SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Even now, one day short of five years since the San Francisco 49ers selected him in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft, linebacker Fred Warner can still rattle off the questions teams and draft pundits had about him.

Some thought Warner didn’t have a position, noting he was too small for linebacker but not fast enough for safety. Warner quickly learned that his draft position — No. 70 overall — was of little consequence. Soon after he got to the Niners, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh offered him a piece of advice he hasn’t forgot.

“I think the important thing to always remember is it doesn’t matter where you’re drafted or even undrafted once you arrive on a team, it’s all about what you do going forward,” Warner said. “I was told early on by Coach Saleh that you hold the pen to your story. Whatever you want your legacy to be, you are in full control of that every single day that you step on the facility grounds and especially on the field. But you never let somebody else hold the pen for you.”

In Niners-land, Warner’s ascent from mid-round curiosity to starter to All-Pro is far from a foreign concept.

In fact, the Niners’ star-studded roster is loaded with players drafted in Rounds 3-7 — or even undrafted — who have grown into everything from key contributors to Pro Bowlers. Among those found in the final five rounds beyond Warner are fourth-round guard Spencer Burford and punter Mitch Wishnowsky, fifth-round selections such as tight end George Kittle, safety Talanoa Hufanga, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and linebacker Dre Greenlaw, sixth-round running back Elijah Mitchell and seventh-round quarterback Brock Purdy and receiver Jauan Jennings.

Thanks to that track record of late-round success the 49ers enter this year’s NFL draft with plenty of confidence they’ll be able to fortify a roster that could use depth and competition all over despite having no picks in the first or second round. Barring a trade up, the Niners won’t make a pick until the end of the third round, No. 99 overall.

Trading up could happen, because San Francisco has 11 picks and likely doesn’t have room for all of them on the 53-man roster in September. But they also don’t mind the idea of throwing as many darts as possible in hopes they can find more mid- to late-round gems.

“I’m always an optimist with the way I look at things, but I think this isn’t just being optimistic, I think it’s a reality,” general manager John Lynch said. “If you ask what are the themes of this draft, I think one of them is the quality of depth. I think that sets up well for our first pick being at 99, then having 11 of them.”

Lynch isn’t alone in that assessment. ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid concurs.

“This draft class doesn’t have the high-end star power nor is it full of instant-impact players like we saw last year,” Reid said. “For teams that are looking to build depth, though, this class is tailor-made for them because of the depth in the middle rounds. The likelihood is very high for finding contributors even if it doesn’t happen immediately during their first season.”

Therein lies the rub. While the Niners lost 12 players to other teams in free agency and kicker Robbie Gould remains available, they don’t have any obvious openings in the starting lineup. Right tackle, right guard, strongside linebacker and kicker could host competitions and quarterback could be up for grabs if Purdy isn’t healthy, but the Niners might be better served to opt for the best available players with an eye toward the future.

In recent seasons, San Francisco has drafted the likes of Hufanga and guard Aaron Banks knowing that if they didn’t start immediately they could step in when starters inevitably depart in free agency. Defensive end Drake Jackson, last year’s second-round pick, and right tackle Colton McKivitz, a fifth-round choice in 2020, will get a shot to do that this season.

“We’re excited to know that there are some times, especially with this roster, a lot of spots are filled,” Lynch said. “We’re always going to add to that and add competition. And sometimes it is, yeah, we could see this guy being a starter in Year 2, but we like drafting players we believe can go play right now. And is that more difficult when your first pick is at 99? Sure. Is that more difficult with a roster that’s constructed like ours where a lot of the spots are somewhat spoken for? Sure, but we want to continue to add players who add to the competition.”

Given those realities, drafting the best player available truly is the best approach.

That’s not to say the 49ers don’t have positional priorities, though. Among the spots the Niners could use competition, need to plan for the future or both: offensive tackle, defensive end, tight end, wide receiver, cornerback, free safety and kicker.

While Jackson is in line to step into the starting defensive end role left behind by Samson Ebukam, the opportunity to add more could be appealing. Reid pointed to TCU’s Dylan Horton, Missouri’s Isaiah McGuire, Louisville’s YaYa Diaby and USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu as mid-round options who could make sense in a position group he considers one of the deepest in the draft.

Along with defensive end, Reid also sees wide receiver as a position where value could be had. Wideout is something of a sneaky need for the Niners with Brandon Aiyuk coming due for a new contract soon and the difficulty they’ll have in being able to afford both he and Deebo Samuel on big-money deals. Likewise, Jennings is set to be a restricted free agent and Ray-Ray McCloud an unrestricted free agent in 2024. Ole Miss’ Jonathan Mingo, Michigan State’s Jayden Reed and Stanford’s Michael Wilson are among the wideouts Reid could see with San Francisco.

At offensive tackle, the Niners have McKivitz and Jaylon Moore among in-house candidates to step in for departed right tackle Mike McGlinchey but another contender and/or a possible long-term replacement for left tackle Trent Williams could be on the shopping list. Old Dominion’s Nick Saldiveri, Alabama’s Tyler Steen and Oklahoma’s Wanya Morris made Reid’s list of 49ers fits, though he also pointed to BYU’s Blake Freeland, Maryland’s Jaelyn Duncan and Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron as intriguing trade-up options should they fall into San Francisco’s striking distance.

Tight end might be the position the 49ers covet most given the need for someone to spell Kittle and, eventually, replace him. The Niners have hosted a handful of tight ends on pre-draft visits, with South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft, Michigan’s Luke Schoonmaker, Old Dominion’s Zack Kuntz, Central Michigan’s Joel Wilson, Baylor’s Ben Sims, Alabama’s Cameron Latu, Oklahoma’s Brayden Willis and Penn State’s Brenton Strange all expected to be available into days two and three.

Some other players who could be a match for the 49ers, according to Reid: cornerbacks Darius Rush (South Carolina), Rejzohn Wright (Oregon State) and Cameron Mitchell (Northwestern), safeties Jartavius Martin (Illinois), Ji’Ayir Brown (Penn State) and Christopher Smith (Georgia) and kickers Jake Moody (Michigan), Chad Ryland (Maryland) and Christopher Dunn (NC State). And yes, it’s worth keeping an eye out for another possible late-round flier at quarterback such as UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson or TCU’s Max Duggan.

Regardless of which direction they go, the Niners believe they’ll again strike gold with at least some of their picks. Lynch points to collaboration and attention to detail in scouting players who specifically fit their locker room and scheme as reasons for past success in finding talent in the later rounds.

“We aren’t perfect,” Lynch said. “We’ve had our share of misses but I’m proud of our track record and hopefully, that continues because we got a lot right there this year.”

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Middle to late rounds have been 49ers’ NFL draft sweet spot – ESPN – San Francisco 49ers Blog