The 49ers played extremely well to finish last season, but they still are a one- or two-win team without their quarterback.
They need more talent.
And they play in the same division as the LA Rams, who may have the most talented roster in the NFL. The Rams won 11 games last season, and just added Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh, and are trying to trade for Odell Beckham Jr. Four Pro Bowlers.
The Niners also play in the same division as the Arizona Cardinals, who won eight games last season without their star running back — David Johnson. He’s healthy now.
And the Niners play in the same conference as the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons — four terrific teams who could compete with the Niners for a wild card spot if the Niners don’t win the NFC West.
The Niners better crush the upcoming draft, or they could miss the playoffs next season. That’s where they stand.
These are the challenges the 49ers will face in the draft.
Challenge No. 1: Don’t take another Pac-12 defensive tackle in the first round.
In 2015, the Niners drafted Oregon defensive tackle Arik Armstead with the 17th pick. Then in 2016, they drafted Oregon defensive tackle DeForest Buckner with the seventh pick. And then in 2017, they drafted Stanford defensive tackle Solomon Thomas with the third pick.
Enough already. The 49ers don’t need a fourth defensive tackle from the Pac-12, a notably soft conference. How many great defensive lineman have come from the Pac 12?
This year, one of the highest-rated prospects in the draft is Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea. The Niners conceivably could take him with the ninth pick.
And if they do, they should fire GM John Lynch on the spot.
Don’t do it, John. Resist the urge.
Challenge No. 2. Don’t overreact to what the Rams did in the offseason.
This one could be difficult. The Rams separated themselves from the rest of the NFC West with their maneuvers this offseason, and the natural response for the Niners would be to counter those moves.
The Rams have arguably the two best defensive tackles in the NFL — Suh and Aaron Donald. And the 49ers don’t have one interior offensive lineman talented enough to block either of those two.
So, the Niners may think they have to draft an interior offensive lineman in the first round who can match up with Suh or Donald.
Other than maybe one guy (Quenton Nelson, who will be a top-six pick and out of the 49ers range), no rookie offensive lineman will be able to block Suh or Donald next season. Even veteran All-Pros struggle against Suh and Donald. The 49ers will have to make special accommodations to block those two, often double-teaming both of them, no matter who is playing guard and center.
Forget drafting an interior offensive lineman in Round 1. Draft the best available defensive player. The 49ers defense ranked 24th last season.
Challenge No. 3. Draft a leader for the defense.
The 49ers don’t have a defensive leader. Reuben Foster doesn’t count — he can’t stay on the field. And Richard Sherman doesn’t count, either — he’s old and injured. He has to prove he still can play before his peers will follow him anywhere.