Michigan's Will Campbell is one scary physical specimen.
We highlighted two mid- to lower-round players at each skill position, including quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver.
Now it’s time to move to the defensive side of the ball.
Quick note to the incredulous masses: Yes, the Super Bowl-contending 49ers boast the league’s No. 3 total defense. And yes, they have the majority of their starters locked into long-term contracts.
But scouting for future prospects is a never-ending, and fully necessary process. The East-West Shrine game, while lacking in big-name glamour, is an important part of identifying NFL contributors down the line.
Let’s begin with some NFL hopefuls operating in the trenches and transition through each level until highlighting safeties on the back end.
Note: The game is scheduled for Saturday, January 19 at 4 p.m. ET. Live action at Tropicana Field can be seen on NFL Network.
Josh Boyd says, "I. Don't. Think. So."
Josh Boyd, Mississippi State
6’3’’, 310 Pounds, 4.96-Second 40
Let’s put it this way: If you were 310 pounds, we can guarantee that Boyd would beat you in the 40-yard dash—and by a considerable amount at that.
The former Mississippi State Bulldog played on the interior of the defensive line. He excelled against the run, totaling 76 tackles and 15.5 behind the line of scrimmage between 2010 and 2011.
Boyd utilizes an incredible burst, effective hand placement, a powerful lower body and overall quickness. Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting observed some of these traits during the first portion of East-West practices.
The problem, unfortunately, is Boyd’s work as a pass-rusher.
After recording a career-high 4.5 sacks in 2011, he notched just 1.5 this season. CBS Sports’ Rob Rang cites Boyd’s limited pass-rush repertoire (arm-over swim move) and propensity to play down to inferior opponents for this drop off.
It appears that Boyd must have been listening.
Take a gander at what Steve Muench of Scouts, Inc. detailed about Boyd’s performance on Day 3:
[He] had a great day, showing a variety of pass-rush moves in one-on-one drills. He won with power, worked inside-out and outside-in, and used his hands and feet well when setting up blockers.
He put forth an equally strong performance the following day as well. The nimble 310-pounder displayed above average footwork and use of his hands, not to mention strength at the point of attack.
These skills will buttress his pass-rushing capabilities at the next level. He may very well develop into more of a complete player if given proper coaching in the NFL.
Knowing the 49ers defensive staff, Boyd seems a good fit on the interior for a unit that dominates opposing run games, an idea I postulated in a previous mock draft.
Plus, teams can never have a surplus of fresh bodies manning the trenches.
Will Campbell, Michigan
6’5’’, 318 Pounds, 5.19-Second 40
Unrealized potential isn’t generally a term people of all walks of life like being associated with their names.
Enter: Will Campbell, defensive lineman, Michigan.
Campbell is a ferocious physical specimen that would scare the pants off just about anyone in close proximity, including battle-tested gridiron warriors.
Just don’t include anyone within close range of his career stat sheet.
Campbell accrued just 63 tackles (five for loss) and three sacks in his four years at Ann Arbor. If it weren’t for his All-Big Ten nomination in 2012, observers would have difficulty understanding his amazing natural skill set.
Yet, there’s also a flip side to this heretofore negative evaluation.
Per B/R’s wise NFL scribe Michael Schottey, coaches love them some naturally talented, blank-slate-type players:
Campbell can play either tackle position in a 4-3 and anywhere on the line in a 3-4. He's big and athletic, and some defensive line coach is going to climb up on the table demanding that he be the one to mold him.
Now enter 49ers DL coach Jim Tomsula.
Tomsula has worked wonders with the unit up front. San Francisco has ranked in the top 10 (mostly top five) in yards per carry allowed in all six years of his tenure.
(We’ll refrain from going into the litany of defensive accomplishments attributed to Tomsula’s leadership.)
Why not throw him another potential run-stuffing weapon in the 6’5’’, 310-pound Campbell, especially as a late-round or free-agent acquisition?
The Michigan lineman will surely be under the watchful eye of 49ers scouts in the Saturday East-West matchup.
Taylor's (No. 98) powerful arms enabled this tackle pictured above.
Note: These two selections played defensive end in college. If taken by the 49ers, however, they would convert to outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
David Bass, Missouri Western State
6’4’’, 263 Pounds, 4.76-Second 40
We’ll just end the silliness right there.
