10 NFL Combine Prospects That the San Francisco 49ers Must Closely Watch

Joe LevittContributor IIIFebruary 21, 2013

10 NFL Combine Prospects That the San Francisco 49ers Must Closely Watch

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    With the 2013 NFL Combine fast approaching (February 23), the San Francisco 49ers are in complete prospect-breakdown mode.

    Fresh off a Super Bowl defeat, both team officials and 49er fans want nothing more than a total immersion within a forward-looking mindset.

    That would entail close, vigilant observation on a bevy of NFL hopefuls participating at the combine.

    The 49ers own the No. 31 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Top needs include defensive tackle, safety and wide receiver. Prospects at all these positions will be available at the end of the first round, and will be showcasing themselves this weekend.

    The same goes for mid- to late-round players on San Francisco’s radar emerging from the NCAA ranks.

    We’ll now highlight 10 such prospects that the 49ers—and you the fan—must closely watch at the NFL Combine.

     

    Note: All 40 times are unofficial, and will serve as reference points before players run their official times this weekend.

10. Brian Winters, Offensive Tackle/Guard, Kent State

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    6’4’’, 310 lbs, 5.10-second 40

     

    So, if common knowledge would indicate—and what Pro Football Focus would confirm—that the 49ers own the NFL’s best offensive line, why would they add to it?

    Because even the league’s superior units require depth and reinforcements.

    Brian Winters started 33 of 49 career games at left tackle for Kent State. He earned first-team all-conference during his senior campaign after receiving second- and third-team honors, respectively, during the previous two seasons.

    Winters logged the additional 16 starts at right tackle.

    Scouts, notably CBS Sports, project him inside at guard at the next level. NFL.com views him as a guard or tackle.

    The point is that both Winters’ track record and scouting reports speak to his potential versatility. As such, he could fulfill the 49ers’ need for a swing tackle. Starting guard Alex Boone is the only player currently available for that role.

    Plus, with Leonard Davis being a free agent and 2012 draft pick Joe Looney not seeing any action last year, San Francisco could use an extra O-lineman.

    Winters would be a fine choice at the end of the third round, especially if the 49ers retain their compensatory pick (the third of such picks in that round).

    The scouting combine will help solidify or negate Winters’ viability in those aforementioned roles. And even with a school-record 50 career starts, San Francisco must confirm this weekend that past shoulder issues will not prove problematic down the road.

9. Brian Schwenke, Center, California

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    6’3’’, 307 lbs, 5.23-second 40

     

    Two consecutive “Brians” aside, Brian Schwenke is another versatile prospect worthy of a spot on the 49ers’ roster.

    Schwenke registered three years of starting experience at both left and right guard during his freshman through junior seasons. He then started at center for Cal in 2012 and absolutely excelled.

    Pac-12 coaches deemed him first-team All-Conference in first year at the position.

    ESPN lists Schwenke as a guard, while the pundits at CBS Sports and NFL.com gave him glowing reviews as a future NFL center.

    Per Rob Rang (via CBSSports.com):

    …Has a naturally low center of gravity…along with a wide base and excellent use of leverage to anchor against bigger, more powerful bull-rushers….exceptional initial burst off the snap to turn and seal off defenders. Quick, active hands and shows an explosive pop on contact…Alert, competitive blocker who looks to help his teammates and blocks to the whistle. Very good burst to the second level.

    Rang later compared him to the Seattle Seahawks’ Max Unger, an excellent run-blocking center who also didn’t allow a sack in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus (membership required).

    For the 49ers, center Jonathan Goodwin is 34 and in the last year of his contract. He’s in the perfect position to help develop Schwenke as the future starter before his likely retirement (or otherwise departure from the team).

    NFL.com notes Schwenke’s difficulty handling snaps from shotgun and some minor issues in pass protection. San Francisco should use Saturday’s scouting showcase for offensive linemen to better assess these deficiencies and validate his potential.

    With a great performance at the combine, Schwenke could substantiate his worth as another third-round selection for the 49ers.

8. Johnthan Banks, Cornerback, Mississippi State

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    6’2’’, 185 lbs, 4.52-second 40

     

    We place Johnthan Banks at No. 8 because of the unlikely case that San Francisco drafts this projected first-rounder with its opening pick.

    Yes, even with the coverage breakdowns that occurred in Super Bowl XLVII.

    (We’ll address the greater issue at safety in future slides.)

