On Wednesday, April 17—eight days before the 2013 NFL draft—San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke addressed the local media in a pre-draft presser. By the time it was wrapped up, his message was clear: The 49ers are not a need-based drafting team.
When it comes to building this football team, Baalke spoke about the benefits of drafting into strengths and selecting the best player available. San Francisco wants to add quality players to its organization, and what may not be a need this year may be one next year.
On the stat sheet, Goldson was awfully productive for San Francisco, accruing nine interceptions in the past two seasons (14 for his career). He also brought a physicality to the game that befitted the team’s identity.
$41.25 million later, Goldson is all but a memory in the Bay Area.
Getting back to Baalke, at the pre-draft open forum, the 49ers GM addressed questions about the 2013 safety class (via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News):
There are players capable of stepping in and starting in this draft. Do we feel it's a necessity to do that? I say no. We feel very comfortable with the players we have. Is it an area we'd like to add depth and more competition, it certainly is.
Granted, Baalke may be blowing smoke. Obviously, he is not going to divulge San Francisco’s draft plans, and he may, in fact, engage in some not-so-subtle misdirection. For all we know, the 49ers shock the world and leap up in Round 1 for Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Although, I don’t think that is going to be the case.
Given San Francisco’s lack of urgency in free agency and the team's recent history addressing top priorities, there is reason to believe Chris Culliver is the 49ers' answer to the free safety position.
Welcome to the 2013 NFL Draft
First of all, before we delve into the nuances of Culliver moving to free safety, it is essential to look at the 2013 draft class.
The short and sweet of it is that most anticipate San Francisco taking a safety early.
However, the 49ers sit at the end of Round 1, with possibly four of the top-five safeties available to them. The hitch is that those top safety prospects are better suited at strong safety.
Vaccaro, the former Texas Longhorn, is unlikely to make it out of the top 15, which potentially leaves Eric Reid (LSU), Matt Elam (Florida) and Jonathan Cyprien (FIU) on the board when San Francisco picks at No. 31.
These players are strong, well-built defenders who certainly look like prototypical NFL safeties.
Admittedly, the 49ers have to be concerned about their limitations in coverage, especially Reid and Elam. The principal knock against these two prospects is that they lack range and coverage instincts—red flags to a team looking for a starting free safety in a passing league.
Reid’s weakness, per CBS Sports:
He is a bit stiff in coverage and can be beaten by quicker slot receivers. Has been protected by some awfully talented cornerbacks throughout his career and wasn't the playmaker in 2012 he had been the past two seasons with Claiborne and Mathieu no longer on the roster.
Elam’s weakness, per CBS Sports:
Tends to lead with his shoulder and will leave his feet to make the lights-out hit, resulting in some ugly lunges and misses. Good, not great lateral agility and can get left grasping at air. The same good, not great lateral agility shows up in coverage where Elam can lose positioning against slot receivers.
Some mock drafts have either Reid and Elam going to San Francisco at No. 31 and/or No. 34—speculation that has bewildered some followers of the team. Pundits explain the pick by noting the expiring contract of starting strong safety Donte Whitner.
This is not an argument that they won’t be efficient players at the next level. But are they a good fit for the 49ers? They may supplant Goldson’s hard-hitting ability, but they won’t help San Francisco evolve defensively.
This is a defense with plenty of bangers—it needs flexibility, range and playmaking ability now. And looking at the fortes of both Reid and Elam, they are players who would be limited to Cover 2 defenses; neither are true single-high safeties, and their deficiencies in coverage could be crippling in January.
And though Cyprien may be the finest option of the three, questions surround his NFL potential (h/t CBS Sports):
Some have concerns about Cyprien's straight-line speed. Played a lot of two-deep coverage at FIU, showing the ability to play halves but not necessarily operate as a true centerfielder. Takes highly aggressive angles to the ball and consistently tackles ball carriers high, two potential areas of concern considering the significant jump in competition he'll be making. There may be some initial struggles.
Therefore, any plan to take Reid, Elam or Cyprien in the first round with the intention of starting that player in at free safety brings with it certain risks.
