San Francisco 49ers: 5 Holes Needing to Be Filled in the 2013 NFL Draft

Peter PanacyCorrespondent IApril 11, 2013

San Francisco 49ers: 5 Holes Needing to Be Filled in the 2013 NFL Draft

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    "With the 31st pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select..."

    That is a difficult statement to finish. 

    The talent-laden 49ers will head forward into the 2013 NFL Draft loaded with 13 draft picks.  The work of San Francisco's general manager Trent Baalke has been exemplary, giving the team invaluable options as they move towards draft day. 

    Fortunately, the 49ers have relatively few holes to fill this offseason and thanks to a number of key transactions this offseason, San Francisco's needs should be addressed during the draft.

    Yet with all those picks, it is uncertain exactly what the 49ers will do.

    Will they draft 13 prospects?  Probably not.  There simply are not that many holes to fill.  Will they trade picks this year for picks next season?  Possibly.  Will they use their picks to trade up in the draft?  Probably.

    Despite the position the 49ers find themselves in, there are still some glaring needs the team needs to address in this year's draft.  There were some key departures thanks to free agency.  In addition, there are some roster players who may not be wearing a 49er uniform much longer.  Even though San Francisco can afford to gamble somewhat in this draft, they should still take their position seriously.  For a team on the cusp of winning a Super Bowl, it is almost a necessity.

    Some of the key needs for the 49ers include the following:

    1. Safety
    2. A Pass-Rushing Defensive Tackle or End
    3. Tight End
    4. Cornerback
    5. Center

    The 49ers may also be looking at a number of "wants" during the draft.  That list would include a wide receiver, a running back as well as some depth to their offensive and defensive lines.  They may also be considering upgrades on special teams.  Yet these are better suited for another list at another time.

    By addressing the aforementioned areas of need, San Francisco will put itself in a prime position to build around an already talented core of young players.  Exactly how the 49ers go about doing this remains to be seen, but the prospects are out there and many figure to be impact-players at the NFL level.  Can the 49ers get their hands on what they need and will those players fill the voids?  Hopefully so.

    Here are five holes that San Francisco needs to address in the upcoming draft.

5: Center

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    2012 Starting Center: Jonathan Goodwin

    2013 NFL Draft Prospects: Travis Frederick (Wisconsin), Barrett Jones (Alabama), Brian Schwenke (California)

    There is little doubt surrounding the future of the 49ers' offensive line.

    San Francisco further cemented that statement by re-signing offensive tackle Anthony Davis to a seven-year, $39.67 million contract extension.  Davis will help an already talented offensive line alongside young stars including Alex Boone, Mike Iupati and Joe Staley.

    Yet there remains one glaring concern.

    Incumbent center Jonathan Goodwin is entering the final year of a three-year, $10.9 million contract.  Yet at 34 years old, Goodwin may be on his way out after this season in San Francisco.  Despite having a successful tenure with the 49ers, Goodwin's game play has steadily been on the decline and given San Francisco's interest in keeping their offensive line young and intact, it would be crucial for the 49ers to look to the draft as a means to maintain that status.

    Fortunately for the 49ers, there are a number of decent prospect options at center.

    First, San Francisco can take a look at Wisconsin's Travis Frederick. 

    Foregoing his senior year, Frederick will enter the draft being touted by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. as "the number one junior center in the nation" (via si.com).  Projected to go in the second round, the 49ers may be able to land the talented center, either by trading up to grab him or seeing how the draft plays out and whether or not he falls to San Francisco. 

    CBS Sports' Dane Brugler had this to say about Frederick:

    Top-notch football IQ and overall intelligence to recognize what the defense is doing and adjust the offensive line accordingly.  Mobile enough to get to the second level and block in space.  Works hard with his technique and doesn't make many mistakes. Fights with a finishing attitude and understands different scenarios, keeping his head on a swivel.  Better foot quickness and agility for a blocker with his size.  Comes from a program known for producing NFL-quality offensive linemen and has starting experience at both guard and center. High character individual and very coachable.

    All of those elements would fit perfectly under head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive line coach Mike Solari.

    If the situation is not right for the 49ers to draft Frederick, they may elect to consider Barrett Jones out of Alabama.

    Jones may be an attractive option for San Francisco as well.  Not as highly touted as Frederick, Jones may fall to the 49ers in the second or possibly even the third round. 