Bass destroyed his Division II foes for the entirety of an illustrious four-year career. He set a school record with 56 tackles for loss and tied another MWS record with 39.5 total sacks.
He demonstrated that productivity in practice this week as well. Per CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler (via NFLDraftScout.com):
He didn't look out of place with the quickness and hand strength to defeat blocks and find his way to the ball-carrier. Bass has room to refine his pass rush moves to be more effective, but he flashed in practice why he was able to be so productive in college.
Eric Galco added that Bass was “the most consistently dominating defender all week” (h/t OptimumScouting.com).
The Gene Upshaw D-II Lineman of the Year finalist is a menacing force with blazing speed. He played defensive end in college but projects as a lethal pass-rushing OLB in a 3-4 system.
Better yet, he’s also being compared to a current 49er with an equal obsession for living in the backfield and owning the lives of opposing quarterbacks.
See: Aldon Smith, 6’4’’, 258 pounds, 4.74-second 40
While Smith played at D-I Missouri, both are similarly freakish athletes who manned the DE position. They utilize their length, quickness and sheer strength when relentlessly pursuing the opposition’s ball-carriers.
San Francisco’s coaching staff clearly worked magic in Smith’s conversion to outside backer. There isn’t any reason why it couldn’t do so again with an athlete who produced bigger numbers at the collegiate level.
No matter if Bass doesn’t blossom to the full extent of Smith’s status as a three-down linebacker. Pure pass-rushers are becoming one of the most important positions on the field in a pass-happy NFL.
We’ll leave you with a You Tube clip of this gridiron mega-beast.
Devin Taylor, South Carolina
6’7’’, 275 Pounds, 4.79-Second 40
Taylor’s physical traits would seem commensurate, if not superior to the defensive end before him.
His cumulative statistics at South Carolina would also place him near the conversation, notably with his 35.5 TFL, nine pass breakups and two interception-return touchdowns.
However, Taylor is another example of unrealized talent thrown into the lot of generally inferior players at the East-West Shrine Game.
His production fell off the board considerably following a stellar sophomore campaign. Aside from total tackles, all categories experienced a statistical decline.
Most disconcerting was the fact that Taylor played opposite superstar talent Jadeveon Clowney. Rob Rang notes that he simply played too stiff due to a lack of flexibility, both leading to improper positioning in pursuit of ball-carriers.
So, with all this negativity, why are we discussing him?
Because Taylor has a motor that just won’t quit. He still possesses the length, power, physicality and straight-line speed coveted by NFL coaches for the DE position (h/t Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com).
During East-West practices, Taylor displayed toughness and proficiency in both run- and pass-rushing drills. He set the edge, moved well upfield and utilized a fierce bull rush.
BR’s Michael Schottey detected some legitimate NFL potential as well.
Ultimately, Taylor is an underachieving prospect who, with quality NFL coaching, could develop into a quality NFL pass-rusher, if not complete outside linebacker.
And if he falls as far in the draft as many scouts feel he will, we can envision a few 49er coaches saying, “Heck yes!”
Or something to that effect.
Hawthorne was the ultra-skilled corner you've never hear of.
Brandon McGee, Miami (Fla.)
5’11’’, 195 Pounds, 4.52-Second 40
The two-year starter materialized in impressive fashion at this week’s East-West functions.
McGee cast aside a poor Monday showing by utilizing good footwork, body positioning and route adjustments on Day 2 (h/t Eric Galko). His two interceptions were evidence of said proficiency in coverage.
Lauded draft analyst Dane Brugler cited his athleticism, discipline and overall football ability at the cornerback position.
McGee certainly piggybacked off his career year in 2012. Erasing long-standing pejorative evaluations as a disappointing former marquee recruit, he set new highs in categories across the board.
He registered 54 tackles (four for loss), one sack, one fumble, two interceptions and nine passes defended. These statistics paint a picture of a CB who finally operated as a well-rounded pass and run defender.
Optimum Scouting credited McGee as the fourth-highest-rated player emerging from the Eastern squad. A possible mid-round selection in April is not out of the question as things currently stand.
Like the value attributed to pass-rushers, teams cannot have too many able corners on the depth chart.
The 49ers would be well served developing McGee with the help of veteran CBs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, as well as the up-and-coming Chris Culliver.
Now we must see if McGee validates that potential on Saturday.