    Banks was a play-making ball hawk throughout his collegiate career. He totaled 41 pass breakups and 15 interceptions, with three resulting in touchdowns. He showed his menacing demeanor and penchant for the backfield with five forced fumbles, four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.

    ESPN’s scouting experts lauded Banks with above-average grades in ball skills, height-weight-speed, instincts, intangibles and recognition. They awarded him with exceptional marks in durability, production and run defense as well.

    Here’s a selection from their evaluation of Banks (via ESPN):

    …has the length to matchup well versus bigger WRs…at his best in press-man coverage…Confident, competitive and experienced…Displays natural instincts…crafty and shows good situational awareness…does a very nice job of transitioning eyes from WR to QB when working in zone…Diagnoses run quickly without getting caught peeking in backfield…Shows good instincts when turned loose on the blitz…above average ball hawk throughout his career…Not at all afraid to mix it up physically…

    The beginning and final portions of that analysis are particularly relevant. Big-bodied wideouts Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons and Anquan Boldin of the Baltimore Ravens often outmuscled San Francisco’s defensive backs in the playoffs.

    Perfect throws and equally-effective routes beat well-executed coverage by the 49ers in some of these instances. Still, teams cannot have one too many corners in the pass-happy NFL.

    Even if the 49ers have Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver locked in as their top three CBs, they may choose to draft a player of Banks’ caliber with their first pick.

    (CBS, ESPN and NFL.com all rate Banks between the 29th and 33rd overall prospect.)

    It would only behoove them to closely analyze Banks during medical, interview and on-field examinations. This is especially true considering his knee injury that caused a production decline in 2012 and non-participation in the Senior Bowl (h/t Charlie Campbell of Walter Football).

    San Francisco has greater needs. But Banks’ performance at the combine may warrant his selection in the opening round.

7. Aaron Dobson, Wide Receiver, Marshall

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    6’3’’, 203 lbs, 4.53-second 40

     

    The 49ers lack both depth and size at the wide receiver position.

    Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are coming off devastating injuries sustained last season. No. 4 wideout Williams should return from a torn ACL for the start of 2013, but Manningham may miss the first six games due to a torn ACL and PCL suffered in Week 16.

    Rotoworld also reported that No. 82 may sport another uniform due to a 2013 cap hit of up to $4.9 million.

    Randy Moss’ increasing age and status as a non-contributing No. 3 WR on special teams will force his departure as well. And 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins remains an extremely talented, yet unproven commodity after dropping the only pass thrown his way this year.

    Outside of Michael Crabtree, then, San Francisco is quite thin at the position.

    Marshall’s Aaron Dobson is a lengthy 6’3’’ target the 49ers so desperately need. He’d easily be the tallest receiver on the squad.

    Rob Rang calls him a “savvy route runner…[who] can leap high, contort his body and haul in difficult passes in deep coverage” (h/t CBS Sports). The latter of those qualities would serve San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick well when throwing downfield and in the red zone.

    That would certainly be true if he materializes as what Rang calls a future Sidney Rice.

    Dobson’s 24.7 yards per reception as a freshman and 12 touchdowns in 2011 give further credence to his attractive skill set.

    Moreover, Dobson will go as late as the fourth round and as early as the second (the latter being more likely).

    Not facing top-notch competition as a member of Conference USA and lacking elite speed might reduce his draft stock. On the other hand, his strong hands, ball skills and big-play ability would make him more of a late second-round option (via NFL.com).

    Personnel evaluators for the 49ers must use the combine as a final measuring stick. Did Dobson beat up on inferior opponents? Or is he the type of receiver that ESPN calls a “dangerous red-zone and big-play scoring threat”?

6. Shawn Williams, Strong Safety, Georgia

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    6’0’’, 211 lbs, 4.54-second 40

     

    Safety isn’t the most important positional grouping for the 49ers’ defense. That said, it remains in the greatest peril on the 49ers’ team.

    FS Dashon Goldson, while being San Francisco’s top free-agent priority, isn’t a lock for the 2013 roster. SS Donte Whitner has one year left on his contract, but was a major liability in coverage, giving up four touchdowns in the postseason.

    C.J. Spillman, Darcel McBath and Trenton Robinson serve as the backups. They’ve proven themselves as nothing more than special teams players, however.

    We expect the 49ers to target multiple safeties at the combine and in the draft. And Shawn Williams of Georgia merits recognition as a viable mid-round selection.

    At worse, the former Bulldog is a slight coverage-deficient, yet physical, hard-hitting menace against the run and on receivers operating over the middle. Per CBS Sports’ Rob Rang, think: Bernard Pollard, SS, Baltimore Ravens (not bad, huh?).