    CBS Sports' Rob Rang highlighted Jones' attributes by saying:

    Jones is typically characterized as a try-hard player who gets by with excellent fundamentals, and it is true that he uses his hands and feet very well to consistently defeat his opponent.  Jones is smooth and efficient when easing back at the snap in pass protection or getting to the second level.  He latches on and keeps his feet moving on contact, rarely allowing his opponent to make the play even if he's relatively close to the ball-carrier. 

    Yet if the 49ers are not able to land either Frederick or Jones, they may want to consider Brian Schwenke out of California.  While Schwenke played only one year at center, he may be the most realistic option for San Francisco.  Slated to be drafted in the third round, the 49ers may elect to utilize their earlier picks to address other immediate needs. 

    With Schwenke, the 49ers would also get someone who is familiar to the area and would bring tremendous physical attributes. 

    Rang described Schwenke by noting:

    Possesses a compact build well-suited to interior line play. Has a naturally low center of gravity and uses it. Possesses an exceptional initial burst off the snap to turn and seal off defenders.  Quick, active hands and shows an explosive pop on contact.  Keeps his legs driving through the play to finish blocks.  Alert, competitive blocker who looks to help his teammates and blocks to the whistle.  Made all of the line calls for Cal despite his inexperience at the position. Durable. Played in 48 of 50 possible games for Cal, including 36 starts.

    Those attributes would fit well into a system that utilizes the new "hybrid-style" offense the 49ers now employ with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

    Whoever the 49ers elect to draft at the position, the team will at least have the luxury of placing their future center under the tutelage of Goodwin for at least one season.  Frederick, Jones or Schwenke would also benefit from playing alongside Boone, Davis, Iupati and Staley as well, ensuring that the 49ers' offensive line remains one of the most dominant in the league.

4: Cornerback

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    2012 Starting Cornerbacks: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver

    2013 Notable Additions: Nnamdi Asomugha

    2013 NFL Draft Prospects: Dee Milliner (Alabama), Xavier Rhodes (Florida State), Desmond Trufant (Washington), Jamar Taylor (Boise State), Johnthan Banks ( Mississippi State), David Amerson (North Carolina State) D.J. Hayden (Houston)

    If there was one glaring need to the 49ers, it would be their secondary.  Highlighted by their poor play during the 2012 playoffs, San Francisco's backfield is due for some upgrades in 2013. 

    Fortunately, the news for the 49ers' cornerback situation is not all that bad.  For starters, Chris Culliver is a young and talented defensive back who has a lot of upside to his game.  Sure, he would rather forget his performance during Super Bowl XLVII, but it is reasonable to predict that he will have a solid career in San Francisco for years to come (sbnation.com).

    In addition, the 49ers signed former Pro Bowl corner Nnamdi Asomugha to a one-year, $1.78 million contract, hoping to get something more out of a back who used to be one of the best cornerbacks in the game before becoming a bust in Philadelphia.  It is a low-risk, high-reward scenario.

    The problems start emerging after examining Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown.  Rogers still has two years left on his four-year, $29.3 million contract.  While he had a decent, if not spectacular 2012 season, the 49ers may elect to cut the veteran defensive back, which would help alleviate some additional cap space.

    Brown, on the other hand, is set to be a free agent after the 2013 season.  While he would be a cheaper option for San Francisco to re-sign, there are no guarantees whether or not he would return.  Thus, San Francisco's current situation warrants the drafting of a cornerback.

    Given the one-year contracts left to Asomugha and Brown combined with Rogers' situation, the 49ers should be closely monitoring the cornerback draft board.  Fortunately, corners are relatively deep this year and San Francisco can be diligent when it comes to drafting one.

    Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes, Desmond Trufant and Jamar Taylor will likely not fall to the 49ers in the draft (cbssports.com).  Unless San Francisco is intent on trading up to draft one of the aforementioned players, it is likely they will look instead towards a cornerback like Johnthan Banks or David Amerson.

    The San Francisco Chronicle's 49ers insider Kevin Lynch predicts the 49ers will draft at least one, perhaps even two, corners in the upcoming draft (sfgate.com).  The move would help alleviate the situation San Francisco finds itself in and provide additional options if Asomugha plays like he did in Philadelphia as opposed to his play in Oakland.

    Predicted by CBS Sports' Pat Kirwan to be drafted late in the first round, Banks may fall to the 49ers with their 31st overall pick.  While that is entirely possible, Amerson may be the better option.

