University of Washington CB Desmond Trufant should be on the 49ers' radar.
Turnovers, penalties and late-game play-calling notwithstanding, the Baltimore Ravens exposed significant weaknesses on the 49ers: cornerback, safety and, to a lesser degree, wide receiver immediately come to mind.
Nickel corner Chris Culliver gave up three catches for 116 yards and one touchdowns to receivers Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones, while committing a costly penalty on a crucial third-and-nine. Film review, aided by Pro Football Focus’ statistical analysis available to members, reveals that Donte Whitner was a liability as well.
The strong safety’s blown assignments enabled Baltimore’s first two TDs by Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta. Those defensive gaffes encapsulated Whitner’s season-long coverage deficiencies.
Wide receiver is another notable area of need for San Francisco.
No. 2 wideout Mario Manningham, and the versatile Kyle Williams were injury casualties well before the Super Bowl and. They won’t return until midseason in 2013.
Despite coming up with many valuable catches throughout the team’s playoff run, Randy Moss is a free agent and will likely sport another uniform if he returns in 2013. The soon-to-be 36-year-old desires an increase role that the 49ers won’t be able to accommodate.
First-rounder A.J. Jenkins needs considerably more development after contributing next-to-nothing in the three games he played, dropping the one pass thrown his way. Though he wasn’t slated for active playing time in 2012, the 49ers need another complement to Michael Crabtree one way or another.
So, will the No. 31 overall selection in 2013 bring San Francisco a reliable option for said positions, and others—notably defensive tackle?
What about a higher-round prospect potentially available to the 49ers through trading one of their abundant 14 draft picks?
Let’s highlight five different position-specific prospects that will suit the 49ers’ future needs. We’ll consult some top draft experts for assistance in compiling this list.
Note: San Francisco has starters locked in at most positions on both sides of the ball. Also keep in mind the organization’s propensity historically for drafting depth-filling prospects rather than ones who’ll fill starting roles. Yet, things may be different this season.
All 40-times are unofficial, with the NFL Combine set to take place February 20.
Barrett Jones took on double teams with pure enjoyment.
CBS’ Highest Rated: Barrett Jones, Alabama
ESPN: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin
National Football Post: Jones
Walter Football: Jones
Our Pick: Jones
6’4’’, 305 lbs; 5.43-second 40
The 49ers currently boast the NFL’s elite grouping at offensive line. Refer to the expert analysis of Pro Football Focus’ Khaled Elsayed for any verification you may require (no membership needed).
Yet, even the best of the best have their “weak links.” If you had to choose one among San Francisco’s contingent, center Jonathan Goodwin would qualify as such.
Goodwin, 34, is on the wrong side of a decade-plus-long career. Despite being a quality run-blocker and not having surrendered a single sack all year, his best days are behind him.
More so, Goodwin’s also in the last year of a three-year deal signed in 2011.
What better than to bring in Jones, the nation’s most decorated offensive lineman, and have him develop for one year under the tutelage of a former Super Bowl Champion?
Barrett Jones was first-team All-SEC and a consensus All-American while playing center in 2012. His first-team All-SEC honors at guard in 2010 and Outland Trophy-worthy play at left tackle in 2011 speak volumes to Jones’ incredible versatility.
One of “the safest prospects in the draft” (h/t CBS Sports) could handle snapping duties right away for San Francisco. Better yet, Jones is also suited for a backup role at either guard or tackle if the need arose.
Sure, he offers optimal value early in the second round. Center might also not rank as a first-round need for the 49ers.
But taking Jones would ensure that their league-dominant offensive line retains that status for years to come.
Plus, Jones has Jim Harbaugh’s hard-nosed, blue-collar mentality written all over him.
Justin Hunter is one tall, smooth route-running wide receiver.
CBS’ Ranked Closest to No. 31 Overall: DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson
National Football Post: Terrance Williams, Baylor
Walter Football: Williams
Our Pick: Hunter
6’4’’, 205 lbs; 4.49-second 40
We included the experts’ wide receivers ranked closest to No. 31 overall for specific reasons.
The 49ers won’t risk trading up for a top-notch prospect like Keenan Allen because wideout isn’t their greatest need. They also drafted a player at this position with their first-rounder just last year.
Even though San Francisco lacks a consistent receiving threat for the big-armed Colin Kaepernick outside of Michael Crabtree, Harbaugh still prefers building on defense and a run-first attack.
That said, Hunter should be available at the end of the first and would serve as a deep target for Kaepernick with his length and top-end speed.
