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  • Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer Close
    • Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
    • Previously covered University of Missouri football
    • Member of Pro Football Writers of America

Upon taking over as head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch made it clear that they intended to hold the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft only in that first year after succeeding Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke.

The hope, of course, was that the Niners would never again lose enough to find themselves in such lofty draft position. But here we are, just two years later, and the Niners again find themselves with the No. 2 overall pick. The bad news is that means the 49ers are coming off another dismal season, this time in the form of a 4-12 record.

The good news? San Francisco will get another crack at landing an elite player via the draft. What's more, since Shanahan and Lynch are incumbents, they will have a bit of a head start on identifying that player. The Niners coach the South team in this week's Senior Bowl.

For Shanahan, who has been on staffs that coached a Senior Bowl twice previously, that means an opportunity to dive deeper than the tape and get to know some of this year's top prospects.

"It's not about the athletes and stuff because you can see that on tape pretty well," Shanahan said. "You can see that when we work them out. It's about being around people. It's hard in the interview process to fully get to know someone. It's hard to get tricked when you're with someone for seven straight days."

Although most of the top prospects in this year's draft are underclassmen, there figures to be plenty of talent at this year's Senior Bowl. With that in mind, here's a look at what the 49ers have to gain and what they'll be watching closely this week in Mobile, Alabama:

Sorting through a strong class of edge rushers

The news that Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen dropped out was a disappointment for the Niners, especially since he would have been on the South roster and was the only player slated to be in Mobile who would be in consideration for the No. 2 overall pick. But that doesn't mean there won't be edge-rushing talent for the Niners to get to know this week.

Early projections for this class indicate that edge rusher is one of the strongest and deepest positions.

"I think it's strong there," Lynch said. "That's clear. There's good pass-rushers in this draft. I think that's a strength of this draft. … Everyone is looking for those guys, so I think we're excited."

The question then becomes how the 49ers will sort through them. They'll get an up-close look at two of the draft's more intriguing outside rushers this week with Mississippi State's Montez Sweat and Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson on the South roster. ESPN's Todd McShay ranks Sweat as the No. 21 player in the 2019 draft class, with Ferguson checking in at No. 30. Sweat and Ferguson are just two of the eight players McShay ranks in his top 32.

Boston College's Zach Allen, who appears on McShay's list at No. 22, is on the North roster.

Between now and the draft, much will be made of this class of edge rushers. Opinions will vary. For the Niners, the chance to begin that process with a close look should only help in the evaluation.

More middle-round talent?

The Niners' first two drafts under Shanahan brought mixed results at the top. Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster, first-round choices in 2017, have mostly been disappointing, though tackle Mike McGlinchey, the 2018 first-round choice, was quite good as a rookie.

While the jury remains out on those two draft classes as a whole, the Niners have had some success finding talent in the middle rounds. Tight end George Kittle looks like the steal of the 2017 draft after San Francisco scooped him up in the fifth round. Last year, the Niners found linebacker Fred Warner in the third round, and he immediately stepped in as a starter in the middle.

Warner played in last year's Senior Bowl, while quarterback C.J. Beathard and receiver Trent Taylor took part in the 2017 edition. It's reasonable to think that the additional exposure to prospects while serving as the coaching staff for the South could help uncover the 49ers' next middle-round gem, especially considering that many of the top seniors might have to wait until Day 2 or 3 to come off the board.

Among the most interesting names on the South roster to watch: Buffalo receiver Anthony Johnson, South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel, Oklahoma guard Ben Powers, Alabama guard Ross Pierschbacher and Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram.

Keeping up with quarterbacks

No, the 49ers don't need a quarterback, and they almost certainly won't use a draft pick on one unless it comes very late and the value is too much to pass up. But that doesn't mean they won't have at least mild interest in what's happening with the quarterbacks in Mobile.

Neither Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins nor Oklahoma's Kyler Murray will be participating, but Missouri's Drew Lock and Duke's Daniel Jones both will be, and they are considered potential first-round picks. The better they perform, the more valuable the Niners' No. 2 pick becomes. It's unlikely that Lock or Jones will garner consideration from a team offering a boatload of picks to the Niners in exchange for the No. 2 selection, but if the 49ers find a partner to trade down with, it would only benefit them to have multiple quarterbacks go in front of whatever spot they end up picking.

As a bonus, the ability of Shanahan and his staff to get the most from their quarterbacks, even in a short period of time, could help boost the stock of the signal-callers on the South team (West Virginia's Will Grier, Washington State's Gardner Minshew, Auburn's Jarrett Stidham and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson). Again, the more quarterbacks who go in front of the Niners' picks, the better the Niners' chances of getting a player they covet.

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