    At 6'1" and 205 pounds, Amerson possesses all the physical attributes that would help him excel at the NFL level.  At North Carolina State, he totaled 126 tackles and 17 interceptions over three seasons before foregoing his senior year and entering the draft (sports-reference.com).  Just by examining the statistics, one can note that Amerson has that "ball-hog" mentality that was lacking so much in the 49ers' backfield last season.

    CBS Sports' Dane Brugler praises Amerson's attributes by saying:

    Amerson has rare height and length for the position and actually played primarily at safety in high school.  He has the size and ball skills for the next level, but scouts are also impressed with his competitive drive to get better, showing vast improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons. [The] coaching staff says there is no problem keeping Amerson hungry, as he is one of the top practice players each week. Could prove a fit in a press-based scheme.  Highly aggressive defender who intercepted many of his passes reading the eyes of quarterbacks and jumping short routes. 

    The 49ers love utilizing press-based schemes on defense and Amerson's presence on the field would give ample opportunity to generate turnovers.  His size alone would make Amerson worthy of consideration.  Combining that with his uncanny ability to be involved in the play and come up with timely interceptions makes Amerson a top target for San Francisco in the second round.

3: Tight End

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    2012 Starting Tight Ends: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker

    2013 Notable Departures: Delanie Walker

    2013 NFL Draft Prospects: Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame), Zach Ertz (Stanford), Vance McDonald (Rice) Travis Kelce (Cincinnati)

    The 49ers love to run two tight end sets.  For years, the combination of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker created headaches for opponents' defenses.  While Davis was the higher-touted tight end, Walker had an equally important role, often setting up Davis for plays downfield. 

    Walker earned the reputation as being San Francisco's "Swiss Army Knife" on offense.  While he was not the best receiver, Walker was tremendous at both the run and pass block.  He could also line up at nearly any position and provided multiple mismatches.

    Now Walker is gone after signing a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans during the offseason.

    His absence unquestionably hurts the 49ers and makes it imperative that they look towards the draft to replace him. 

    Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert is the top-ranked tight end coming out in this year's draft.  He is a stud.  There is no doubting that.  He is so much of a stud that CBS Sports' Dane Brugler and Pat Kirwan have him being selected by the Green Bay Packers with their first-round (No. 26 overall) pick (cbssports.com).

    San Francisco probably does not think Eifert is stud enough to warrant trading up to draft in the first round, however, they are looking at Stanford's Zach Ertz instead.

    Jim Harbaugh is plenty familiar with Ertz and his capabilities.  Ertz played one year under Harbaugh when he was coaching at Stanford and it is possible a reunion will incur.  In three years at Stanford, Ertz totaled 112 receptions for 1,434 yards and 15 touchdowns (sports-reference.com).

    Projected to go either late in the first or early in the second round, San Francisco would be in perfect position to draft the talented tight end.  They do have the 31st and 34th overall picks after all.

    While Ertz is an excellent receiving option, he needs considerable help in the blocking scheme as it has not been a major strength to his game.  The 49ers need to remember that they are trying to replace Walker and not Davis, and it may be too much to ask for San Francisco to use one of its first two picks to draft Ertz over another need.

    Instead, San Francisco might be better off drafting Vance McDonald out of Rice.

    Projected to go either late in the second or even early in the third round, McDonald is much more like Walker than Ertz and would save the 49ers one of its early picks.

    John Harris of Yahoo! Sports feels that McDonald would be a perfect fit for the 49ers.  He states:

    Vance McDonald is the closest thing to Walker that the 49ers could find in this draft.  He's an adequate blocker, he's got 4.7 speed and he can catch the ball anywhere on the field.  Don't forget he ran the ball on jet sweeps as a move/H-back tight end when he was at Rice. 

    What Harris is saying is simple: McDonald has tremendous versatility.  Walker had versatility with the 49ers as well and a transition to McDonald would make Walker's departure not sting as much for San Francisco's offense.  His ability to execute blocks as well as his versatility in offensive formations makes him that much more likely of an option.

    If the 49ers decide to pass on Ertz and draft McDonald instead, they would save those first two draft picks to address other critical areas.

    Do not be surprised if that is exactly what San Francisco does.

