The 2023 NFL offseason is officially up and running. Many free agents already signed their new deals with their teams, picturing a shape of what the league will look like in 2023. Now, all eyes are on the 2023 NFL Draft at the end of the month. Teams such as the San Francisco 49ers should be very active in the next few weeks before making any final decision on draft night.
In 2022, San Francisco was one of the most pleasant surprises in the league. The 49ers managed to reach the NFC Championship Game despite playing with third-string quarterback and Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy. Combining the regular season and playoffs, they had a 12-game winning streak that was only snapped by the Philadelphia Eagles in the conference title game.
With hopes of going further in 2023, the front office made some big moves. Most notably, the Niners signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract after having 11 sacks with the Eagles last season.
While the 49ers have 11 picks in this year's draft, none of them are in the first two rounds. Because of that, the front office might have a tougher challenge to find players who can contribute right away. Still, after the experience with Purdy, a late pick could provide great results.
With that being said, here are three sleeper prospects for the San Francisco 49ers to target in the 2023 NFL Draft.
3. Darius Rush, CB – South Carolina
One area where the team needs to improve this offseason is the secondary. San Francisco lost Emmanuel Moseley, Tarvarius Moore and Jimmie Ward in free agency, so the unit suffered key losses.
Without them, the Niners might go with a defensive back with one of their first picks of the draft. One name that emerges as a possibility is Darius Rush out of South Carolina.
In the 2022 season, the cornerback had 38 total tackles with 28 of them being solo. He also had seven pass breakups, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
With his help, the Gamecocks ranked No. 27 in the nation on defensive passing efficiency at 121.76, according to NCAA.com. For comparison, South Carolina finished ahead of TCU and LSU in that category, both top-10 programs in the final poll.
Although most of the attention is going to likely first-round pick Cam Smith, Rush also deserves some praise. His experience as a defender and on special teams could be very helpful down the line. Additionally, with experience as a wide receiver in high school, he could be a threat when battling against opponents for the ball.
2. Steve Avila, OL – TCU
After starting the season unranked, TCU managed to finish the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record. The Horned Frogs lost in the Big 12 Championship Game but still made the College Football Playoff, beating Michigan in the semifinals before being blown out by Georgia in the National Championship Game.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, TCU's campaign was one for the record books.
One of the biggest reasons for the team’s success was its offense. With offensive lineman Steve Avila protecting quarterback and Heisman runner-up Max Duggan, TCU was one of only two teams in the nation averaging at least 270 passing yards per game, 200 rushing and having at least 30 passing and 30 rushing touchdowns, excluding the bowl season. Avila did not allow a single sack in 477 pass-blocking snaps prior to the CFP.
For his performance, Avila was a consensus All-American offensive lineman. He also earned a First-Team All-Big 12 selection and an honorable mention for Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year.
With the ability to play center, right and left guard, Avila could become a valuable piece for the 49ers. He could be a contributor right away and should be available in the third round.
1. Darnell Washington, TE – Georgia
Finally, another position that the 49ers should address via draft is tight end. All-Pro George Kittle finished the year with 765 receiving yards and a team-best 11 touchdowns. On the other hand, the rest of the tight end group combined for 162 yards and no scores.
Because of that, San Francisco could try to find a TE2 in the draft. One player the team should consider is Darnell Washington out of Georgia.
In his third and final season with the Bulldogs, he recorded 28 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns. He ended up playing an important role as Georgia won back-to-back national championships.
For his performance in 2022, Washington was a Second-Team All-SEC player.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan often utilizes the 12 personnel on offense, which includes two tight ends. He mostly had fullback Kyle Juszczyk pairing with Kittle. By adding Washington, Shanahan would have a natural tight end as an offensive weapon.
All things considered, Washington is a sleeper prospect that San Francisco should seriously consider. He addresses a major need and has big-game experience from his time with Georgia, so he could be more prepared to contribute than other players in the 2023 draft.
Even though he is projected to go in the first round, if there is one player that the 49ers should consider trading up for on Day 1, it is Washington.