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49ers lost Sanders, but draft has plenty of replacements

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Big loss?

The 49ers let wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sign with the Saints on Friday. Sanders signed for two years and $16 million, and will make one of the 49ers’ biggest NFC rivals even more difficult to beat.

Last year at the trade deadline, the 49ers traded their third-round and fourth-round picks in 2020 to the Broncos for Sanders and a fifth-round pick. Sanders was a rental —nothing more. The 49ers felt they needed a quality veteran receiver like him to reach the Super Bowl. And they were right.

Sanders made an immediate impact. He had 502 receiving yards in 10 regular-season games with the 49ers, and he helped improve Jimmy Garoppolo. Before the Sanders trade, Garoppolo’s quarterback rating was 90.8. After the trade, his rating jumped to 108.1. And during the best performance of Garoppolo’s career — a 48-46 win over the Saints — Sanders caught seven passes for 157 yards and a touchdown, plus he threw a 35-yard touchdown pass. And now he’s gone.

Big loss.

But the 49ers were smart to let Sanders go. They made the right choice.

They don’t have the cap space to justify overspending for a 33-year-old wide receiver with a surgically-repaired Achilles. The 49ers are just $15 million under the cap and must save roughly $8 million for draft picks. And the 49ers still have to give All Pro tight end George Kittle an extension which will make him the highest-paid tight end of all time.

Sanders had to go.

But the 49ers can replace him in the upcoming draft, which features a historically talented and deep class of wide receivers. And the 49ers have two first-round picks — the 31st and the 13th, the latter which they acquired from the Colts by trading Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The 49ers almost certainly will use one of those two picks on a wide receiver.

With the 13th pick, the 49ers might have their choice of the top three receivers in the draft — Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. At least one should be available.

Like Sanders, Jeudy is a precise route-runner who also is dangerous in the open field after the catch. Unlike Sanders, Jeudy is merely 20 years old.

Ruggs is the fastest receiver in the draft — he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at the Combine. He’s much faster than Sanders, and probably would have caught Jimmy Garoppolo’s overthrown deep pass during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. Sanders couldn’t catch up to it.

Lamb is a wide receiver who moves like a running back when he has the ball in his hands, similar to Deebo Samuel. Lamb breaks tackles and makes defenders fall over and generally look silly.

All three of these wide receivers would be upgrades over Sanders.

But the 49ers also can find excellent prospects at the end of the first round. This draft has many more than just three good wide receivers.

With the 31st pick, the 49ers probably could choose between LSU’s Justin Jefferson, Clemson’s Tee Higgins and Baylor’s Denzel Mims. All three recorded more than 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches last season, and all three are big receivers with sure hands who would complement Samuel, the 49ers’ young, fast wide out who runs lots of reverses and jet sweeps.

By waiting until the 31st pick to draft a wide receiver, the 49ers could use the 13th pick on an even bigger need — cornerback. This year’s cornerback class isn’t nearly as deep as the wide receiver class, so if the 49ers wait to draft a corner, they might not find one who can play next season.

The 49ers don’t have great cornerbacks. They have great pass rushers. Last season when the rush got tired, or when it faced a mobile quarterback who could buy time, or when it faced a good offensive line, or when the officials didn’t call offensive holding penalties, the 49ers cornerbacks got exposed. Particularly in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, when Richard Sherman gave up a 38-yard catch to Sammy Watkins, and Emmanuel Moseley gave up a 44-yard catch to Tyreek Hill.

Moseley is a former undrafted free agent who has started only nine games in his career, and Sherman will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. Neither one is a definite long-term starter.

Since 2017, when Kyle Shanahan became head coach, the 49ers have drafted only three cornerbacks: Ahkello Witherspoon, D.J. Reed and Tim Harris Jr. Not a major investment in a crucial position. Meanwhile, the 49ers have drafted five wide receivers since 2017: Trent Taylor, Dante Pettis, Richie James Jr., Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd. Taylor and Hurd spent last season on the Injured Reserve List. Both could return next season and make an impact. They’re supposed to be impact players.

The 49ers don’t need to spend the 13th pick on another wide receiver. They can wait until the end of Round 1 to take a receiver, and use the 13th pick to improve a defense that just lost its best player — Buckner. That would be the shrewd move.

But whatever the 49ers decide to do in Round 1, they’ll probably get a new, young wide receiver with a future, while the Saints, if they’re lucky, get one, maybe two quality seasons out of Sanders.

Big upgrade.

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