So when it came to the draft, the defending NFC champion Niners were happy to be able to fill those holes by getting two of the half-dozen players they targeted.
The 49ers made a pair of trades Thursday night, moving down one spot to take defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw at No. 14 and then up six spots to take receiver Brandon Aiyuk 25th.
»We’ve emptied the tank a little today,» general manager John Lynch said. »We never thought there’d be a scenario where we could grab Kinlaw and then still have an opportunity to get one of those six guys I talked about the other day.»
The picks help the defending NFC champions fill two big holes created last month when Buckner was traded to Indianapolis and Sanders left in free agency.
The Niners dealt the 13th pick they acquired from Indianapolis for Buckner along with a seventh-rounder to Tampa Bay for the 14th pick and a fourth-round selection.
They then drafted Buckner’s replacement in Kinlaw and packaged the fourth-rounder along with one of their fifth-round picks to move up from No. 31 and get Minnesota’s second-round pick.
They then selected the versatile Aiyuk, who can play in the slot or outside and also has had success as a returner.
»We added two guys here today that without a doubt are starting caliber players who will make the team better, who are going to be contributors on their first contracts for a long time,» coach Kyle Shanahan said. »That will really help us in free agency next year and in the draft next year.»
Buckner was set to be a free agent next season and he got an $84 million, four-year extension from the Colts to stay off the market. San Francisco used the money it saved to keep defensive lineman Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward and now has a defensive tackle as well.
This pick follows a pattern for the 49ers, who took a defensive lineman in the first round for the fifth time in the last six drafts. Some of those players, like 2019 No. 2 pick Nick Bosa, Buckner and Armstead, played a big role in San Francisco’s success last season that led to a Super Bowl appearance.
Shanahan and Lynch once again opted to build out from the trenches by taking South Carolina’s Kinlaw, who is a physical mismatch at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds with athleticism that can overwhelm interior linemen.
»It’s really tough to win if you don’t have that d-line or that defense. That was our goal before we came here. Last year that really showed,» Shanahan said. »When you have that top defense, I think it’s easier to manufacture it on offense. Not many people manufacture it on defense. That defense better be more talented than almost everyone they’re going against.»
Kinlaw is viewed as the best interior pass rushing prospect even though he only had 11 1/2 sacks his final two years at South Carolina. But he had 39 QB pressures this season, according to SportsInfo Solutions, despite playing out of position at nose tackle for more than one-third of his snaps.
With D.J. Jones expected to handle that role in San Francisco, Kinlaw will be free to get into the backfield more, rather than tie up blockers, and should thrive on a line that also has Bosa, Armstead and Dee Ford.
»Just a physical presence,» Kinlaw said about what he adds. »Another physical, dominating presence attached with three more? You can’t ask for nothing better than that. I feel like I can come in and play a vital role.»
Aiyuk had a breakthrough season in 2019 for Arizona State with 65 catches for 1,192 yards and eight TDs. He had only 33 catches for 474 yards in his first season with the Sun Devils after playing in junior college as 2019 New England first-rounder N’Keal Harry was the focal point of the passing game.
»This offense is crazy with Kittle and Deebo and Kendrick Bourne,» Aiyuk said. »Coach Shanahan is a great offensive coordinator and moves people around. He manufactured touches for Deebo last year and gets everyone involved. I’m excited to get added to that offense.»
The 49ers currently have no picks on Friday but are looking to trade receiver Marquise Goodwin for draft capital. San Francisco has picks in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.
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