 49ers hope either player can just keep it together if called upon.

Lenoir (5-foot-10, 199 pounds) does not have explosive speed, and his game is designed around that understanding. He does not give up many big plays. But the downside is that he allows a lot of completions in front of him.

The 49ers can live with that tradeoff from a rookie who is learning his way. He could also work some in the slot and learn behind K’Waun Williams.

Grade: C-minus

Fifth round (No. 180): Talanoa Hufanga, S, USC

Jimmie Ward is signed through the 2022 season, but everyone else at the 49ers’ safety position is playing on one-year contracts. Hufanga, the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year, arrives in a position where if he adapts and remains healthy he could be a future starter.

He should be in the mix to win a roster spot if he tears it up as one of the 49ers’ core special teams player. Hufanga experienced serious shoulder/collarbone injuries in 2018 and ’19. So the 49ers are taking a gamble that he can avoid shoulder issues in the future.

But spend one minute around Hufanga and you understand why the 49ers would be so willing to bet on him.

He is as passionate, driven and positive with his energy as they come.

Grade: B-plus

Sixth round (No. 194): Elijah Mitchell, RB, Louisiana

The 49ers ignored a big need at slot receiver to select another running back. Mitchell enters a crowded running backs room, joining fellow rookie Sermon. Mitchell does have good receiving skills, which were under-utilized in college.

The 49ers have an opening for a change-of-pace back who can run good routes out of the backfield and catch passes against linebackers in man coverage. Then, he has the speed to turn short receptions into big gains.

Grade: B

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