    At best, Williams is equally proficient in coverage and run defense, earning above-average grades for ball/cover skills, instincts/recognition, intangibles and run support (via ESPN).

    Diagnoses quickly…shows good natural playmaking instincts. Adept at reading WRs routes. Understands leverage and angles…maintain[s] leverage in deep-middle coverage. Regularly gets early jumps on the ball…Can flip his hips with relative ease. Shows adequate burst out of pedal…Aggressive and productive in run support…Has long, strong arms to wrap. Drives legs through the ball carrier. Solid finisher…flashes a mean streak.

    Is Williams the 10-pass breakup, four-interception safety of 2011? Or is he the four-pass breakup, zero-interception defensive back of 2012?

    In another light, will Williams amount to the 12-touchdown-surrendering Whitner from this past season? Or will he better represent Whitner from 2011, who rated as the league’s No. 7 safety and gave up just two TDs, including zero in the playoffs (via Pro Football Focus)?

    One way or another, Williams is a solid prospect that the 49ers must critically evaluate at the combine. He is too good a player, and safety is too great a need for the future of this franchise.

5. Phillip Thomas, Free/Strong Safety, Fresno State

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    6’1’’, 210-lbs, 4.57-second 40

     

    We follow up a possible third-round strong safety with more of a second-round hybrid at the position.

    Most talent evaluators project Phillip Thomas as a free safety. His speed, proficiency in coverage, anticipatory skills and play-making ability reveal as much (via CBS Sports).

    Better yet, his eight interceptions, with a gasp-inducing three for touchdowns, led the NCAA in 2012. He was simply an all-pervading ball hawk on the gridiron.

    All that dully noted, we agree with the pundits at NFL.com that Thomas can develop into a future SS.

    Athletic, physical defender. Strong tackler with good length and the attitude to throw down ball-carrier. Breaks down well when approaching ball-carriers in space, has quick feet and agility to make the stop. Quick enough to stay with tight ends and some receivers in coverage, can undercut to knock away or pick off late throws…Sticks his nose in against the run…flows through traffic to find the ball…Comes downhill from two-deep look with speed. Adept blitzer off the edge, makes ball-carrier pay in the backfield…

    Thomas’ ability to cover tight ends, as well as his physical, reliable tackling in the run game are requisite skills from the strong side of the field. Whitner failed in those assignments all too often down the stretch.

    We’re certainly not saying that Thomas would start in year one for the 49ers.

    What he would do, however, is learn under Whitner (who still earned himself a 2012 Pro Bowl nod) and Goldson for one year.

    His aforementioned coverage skills and ball-hawking tendencies qualify him as a backup centerfield defender if the need arose this season or beyond. Starting work as a strong safety could follow afterward (via NFL.com).

    With the former Bulldog being a “tweener” at the position, general manager Trent Baalke must use this weekend’s scouting extravaganza as yet another vital assessment tool. He needs to discern Thomas’ long-term value for the 49ers going forward.

    We fully expect that he will.

4. Justin Hunter, Wide Receiver, Tennessee

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    6’4’’, 200 lbs, 4.49-second 40

     

    With Keenan Allen missing the combine due to a “lingering knee injury” (via Rotoworld), we decided to focus on a wideout slotted for the second round.

    Cordarrelle Patterson is another incredibly gifted first-round prospect. But, despite his tremendous upside and abilities in the return and run game, we also believe he’s much too raw as a receiver.

    That’s why Justin Hunter, Patterson’s Tennessee Volunteer brethren, is the man of the wide-receiver hour.

    Upon returning from a torn ACL and two-game 2011 campaign, Hunter went off in 2012.

    He more than quadrupled his 2011 catch total, tripled last year’s yardage and matched his touchdowns from the previous two seasons combined. He ended the year with 73 receptions for 1,083 yards and nine scores.

    ESPN doled out above-average grades for Hunter’s competitiveness, intangibles and separation skills. It also underscored his exceptional ball skills and big-play ability (h/t ESPN.com).

    Huge catching radius…Natural plucking on the run…Can adjust to the ball thrown behind him and below his waist…Above average top-end speed with ideal length as a vertical route runner. Shows body control and closing burst to track the deep ball. Is fluid, quick and agile for size…frequently make[s] multiple defenders miss in space…not afraid to go over the middle and will secure the ball while taking a big hit.

    Hunter has also shown impressive versatility by playing all slots from the wide receiver position.