2: Defensive End/Defensive Tackle

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    2012 Starting DE/DTs: Justin Smith (DE), Isaac Sopoaga (DT), Ray McDonald (DE)

    2013 Notable Departures: Isaac Sopoaga (DT), Ricky Jean-Francois (DT)

    2013 Notable Additions: Glenn Dorsey (DT)

    2013 NFL Draft Prospects: Sharrif Floyd (DT, Florida), Star Lotulelei (DT, Florida), Ezekiel Ansah (DE, Brigham Young), Sheldon Richardson (DT, Missouri), Bjoern Werner (DE, Florida State), Sylvester Williams (DT, North Carolina), Johnathan Hankins (DT, Ohio State), Datone Jones (DE, UCLA), Jesse Williams (DT, Alabama), Damontre Moore (DE, Texas A&M), Cornellius Carradine (DE, Flordia State)

    The losses of both Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois do not impact the 49ers that much.  Both defensive tackles saw relatively little playing time in 2012 as San Francisco employed more of its nickel and dime defense packages.

    Even if it did hurt some, the 49ers were able to sign free agent, and former first-round pick, Glenn Dorsey to a two-year, $6 million contract, shoring up the defense after the departures of both Sopoaga and Jean-Francois.

    Yet Dorsey is not the pass-rushing threat that the 49ers need.  That need was made evident after the Week 15 injury to Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith.  Before Smith's injury, the 49ers' pass rush was one of the most effective in the NFL.  After his injury, and during his subsequent recovery, San Francisco struggled to put pressure on opposing teams' quarterbacks—an element that was exploited especially during the playoffs.

    Smith is expected to recover and play at 100 percent in 2013.  At 33 years old however, Smith is likely entering the twilight of his career.  In addition, he is in the final year of a six-year, $45 million contract and will be a free agent at season's end and it is hard to state whether or not San Francisco will re-sign him.

    With that in mind, it becomes imperative for the 49ers to find a future replacement and one who can compliment Justin's linemate and fellow pass-rusher Aldon Smith.

    Fortunately, the draft is deep with both defensive ends and tackles.

    While many of the higher-touted pass-rushing defensive linemen such as Sharrif Floyd and Star Lotulelei will likely not fall to San Francisco, the 49ers may instead choose to draft someone with their first-round pick to fill the pending void.

    Missouri's Sheldon Richardson and North Carolina's Sylvester Williams may be targeted by the 49ers in a potential trade-up scenario but in all likelihood, San Francisco may sit tight and wait to see who is available to be drafted with their 31st overall pick.

    ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. announced that he felt UCLA's Datone Jones might also work out well on the 49ers' defensive line and it was entirely possible that San Francisco would draft him (via mercurynews.com).  Yahoo Sports' John Harris backs up the claim and feels Jones would be a great fit.

    He states:

    [Jones] is a dynamic force, regardless of where he lines up on the field.  He could play over the nose if necessary or in a 3-technique in even fronts or as a 5-tech in odd fronts.  His burst and acceleration off the ball stand out and it'll be what gets the 49ers attention. 

    Instead, CBS Sports' Dane Brugler has the 49ers drafting defensive tackle Jesse Williams out of Alabama in the first round (cbssports.com).  Williams had 61 tackles, six-and-a-half for a loss, at Alabama and looks to bring that talent to the NFL level (sports-reference.com).

    CBS Sports' Rob Rang highlighted Williams' attributes by saying:

    Possesses unbelievable weight-room strength (600 pound bench press) that translates well onto the football field due to his use of leverage and surprisingly good technique. Has improved his use of hands over his two seasons at Alabama and has developed into a cognitive defender capable of reading the action, shedding the block with heavy, active hands and making the tackle in the hole.  Has the length to play outside as a five-technique defensive end, a role in which he initially played during his junior season with the Tide before sliding inside to the nose as a senior.  An ascending talent with passion and work ethic to improve.

    All of those attributes would be elements that should benefit the 49ers immediately.  Not only would Williams bring tremendous upside, but also the versatility to eventually replace Justin Smith on the end of the defensive line.  In addition, San Francisco would have no need to trade up in the draft to acquire him (footballnation.com).

    Either way, the 49ers will be looking to replace the elder Smith with this draft.  Fortunately, whoever they draft will have the benefit of playing under Smith's guidance and advice.  If Smith can pass on his tremendous football knowledge to his eventual replacement, the 49ers will only be that much better off.