Todd McShay of ESPN Scout’s Inc. has Hunter as the 49ers’ No. 31 pick in his latest mock draft.
Randy Moss and Ted Ginn [are] scheduled to hit free agency. The team would like [Jenkins] to become a difference-maker in the slot, but San Francisco needs another outside weapon who can take advantage of QB Kaepernick’s strong arm. Hunter…is a smooth athlete who runs good routes and can make plays downfield.
The former Tennessee Volunteer proved his downfield production with a career average of 17.1 yards per catch. He also totaled 18 touchdowns in three years and recorded a career-high 1,083 yards in 2012.
ESPN awarded him with above-average grades in competitiveness, durability, intangibles and separation skills. It gave him elite marks in ball skills and big-play ability as well.
Huge catching radius…Very confident attacking the football...Can adjust to the ball thrown behind him and below his waist…Good initial burst for big WR…flashes some savvy both getting off the line and as an intermediate and deep route runner…has enough wiggle to frequently make multiple defenders miss in space…not afraid to go over the middle and will secure the ball while taking a big hit.
The 49ers have their replacement for Moss if they so choose to go in this direction.
Trufant possesses underrated leaping ability at the cornerback position.
CBS’ Pick: Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
National Football Post: Banks
Walter Football: Trufant
Our Pick: Trufant
5’11’’, 190 lbs, 4.42-second 40
Before we move on to potential draft picks, let us underscore that cornerback isn’t as earth shattering a deficiency as many would tend to believe.
As poorly as Culliver played in the Super Bowl, he is a stud in the making. He has huge upside as the 49ers’ future No.1 CB and operated at a much higher level throughout the 2012 campaign.
This includes limiting quarterbacks to a top-10 worthy 49.3 completion percentage in the regular season (via PFF) and recording a clutch interception in the NFC Championship Game.
The controversy stemming from his unfortunate comments regarding gay athletes in the 49er locker room cut into his sleep and preparation all the way up to Thursday before the game (h/t Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee).
Culliver later said he got a full night’s rest on Saturday (via Matt Barrows). However, we believe the media scrutiny and public outcry affected his play to some effect on Sunday. He’s still just a second-year player at the end of the day.
Also, Tarell Brown is a very good and underrated corner who allowed his only touchdown all year in the Conference Championship (with great coverage against Julio Jones, to be sure).
Carlos Rogers actually was a top-rated slot corner as well. For all the flack he received, Rogers earned a No. 4 ranking from PFF, have limited wideouts to just one TD and 120 yards after the catch. He wasn’t a liability in the postseason, either.
In any case, Trufant could push Culliver for the No. 3 spot in 2013, and has potential for higher echelons down the line.
CBS currently rates Trufant as the 15th-best college prospect. Furthermore, shortly after the Senior Bowl, Walter Cherepinsky conveyed the increasing rise in Trufant’s draft stock (via Walterfootball.com).
Trufant's stock is on the rise after a fantastic week at the Senior Bowl. He showed serious man-coverage ability to win one-on-ones with wide receivers…has size, length, speed and can recover…also was very gritty and physical with receivers…is very confident with a tenacious attitude and the mentality of a man-cover corner.
ESPN, for it’s part, deemed Trufant elite when it comes to instincts/recognition, durability, production and top-end speed. He also received above-average distinction in ball skills, cover skills and run support.
Indeed, Trufant totaled 195 tackles, 8.5 for loss, two sacks, six interceptions, 38 pass break-ups, three forced fumbles and one fumble-return touchdown during his days at Washington.
Those numbers, including his appearing in all 38 career games and having a strong rapport with coaches and teammates, speak to his formidable skill set and pro-level viability.
The 49ers would welcome Trufant as a future shutdown corner against the NFL’s burgeoning corps of dominant wide receivers.
He isn’t there yet, but with a little coaching from respected secondary coach Ed Donatell, the former Husky could develop the requisite form sooner rather than later.
John Jenkins is not afraid to express his frightening stature to downed quarterback on the gridiron.
CBS’ Quality Fit: John Jenkins, Georgia
National Football Post: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
Walter Football: Hankins
Our Pick: Jenkins
6’4’’, 359 lbs; 5.21-second 40
San Francisco’s defensive front is the conduit with which the defense as a whole find its dominance.
The 49ers’ 3-4 tackles Justin Smith and Ray McDonald hold the line, control the trenches and allow the linebackers to make plays behind them.
Unfortunately, Smith will enter the 2013 campaign coming off major triceps surgery. The man-beast should return to form, but the 49ers can’t take any chances with such few bodies further down the depth chart.
