Kudos to Mike Sando - he works for some outfit called ESPN - for pointing out today something that's been in front of our noses all along but hasn't been fully articulated until now. The 49ers' 14 draft picks this year are valuable not just for filling current holes on the roster but for plugging future ones as well.
Sando notes that several big-name starters - such as Justin Smith and Donte Whitner - are under contract for just one more season. As Dashon Goldson's situation this month illustrates, the 49ers won't be able to hold onto everyone in coming years, especially with a potential mega deal for Colin Kaepernick on the horizon. That's why having 14 draft picks is such a boon to the 49ers right now and so crucial to sustaining success. It gives them the ability to plan for the future with relatively cheap labor.
Here are players scheduled to become free agents in 2014 along with some potential replacements in the draft. The 49ers also are likely to parlay some of the picks this year into even higher picks next year.
* WR Anquan Boldin. He said he'd be interested in extending his contract. If the 49ers are looking for another physical, big-bodied wide receiver in the draft, the best one is located up the road in Berkeley: Keenan Allen.
* CBs Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock. In my view, Brown, 28, has been the most consistently good cornerback on the team over the last two seasons. Brock, who currently is a restricted free agent, always has been a favorite of GM Trent Baalke. The team has been looking at cornerbacks both in free agency, Nnamdi Asomugha, and the draft, David Amerson, Tyrann Mathieu, B.W. Webb among others. That is, it's a safe bet the 49ers will add at least one more cornerback to the mix by April 27.
* K Phil Dawson. He was perhaps the league's best kicker last season, and the 49ers added him for another run to the Super Bowl. But he's also 38, and the lesson from David Akers' two years in San Francisco is that veteran kickers can go down hill rapidly. Which is why it might be wise to draft a rookie at the position and stash him on the practice squad this year.
* C Jonathan Goodwin. At this point, it doesn't seem like the 49ers would re-sign Goodwin, 34, because there are younger, cheaper and - thus far - underutilized alternatives on the roster in Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney. It would be a mild surprise if the 49ers took any offensive linemen early in the draft.
* WRs Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. Both receivers are recovering from late-season ACL tears. Williams' recovery is ahead of Manningham's. The latter won't be ready for the start of training camp and he is a candidate for the PUP list to start the season. The team spent a first-round pick on a player with a similar body type, A.J. Jenkins, last year and the hope is that he can take over that role. The team also will have West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin, perhaps the most explosive offensive player in the draft, in for a visit. Austin has return-man skills. If he's not their target, they could take another potential punt returner, say Michigan's Denard Robinson, later in the draft.
* DE Justin Smith. Smith said last year that he only planned to play two or three more seasons. If the 49ers were going to pool together some of their picks and move up in the first round, this would seem to be the position to target. Missouri's Sheldon Richardson has all the physical traits the 49ers like in their defensive linemen (and Missouri has been very good to the 49ers defense), but can the 49ers leap far enough ahead to get him? North Carolina's Sylvester Williams, UCLA's Datone Jones and SMU's Margus Hunt are other possibilities.
QB Scott Tolzien (RFA). Tolzien will be a restricted free agent at this time next year and the 49ers will retain him if they want to. The 49ers want to be like the Eagles under Andy Reid - able to bring in young quarterbacks that they can mold and potentially trade for more draft picks. As far as possible draft picks at quarterback - remember, Jim Harbaugh likes athleticism but cherishes a competitive nature even more. Arizona's Matt Scott and Kansas State's Collin Klein jump out as mid- to late-round possibilities.
S Donte Whitner. Whitner is the brains of the operation in the secondary. The fact that he's signed only for one more season means that most of the players listed as potential heirs to Goldson's safety spot - Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman, etc. - potentially could be looked at as future replacements for Whitner as well. It also reinforces the notion that the 49ers will take a safety in the draft with one of their first few picks. LSU's Eric Reid, Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien and Florida's Matt Elam are all on the table.
TE Delanie Walker. Walker, of course, departed via free agency this year, and the 49ers are likely to replace him in the draft. I've heard that the team has shown a "strong interest" in Cincinnati's Travis Kelce, who is one of the best blockers in this year's draft.
- Matt Barrows