    Unfortunately for the 49ers, he does not come without weakness (h/t CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler):

    …needs to add more strength and bulk…needs to stay under control in his routes and when locating the ball…too inconsistent catching the ball with a lot of body catches…need[s] to stay focused for all four quarters and keep his emotions in-check...

    Overall, though, Hunter is a worthy second-round selection for San Francisco. A receiver with opening-round talent taken in the mid-60s brings great value.

    Front-office officials must closely study Hunter’s performance in the catching and route-running drills at the combine (i.e. “the Gauntlet”). A high score could push the 49ers towards taking him as their future No. 2 wideout, with a No. 3 or No. 4 role coming in 2013.

3. Zach Ertz, Tight End, Stanford

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    6’6’’, 252 lbs, 4.79-second 40

     

    Bear with us for a second on this one.

    Yes, Zach Ertz played under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford in 2010. There isn’t any doubting that the 49ers head coach has closely followed his former tight end’s rise as an NFL-ready player.

    We also remember that Coby Fleener, another dynamic Stanford TE, was available at the bottom of the first round in 2012. Harbaugh passed on the other 6’6’’, 252-pounder who out-performed Ertz during his senior year with 10 touchdowns and a 19.6-yard average.

    So, why would the 49ers hone in on a tight end from the Farm this time around?

    They would because another year of lacking a reliable red-zone weapon became all too clear in 2012. Ertz also possesses a superior, more well-rounded skill set.

    Ertz racked up 898 yards and six TDs, leading the nation in yards receiving by a TE. His 69 catches more than doubled (by one) Fleener’s 34 receptions in 2011. That total indicates his elevated ability as a move-the-chains, possession receiver.

    NFL.com underscored his fearlessness, physicality and consistent max-effort as a blocker. ESPN highlighted his exemplary separation/ball skills and big-play ability.

    Dane Brugler of CBS Sports commented on his versatility in lining up out wide, in the slot and on the line of scrimmage while at Stanford. Brugler even projected him as a future Jason Witten.

    And Charlie Campbell of Walter Football hailed Ertz as the best TE in the draft (h/t Walter Football):

    …complete tight end…very effective as a run blocker…real contributor to the good blocking for running back Stepfan Taylor…has surprising quickness and athletic ability…three-down player and future starter in the NFL…height and leaping ability make him a dangerous weapon in the red zone.

    To be sure, Ertz isn’t perfect. He must improve as a blocker and generate additional upper-body strength. He’s also produced his fair share of drops in the past.

    Yet, he is a 6’6’’ target that the 49ers simply did not have. Imagine if they did during that final series in the Super Bowl?

    In any event, Harbaugh and company must set their sights on Ertz at the combine. They must glean whether he deserves a No. 31 or even mid-first round pick.

2. Johnathan Hankins, Defensive/Nose Tackle, Ohio State

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    6’3’’, 320 lbs, 5.32-second 40

     

    The 49ers must devote their greatest attention to defensive linemen at the combine. Their front three is the fundamental corps with which the entire defense derives its power.

    Even in the passing-mania that is today’s NFL, where pass-rushers are the league’s defensive currency, line-clogging nose tackles are still critical.

    Free-agent 49er Isaac Sopoaga experienced a decline in both playing-time and productivity last season. He’s also on the wrong side of 30.

    There is little, if any, signed depth behind him. Rick Jean-Francois is a free agent as well and Ian Williams rarely saw the field in 2012.

    San Francisco will surely infuse younger talent at the heart of their 3-4 front.

    Johnathan Hankins is the premier NT participating this weekend and projected closest to the 49ers’ first draft pick at No. 31 overall.

    Hankins offers unique quickness and versatility for such a massive defender. He operates very well against the run and has a knack for the backfield, posting 16.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons.

    Strength, power and toughness are givens for the 6’3’’, 320-pounder.

    Per NFL.com:

    …impressive fluidity and coordination skills for a big man, playing with an active motor…played all over the defense line in college…both outside at DE and inside at DT…rarely left the field…his coaches talk positively about his football character…has a rare combination of size, strength and foot quickness…force against both the run and the pass…can tear through blocks like paper…versatility to line up as a traditional 3-technique DT…or an effective two-gapping 0-technique NT for a 3-4 defense.

    As with any young prospect, there are drawbacks.

    Weight, stamina and knee issues have surfaced in the past. Veteran scout Dane Brugler also noted his over-reliance on upper-body strength and tendency to lose leverage (h/t CBS Sports). A consistent pass rush suffered because of it (including missing an elite burst).

