In a not-so-hard-to-imagine alternate universe, the San Francisco 49ers would already have the dominant outside pass rusher their defense so clearly needs.
Two years ago, the Niners found themselves in position to land the top pick for a few brief hours in Week 16. Earlier in the day, the Cleveland Browns had knocked off the (then) San Diego Chargers, picking up their first win of the season and opening the door for the one-win Niners to claim the tiebreaker and have a shot at Texas A&M edge-rusher Myles Garrett.
But a late win over the Rams dropped San Francisco down a spot.
With the No. 2 pick, the Niners traded down one spot with the Bears and selected defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. General manager John Lynch acknowledged after the first round that Garrett had been the top player on the Niners' board but they had no shot to select him. Garrett has since emerged as a force with 12.5 sacks this season, tied for third in the league.
Now, the 49ers are projected to have the No. 2 overall pick according to FPI, but it's close. Another win from the Arizona Cardinals would likely put San Francisco back on top.
That would finally give them the chance to secure the top edge-rusher in a draft that appears to be heavy on options. April is still months away but there are several scenarios for the 49ers at or near the top of the draft.
If the 49ers pick first...
As it stands, this is the most likely scenario for the 49ers. With remaining games against playoff-caliber teams in the Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, it remains difficult to find another win on the schedule.
Assuming the Niners land the top pick, they would be able to have their choice of players in a class ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay says has "so many good players and so many good defensive linemen." According to McShay, the class boasts variety in terms of the skills of those defensive linemen, but the Niners don't need interior rushers.
What they need is a "Leo" defensive end capable of bending the edge and making DeForest Buckner's life a bit easier. And if that's the case and the Niners are picking first, McShay sees one player standing above the rest: Ohio State's Nick Bosa.
"... If you’re looking for an edge-rusher, I don’t think it’s close," McShay said. "I really don’t... He’s just like his brother. He knows how to play with leverage. He rushes half a man, meaning he doesn’t ever get caught up trying to go head to head with an offensive tackle if he knows he’s pass rushing. He works the right side or the left side or works inside out and he’s slippery. Then at the end of the day he has a motor that doesn’t quit, just like Joey."
McShay acknowledged that Nick Bosa’s interviews and team meetings could leave some reservation, but teams had similar concerns coming out of those pre-draft meetings with Joey Bosa when he went No. 3 to the Chargers in 2016.
"When you watch the tape, who cares what they’re like in the interview room and if they don’t fit that typical personality," McShay said. "They’re guys who show up every week and give maximum effort and they just know what they’re doing from a technique standpoint. I think he’s NFL ready. I really do."
What about a trade?
With the importance of quarterbacks in the league and the value of a productive signal-caller on a rookie contract, teams become increasingly unafraid to make bold moves up the board to take a QB.
Given the amount of needs the 49ers have, particularly on defense, a package of premium picks would undoubtedly be tempting. Traditionally, though, those offers come only if there's an obvious top quarterback to select. As it stands, Oregon's Justin Herbert is the early favorite to be the top quarterback in this draft, though it remains to be seen if he will even declare for the draft.
And, only a handful of teams slated to pick in the top part of the first round seem to have an obvious need at the position.
A move down would almost certainly remove the Niners from the mix for Bosa, especially since current projections don't have teams in need of a quarterback until you get into the five or six range with the likes of the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I could see a team maybe trading up to five or six to get ahead of the Giants, but where San Francisco is likely to be picking, I don’t think that they’re going to end up getting a huge payday for it," McShay said.
If the 49ers pick elsewhere in the top five...
There's still a chance the Niners do make a slight move down or that they win a game or two that takes them out of the running for the first pick and, likely, for Bosa.
If that happens, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver will likely come off the board early. The same is true for Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, who is more of an edge setter than an edge-rusher. Assuming a scenario in which Bosa is off the board, the Niners would have other options at edge-rusher, as well as some intriguing cornerback and linebacker prospects.
Clemson end Clelin Ferrell is next on the list of edge-rushers, but he's not in the same tier as Bosa or Gary, according to McShay. Kentucky's Josh Allen would be another intriguing option who could provide pass rush from the SAM linebacker spot or even play LEO as he gets bigger and develops. McShay sees Allen and Ferrell likely landing more in the range of seven to 10 than in the top five.
The better options now, according to McShay, come at cornerback or linebacker. LSU corner Greedy Williams is the "best cover corner in this year's class," according to McShay. At 6-foot-3, 184 pounds, Williams would be an easy fit into the Niners' scheme. McShay ranks him the second best prospect in the draft behind Bosa.
Short of that, LSU linebacker Devin White is another top-five prospect who could fit as the WILL linebacker next to Fred Warner and give the Niners a pair of sideline-to-sideline-type, run-and-hit linebackers.
Clearly, there's still a long way to go between now and the draft, and free agency will go a long way in shaping needs. But whether the Niners pick first or not, one thing seems to be clear: if they pick in the top three to five spots of the draft, they'll have no shortage of strong options at positions of need.