Terry Hawthorne, Illinois
6’0’’, 194-Pounds, 4.49-Second 40
Small name, big-time production—please familiarize yourself with one Terry Hawthorne.
The Illinois alum amassed 162 tackles (12.5 for loss), one sack, one forced fumble and, most notably, six interceptions, 28 passes defended and two touchdowns.
Even though this wasn’t a one-year statistical total, racking up such numbers in four NCAA campaigns is plenty remarkable. Brugler of CBS Sports points to Hawthorne’s elite speed, awareness and ball-hawking skills as the prime contributors.
Some inconsistencies notwithstanding, Hawthorne performed nearly as well in practice.
Said Galko of OptimumScouting.com:
Despite his struggles at times this week, Hawthorne still has the upside to be a Top 3-4 round pick because of his physicality, press coverage, and ability to both attack upfield and get vertical.
NFL defensive coaches generally prefer skillful work in man-to-man coverage, defending the deep ball and neutralizing speed-crazy wideouts.
If drafted by San Francisco in Round 3, the 6’0’’, 194-pound Hawthorne would sit behind the 6’0’’, 199-pound and former third-round pick Chris Culliver.
The 49ers might want to take a look—we’re just saying.
Offensive players generally don't wake up after hits like these by Thomas.
Cooper Taylor, Richmond
6’4’’, 230 Pounds, 4.57-Second 40
No, we are not talking about a 6’4’’, 230-pound linebacker—just a certain Cooper Taylor
The former Georgia Tech freshman standout in 2008 transferred to Richmond three years later after losing playing time due to health issues. Doctors diagnosed Taylor with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome in 2010, a peculiar heart condition.
Armed with a “clean bill of health,” Taylor ended his collegiate career in grand fashion at the University of Richmond (via CBSSports.com).
His 78 tackles (five for loss), 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, four interceptions and nine pass breakups earned him first-team FCS All-American honors in 2012.
Now let’s begin with the effusive praise (that may be an understatement), starting with Dane Brugler (h/t CBSSports.com):
Plays with excellent aggression and physicality. Decisive…and shows a good burst, arriving to the play quickly and ready to blow up the ball-carrier. Better than expected athleticism for his size…Good footwork…Has the size and range to be an enforcer against both the run and the pass, but has also impressed with his instincts and football awareness.
Let’s continue with Optimum Scouting’s Eric Galko:
Taylor drew praise all week from coaches. The…long and well-built safety showed…explosive cuts, and read/react ability to intrigue as a strong safety who can pick-up RBs/TEs well at the next level. That’s a skill set in high demand…
Translation: Taylor certainly did his Bulldog and Spider brethren proud, and is ready for the NFL, sooner rather than later.
We can confidently declare that starting 49er safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner would enjoy taking this formidable prospect under their proverbial wing.
And if contractual issues cut short either one of their tenures in San Francisco, fans would enjoy Taylor sporting the Red and Gold for the foreseeable future.
Taylor—and 49er coaches—might not have too much of a problem, either.
Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse
5’9’’, 217 Pounds, 4.39-Second 40
Continuing with the theme of thoroughly unique talents, we’ll conclude this scouting guide with a review of Syracuse’s Thomas.
The smallish, yet hard-hitting defensive back actually played a number of different positions in college. His versatility lent itself to manning linebacker, cornerback and ultimately strong safety.
Thomas racked up 263 tackles, 16.5 for loss, four sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two interceptions and seven passes defended. He established career bests in tackles, interceptions and forced fumbles during his senior year playing SS.
Optimum Scouting gave him a fourth-round draft grade after he demonstrated smooth change of direction, and picked up backs, tight ends and receivers at East-West practices.
That said, the first-team All-Big East Conference (coaches selection) DB is a high-risk, high-reward player.
He led Syracuse in tackles and FF in 2012, but also surrendered way too many big plays. His over-aggressiveness and susceptibility to play-action misdirection often supersedes his dominant run defense and bone-crushing hits.
The 49ers would surely appreciate the latter. Undisciplined play in pass defense, on the other hand, would not sit well with the coaching staff.
They must closely analyze Thomas’ performance on Saturday and decide whether he’ll provide reliable depth on the back end of their defense a couple years down the road.
While certainly not the next Earl Thomas, the former Syracuse DB may have a future in the NFL, perhaps even for the 49ers.
We’ll receive our next performance assessment soon enough.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16.