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Secret to 49ers' rebuild? Finding mid- to late-round gems in NFL draft

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Sanders and Buckner are out; how will the 49ers look to fill those spots? (1:06)

Niners reporter Nick Wagoner offers options that San Francisco could push for with its draft picks after losing Emmanuel Sanders and DeForest Buckner this offseason. (1:06)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Three years removed from coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch's first NFL draft with the San Francisco 49ers, a simple look at their first two picks undoubtedly leaves them with feelings of frustration.

That year, the Niners spent valuable assets -- pick Nos. 3 and 31 overall -- on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster. Thomas hasn't played to expectations, and Foster couldn't hold up his end of the bargain off the field before being released six games into his second season.

Given the size of the rebuild Shanahan and Lynch were taking on, such misses could have spelled doom before the project got started.

The reason that hasn't been the case? Because Shanahan, Lynch and their respective staffs have made up for their misses by finding talent in unexpected places.

"There are plenty of players out there," Lynch said. "You know, a lot of our success has been deep in the draft, and I'm very confident in our ability to do that. Like, there's a number of reasons as to why we've been successful. And I think, each and every year, I think we get better. We want to continue to do that."

Despite not coming away with the foundational players they hoped for in the first round of their first draft (or rounds two through four, for that matter), the Niners managed did get one of the league's best all-around players in tight end George Kittle. They found him in the fifth round with pick No. 146 overall.

It wasn't just Kittle, either, as they landed starting defensive tackle D.J. Jones in the sixth round and running back Matt Breida and receiver Kendrick Bourne as undrafted free agents.

In the two years since, the 49ers have gotten better in the early part of the draft, selecting long-term building blocks such as end Nick Bosa, receiver Deebo Samuel, linebacker Fred Warner and tackle Mike McGlinchey in the first three rounds. But they've also continued to bolster the roster deep into the draft.

The final four rounds of the 2018 and 2019 drafts and undrafted free agency yielded players such as linebacker Dre Greenlaw (fifth round, '19), tackle Justin Skule (sixth round, '19), cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (undrafted, '18), tight end Ross Dwelley (undrafted, '18), safety Marcell Harris (sixth round, '18) and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (undrafted '19). All started at least four games in 2019.

Last season, the 49ers got 9,768 snaps from players drafted in rounds four through seven or who went undrafted. Of those, 4,108 of them came from players the Niners drafted in those rounds or signed as undrafted free agents. The former group includes players who pre-dated Shanahan and Lynch as well as outside signings who flew under the radar. Running back Raheem Mostert, cornerback K'Waun Williams, offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill (found in the Alliance of American Football) and defensive lineman Ronald Blair III are in that category.

While it remains to be seen how big these players' roles will be moving forward, they all played some part in helping the Niners reach Super Bowl LIV and have valuable experience that allows Shanahan and Lynch to trust them to contribute in the future. That's the type of depth needed to build a championship roster.

"The fact that some of these guys we drafted look like they're foundational players and it's always nice when you can pick up an undrafted guy and they become [good]," Lynch said. "That’s where you make hay in this league and you want to supplement with free agency, but we really want to be a team that drafts and finds players in different [ways]. But you know we've shown that we'll do it any way."

The credit can be spread out across the coaching staff and the personnel staff. Shanahan and his coaches have made it clear to Lynch and his staff what they are looking for. Since most players taken in later rounds are often drafted based on what they can become, the personnel staff is able to seek out traits that could be developed.

Now, more than ever, having the ability to identify and develop late-round talent is paramount for the 49ers. Because they have drafted many of their top players, they are in position to hand out lucrative contracts to keep them. While that's a good problem to have, it also puts constraints on the salary cap, which is why the Niners were mostly quiet in free agency and had to make the difficult decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

That means finding gems late in the draft, or even after it's over, is the best and most cost-effective way to replenish the roster.

"[It's] probably the direction we need to go now because things are tightening up is we really have to start becoming a team that relies on the draft, and we'll get there," Lynch said. "This year, some of those resources were decimated, but I think it's worth it."

As the Niners approach this draft, they aren't teeming with draft picks to restock the depth chart. As it stands, they have seven picks -- two in the first round (Nos. 13 and 31), two in the fifth round, one in the sixth and two in the seventh -- and none in the middle rounds. While it's likely the 49ers will trade down at least once with one of their top two picks, they will need to be on their game in the late rounds once again.

Chances are, they'll need at least one of those picks to produce next season.

"There’s so many examples on this team of guys that weren’t drafted and all that," Lynch said. "We clearly have emphasized that. Kyle says often, his dad had the same philosophy, 'I don't care if you were drafted, where you were drafted, how you were drafted.' So, we've given guys that opportunity."