Ricky Jean-Francois is a versatile and critically important backup. He’s also an unrestricted free agent and “might get starter’s money elsewhere” according to 49ers’ insider Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Will Tukuafu rarely plays and isn’t starter caliber. That is about the extent of their depth at the position.
With that in mind, Jenkins of the University of Georgia is the man for the job.
In spite of his massive nose tackle-esque size, Jenkins can operate proficiently at all slots on a 3-4 front. Rob Rang of CBS Sports commented on that versatility during Senior Bowl practices.
The 6-4, 359-pound Jenkins is simply bigger, stronger and -- as shocking as it sounds -- quicker than virtually any other lineman on the field. His girth and long arms allow him to hold up well at the point of attack against double-teams, something he did with great effectiveness when playing inside or out as part of Georgia's three-man front.
While lacking elite pass-rushing skills, Jenkins’ size, quickness and length would make him a valuable, double team-occupying backup behind Justin Smith.
ESPN’s draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. agreed in his current mock.
…getting a player like Jenkins this far down the board would represent a lot of value. I also think San Francisco should be conscious of depth and age on the defensive line. We saw how diminished the pass rush was when Justin Smith wasn't healthy, and that's because Smith simply eats up blockers. Jenkins can do the same, though he's certainly no proxy for Smith. But at 359 pounds, he can really move.
In terms of draft value, Jenkins represents an encouraging future for the heart of the 49ers defense. Come April 25, don’t be surprised if general manager Trent Baalke trades up to to pick a Jenkins in the first round for the second straight year.
We’ll address your skepticism regarding this position’s No. 1 importance for the 49ers, with the No. 2 spot on this list soon enough.
Former Longhorn Kenny Vaccaro has impressive ball skills that will translate at the NFL level.
CBS’ First-Rounder: FS Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (with SS versatility)
ESPN: Vaccaro; SS Matt Elam, Florida
National Football Post: Vaccaro
Walter Football: Vaccaro, Elam
Our Pick: Vaccaro
6’1’’, 218 lbs; 4.49-second 40
Dashon Goldson is the 49ers’ most indispensable defensive back in a secondary that included three Pro Bowlers. But Eric Weddle's top-dollar demands ($8 million per year), however worthy, might push him out of San Francisco.
Strong safety Donte Whitner is a Pro Bowler and represents a more fiscally palatable $4.93 million cap hit in 2013. Yet, his 2012 postseason performance was disturbing at best: 73 percent completion rate (8-of-11) and four touchdowns allowed when opponents looked his way.
For the icing on an-already nasty cake, San Francisco isn’t equipped with any reinforcements.
Per Pro Football Focus, Goldson and Whitner combined for 2,502 snaps this season. Primary special teamers C.J. Spillman and Darcel McBath played all of 68 on defense. Rookie safety Trenton Robinson played zero.
So, where do we go from here?
More scouts project the former Longhorn as a free safety due to his speed and coverage proficiency. But Vaccaro is too good a prospect for the 49ers to pass up in favor of a lower-rated defensive back better suited in the short term at strong safety.
The fact that he’s the highest-ranked DB outside of Alabama’s Dee Milliner—as a safety no less—speaks to his NFL worth. Milliner is the nation’s most sought-after cornerback and top-five prospect per Mel Kiper Jr's latest mock draft.
Moreover, CBS Sports’ Rob Rang commented further on his versatility: “[He] possess[es] the prototype combination of size and athleticism to man the free or strong safety position in the NFL.”
If the 49ers successfully lock up Goldson long term, then they have a year in which to groom Vaccaro into a SS with Whitner under contract through 2013.
If they don’t, then Vaccaro will give the team an NFL-ready FS and “one of the most complete safety prospects to enter the [league in] the past several years” (via National Football Post).
His elite speed and explosiveness allows him to make plays all over the field vs. the run and pass…his agility and smoothness allow him to play under control despite playing at such a high speed…outstanding on run plays outside the box…takes excellent angles…stay[s] square to his target and finish[es] effectively in space…ability to…play nickel back only adds to his value…coverage ability is paramount for safeties in today's NFL which is so often based on spreading the field and exposing isolated match-ups.
Again, if the former scenario comes to fruition for San Francisco, Vaccaro has until the 2014 season to acquire the necessary bulk for strong safeties at the pro level.
His 231 tackles, 14 for loss, two sacks, five interceptions, 24 pass break-ups and four forced fumbles, largely acquired in three years, bode well for his NFL prospects, as well.
Will the 49ers draft him in roughly two-month’s time? Fans of the Red and Gold should be fully comfortable with those prospects.
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