SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Before San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch decided to step out of the broadcast booth and into his new job, he wanted to be sure plugging the leaks out of Santa Clara was a reasonable goal.
It’s why Lynch’s candidacy for the job was shrouded in secrecy and, as we head toward Thursday night’s NFL draft, the purpose of that so-called strategic transparency the Niners have adopted under Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan has become more obvious.
At this late stage of draft season, the first few picks are usually fairly easy to decipher. But that’s not the case this year, especially in San Francisco, where the 49ers hold the No. 2 overall pick.
Even as the Cleveland Browns reportedly debate the merits of Texas A&M pass-rusher Myles Garrett and North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the Niners’ draft plans have been extremely difficult to nail down.
Make no mistake, that’s by design.
“I’m proud of the process,” Lynch said. “I’m proud of the discipline. There’s a lot of people and a lot of assumptions being made. I feel real confident that those are exactly that — assumptions — because nothing has left this building. It’s that time of year.”
The Niners’ ability to operate in relative secrecy and keep pundits guessing at such a lofty spot in the draft order is the product of three things.
First and foremost, it’s the result of Lynch’s no leaks edict. After he was hired, Lynch admitted in a radio interview that he asked the Niners to keep his candidacy for the job quiet. He wanted to see if the 49ers could keep things buttoned up, knowing there are times to be open and honest and times (such as the draft) to keep everything within the walls of Levi’s Stadium.
It was a test the Niners passed, and after Lynch agreed to come on board, he made it clear he wanted to be as transparent as he could without giving away competitive secrets. Lynch has been readily available to media in the run-up to the draft and has publicly acknowledged visits with prospects, evaluated a number of players he has been asked about and regularly offered philosophical ideas on how the Niners intend to rebuild. He even started a personal Twitter account which he has used a few times to confirm signings of free agents or moves the team has made.
Despite the rampant speculation about what the Niners might do with the No. 2 pick, Lynch has comfortably gone to sleep at night in the belief that any rumors about the team’s plans have not come from within the building.
“I use the word assumptions,” Lynch said. “It’s what people do. They try to gather [intel], but I know that, I don’t know obviously, but like I said, I think the discipline out of this building’s been excellent. And so, I think that’s what they are, they’re assumptions rather than, I think in each situation it says sources. I don’t know who those sources are because there’s only a few people that know, and so we feel real good about that.”
Even if one wanted to make an educated guess as to the Niners’ plans — and there are many, present company included, who have tried — it’s a task made all the more difficult by the fact that Lynch and Shanahan have no track record running a draft. Some teams have a reputation for valuing upside, others focus more on production. Some teams believe you shouldn’t draft certain positions early and can find help at that spot later on. The examples are endless, unless you’re trying to figure out the 49ers.
Sure, Shanahan has coached long enough that some ideas are likely to carry over in his first draft. For example, it would be a surprise if the 49ers took LSU running back Leonard Fournette with the second pick considering the Shanahan family’s long and storied history of turning late-round or undrafted running backs into stars.
But even that can’t be completely ruled out because Lynch adds an even more unpredictable element as the guy in charge after never working in a personnel department. Adding more intrigue is just how the decision will be made if the Niners don’t come to a consensus.
“I’m not trying to cop out, but it’s going to be collective,” Lynch said. “Kyle and I made a commitment early on that we’re going to come into this thing, and we figured out our own way to have our tiebreaker. It’s not something that we’ve just kind of put aside, and come Thursday night like, ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘I don’t know. What do you want to do?’ We’ve got a plan. I can tell you that.”
The final part of the equation is a draft that doesn’t appear to have many obvious choices at the top. Aside from Garrett, some scouts believe there’s not much separation between the next 10-12 players in terms of talent. Because of the Niners’ lengthy list of needs, there’s legitimately not a position outside of special teams that can be completely ruled out in trying to figure out which direction they’ll go. So while names such as Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore and LSU safety Jamal Adams have been consistently linked to the Niners, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Lynch and Shanahan throw a curveball with their first pick.
For now, Lynch is comfortable enough to say the Niners have narrowed it down to two or three options. Until the Niners announce the name of that first-round pick, that’s likely to be the most definitive declaration he provides.
“I think we tried to create an environment that’s collaborative, where people can be confident in sharing their opinions, and we had strong opinions, and they didn’t always agree, but we’ve gotten to a point where there’s consensus,” Lynch said. “Ultimately, it will be Kyle and I together making those decisions.”