1: Safety

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    2012 Starting Safeties: Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner

    2013 Notable Departures: Dashon Goldson

    2013 Notable Additions: Craig Dahl

    2013 NFL Draft Prospects: Matt Elam (Florida), Eric Reid (LSU), Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International), Phillip Thomas (Fresno State)

    When Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson left San Francisco to sign a five-year, $41.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers' backfield suffered another blow—much like the ones received at the hands of Joe Flacco during the Super Bowl.

    Considering that Goldson was interested in cashing in, it makes sense that the 49ers were not interested in bringing him back at such a lofty price tag (wpxi.com).  San Francisco needed to evaluate its salary cap situation as well as future contracts for some of its young stars like Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree.

    Still, Goldson's departure hurts the 49ers.  San Francisco immediately redressed the situation somewhat by signing former Rams safety Craig Dahl to a three-year, $5.2 million contract.  Yet Dahl appears to be more of an insurance policy for the 49ers than anything else and San Francisco will certainly look towards the draft for long-term needs at safety.

    In addition, Donte Whitner will be a free agent after 2013.

    Fortunately, this year's draft class is deep at the position.

    Florida's Matt Elam is atop the leaderboards at safety this year, but at 5'10", he lacks the height ideally suited to play the position.  While CBS Sports' Rob Rang has Elam being selected by the Green Bay Packers in the first round, it is possible that he could still be on the board when the 49ers are up.  The question is whether or not San Francisco is willing to gamble on his height.

    Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas is another plausible option, although he is projected to be drafted long before the 49ers will employ their first-round pick (cbssports.com).

    The San Francisco Chronicle's 49ers insider Kevin Lynch predicts that the 49ers will have to select not just one, but perhaps two safeties in this year's draft; one to replace Goldson and another to potentially replace Whitner the following season (sfgate.com).

    Two prospects that are more likely on San Francisco's draft radar are Louisiana State's Eric Reid and Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien.

    CBS Sports' Rob Rang has the 49ers drafting Reid with their first-round pick (cbssports.com). 

    Physically, Reid is a great option at the position and is one of the larger safeties coming out in the draft.  Yet there have been considerable problems with Reid's consistency and game play.  While he is fast and big, he has often been burned in coverage and has, at times, looked lost on the field of play (ninersnation.com).  In addition, he has struggled with tackling and does not appear to become an "elite" safety at the NFL level (ninersnation.com).

    Yet with any rookie, good coaching can be the difference-maker for raw talent.  Reid's setbacks are not physical in nature and the 49ers have plenty of good coaches who can help him reach the next level.

    Even more intriguing for San Francisco is Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien.  Cyprien has been garnering more interest from the 49ers as of late.  Cyprien, who is a little taller and bigger than Elam, is predicted to go in the second round of the draft and would likely be available to the 49ers.

    ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. would not be surprised to see the 49ers draft Cyprien, potentially using either one of their 31st or 34th overall picks (via mercurynews.com).

    In four seasons at Florida International, Cyprien totaled 365 tackles and six interceptions (sports-reference.com).  He brings the physical attributes necessary at the position and has shown the ability to play at a high level.

    CBS Sports' Rob Rang had this to say about Cyprien:

    Well-built defender who certainly looks the part of an NFL safety.  Aggressive playing style and active demeanor.  Took advantage of the Senior Bowl opportunity, standing out with his full-speed effort from the first practice.  Enjoys the physical nature of the position.  Meets the ball-carrier with a pop and refuses to let up.  Shows the ability to extend and snatch the ball out of the air.  Has consistently played well against so-called "top" competition over his career, enjoying standout performances in past years against the likes of Texas A&M, Rutgers, Maryland and Louisville, among others. 

    These attributes, combined with the fact that Cyprien should be available during the first two picks the 49ers have, make him an excellent fit in San Francisco. 

    In all likelihood, the 49ers will have to start a rookie safety this year and that may lead to some potential issues.  Yet San Francisco can count on its excellent coaching staff and core of young talent to work with any rookie prospect.

    Whether or not they bring in one or two safeties to address the team's needs remains uncertain, but regardless, the 49ers will be in a much better position if they are able to land a safety such as Cyprien or Reid.  In the case of Cyprien, San Francisco may also be able to save some of its mid to late-round picks in order to trade up, therefore enabling a scenario to draft some of the higher-touted prospects needed to fill other voids.

    It is speculation at best, but fortunately the 49ers have few needs.  Therefore the speculation is relatively easy to decipher. 

    They will fill their voids.  That much is clear.

     

     

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