    Fortunately, the 49ers do not require a deadly pass rush or every-down commitment from their nose tackle.

    Hankins is a hard-nosed lineman who successfully occupies multiple blockers. He makes plays at and behind the line of scrimmage, while having “the ability to fall back into the play when [he] over pursues” (h/t ESPN).

    He’ll ultimately play fewer downs than San Francisco’s 3-4 defensive ends.

    Pass-first teams outnumber run-oriented clubs. Said matchups will take the former Buckeye off the field in favor of more pass-rushers and DBs.

    At the end of the day, the 49ers need ample reinforcements across their front line. Hankins can hold down the middle in run defense, while also occasionally backing up his brethren on the outside edge.

    They need not focus on Hankins in pass-rushing drills, but should monitor his conditioning, pad level and state of his previously injured knee at the combine.

    San Francisco may just acquire this year’s version of Dontari Poe.

1. Sharrif Floyd, Defensive End/Tackle, Florida

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    6’3’’, 303 lbs, 5.03-second 40

     

    Again, the defensive line is the most essential positional grouping for the 49ers.

    As such, defensive tackle Justin Smith is the most important player on the entire field.

    He seals the edge and eliminates multiple offensive linemen. This frees up the inside backers to stifle ball-carriers and for Aldon Smith to collect his sacks. He also simultaneously stuffs the run and generates quarterback pressures of his own.

    Although, Justin Smith does more of the dirty work and isn’t the prototypical stat-producer. Yet, the 49ers don’t function properly without him.

    They surrendered 86 points in 2.5 games with him off the field and an additional 89 with a less-than-100-percent J. Smith in three playoff contests. Comparatively, they gave up just 187 points in the first 13.5 games.

    And without him, they are left with an unsigned Jean-Francois…and that’s it.

    (We will omit Will Tukuafu, who’s primarily a fullback, and Tony Jerod-Eddie, a 2012 rookie free agent and practice-squad member.)

    This is where Sharrif Floyd enters the picture.

    The versatile Florida product played the zero-, one-, three- and five-technique in the Gators' 3-4 defense. That means he lined up directly over center, on the guard’s inside and outside shoulder, and over tackle.

    Theoretically, then, Floyd could start at all positions on the 49ers’ defensive front.

    San Francisco’s most significant need resides in the non-existent backup behind Justin Smith, however. Here comes Floyd to the rescue.

    The 6’3’’, 303-pounder is best equipped for the five-technique as a 3-4 DE. He rates above-average in quickness, has a relentless motor and anchors consistently in run defense.

    Floyd amassed 46 tackles, 13 for loss and 6.5 sacks at that position in 2012, earning first-team all-conference honors in the process.

    CBS Sports pointed to his “thick lower-half conducive to anchoring as a two-gap defender and run-stuffing presence,” even being good for beating tackles when lined up out wide (h/t CBSSports.com).

    ESPN scouts noted his rare skill set in having the “body of a DT but the mobility and strength of a DE." They also commented on his high-effort, coachable demeanor in spite of a rough upbringing.

    Draft analysts at NFL.com, for their part, acknowledged these impressive strengths:

    ..can swim over his opponent or get his hands up into his man’s jersey to push him into the backfield. Often lined up outside the tackle…showed quickness to rush the passer and quick feet to contain on the edge. Combines good effort and short-area agility…to chase plays across the field and get his long arms around ball carriers when closing in…keeps his eyes in the backfield and sheds to either direction to grab running backs…Great balance and flexibility, and shows good change of direction ability…Excellent at shooting gaps and…split[ting] double-teams in pass protection...

    Even with all those accolades, Floyd will require a developmental period to harness his collection of abilities, as he never consistently played any one position. His pure pass-rushing skills are also in question, notably against dual-threat quarterbacks.

    The 49er Faithful certainly can take solace in the support system around Floyd.

    He couldn’t be in a better position with the likes of Justin Smith, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, coordinator Vic Fangio and no-nonsense head coach Jim Harbaugh teaching him.

    Now, it’s time for the 49ers’ coaching staff to learn all it can from Floyd at the combine.

    It must ensure that trading up for him with one (or more) of the team’s 14 draft picks will yield a top-tier backup for Smith and Ray McDonald. Teams need rotational depth in the trenches, regardless of the 49ers’ penchant for playing every down without substitution.

    Floyd has a great chance of owning up to his potential.

    San Francisco just needs the combine-issued gold seal of approval.

     

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