On the other hand, San Francisco could go a completely different direction with its draft strategy and take a look at the mid-rounders that happen to bring more range to the safety position—namely Bacarri Rambo of Georgia and Fresno State's Phillip Thomas.
With 29 combined interceptions, Rambo and Thomas are two players who see the ball well and bring tantalizing upside. There is also the luxury of waiting until Day 2 to select one of them, allowing SF to take the best player available in the first round.
Taking the best player available in an undefined draft class like this one is exactly what the 49ers need to do. Whether it is a tight end, wide receiver or rush linebacker, San Francisco can draft focus on a team strength without hesitation.
This also adheres to Baalke’s draft philosophy (via 49ers.com):
The more competition we can create, the better. I mentioned earlier today, we’re not opposed to drafting into strength. We’re not a need-based drafting team. We’re going to draft the best available player at the position, regardless of need. That doesn’t mean—and I've tried to explain this—we’re going to totally not acknowledge the fact that we have needs on our team. But drafting into strength is advantageous; there's reasons a team will do that.
Remember, San Francisco had a need at safety once before, and it solved it with University of Washington defensive back Dashon Goldson in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.
Understanding a Philosophy by Looking at the Past
As a point of reference, it is important to assess Baalke’s tenure as a personnel exec and the choices he’s made as the franchise's chief decision-maker since 2008. A star executive in the National Football League, Baalke has put the finishing touches on one of the most competitive teams in pro sports.
But for the sake of this article, it is even better to look at the union of Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke in order to truly evaluate this organization’s philosophical thinking and how that mindset applies to the upcoming draft.
In 2011, Harbaugh stepped into the role of head coach and the 49ers had numerous decisions to make in terms of personnel. One of the highly scrutinized rulings they made was to let veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes walk via free agency.
As a two-time All-Pro, Spikes and his size-20 neck would follow ex-49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to San Diego.
And for a team in transition, people panicked.
Leading up that, San Francisco did not have much of an offense to speak of, so the highlight on Sundays was viewing the linebacker tandem of Spikes and his running-mate Patrick Willis.
Though Willis had established himself as a premier LB, he still turned to Spikes as a mentor. But the decision was made and the aging linebacker was out.
Disregarding free-agent linebackers, San Francisco would call upon its bench, entrusting second-year man NaVorro Bowman—a third-round pick in 2010 with only one career start to his name.
In the two seasons since, Bowman racked up 291 tackles and four sacks (via ESPN). He is now an NFC champion and a unanimous two-time AP All-Pro. There are some observers who will argue he has surpassed Willis in certain respects.
This is the first indication of San Francisco’s stance to promote from within. But hold tight, there is further evidence to ram home that point.
With the awful play of Chilo Rachal, it was incumbent on San Francisco to resolve the right guard position, either through the draft or free agency.
After Rachal’s struggles continued at the beginning 2011, San Francisco would end up riding rotational G/T Adam Snyder in Harbaugh’s debut season. The eight-year pro had enough starts to warrant being the fill-in that season, but the Niners did not view Snyder as a long-term solution.
With Snyder moving on, the 49ers were seemingly in a worse position at guard than they were the year prior. And still, Baalke and the front office remained cool, calm and collected during the evaluation process.
In the past two seasons, the 49ers added plenty of offensive linemen (all developmental players), but it was Alex Boone who stepped up in 2012, completing what is now one of the best offensive lines in football.
Boone went undrafted in 2009, partially due to alcohol-related incidents while at Ohio State. However, San Francisco signed him as a free agent and committed to developing and coaching him. Boone rewarded the team by emerging as a top-flight guard last year in just his first season as a full-time starter.
Boone is now in the prime of his career, and he’s only going to get better. And during San Francisco’s Super Bowl run in 2012, the four-year pro played at a Pro Bowl-caliber level.
Bowman and Boone are two perfect cases of players already within the organization who emerged to fill needs. They are prime examples of how Baalke and the 49ers shaped their team’s infrastructure.
The 49ers and Chris Culliver
We like the fact that he's played both safety and corner. To me, that’s a positive, that’s not a negative. That means there’s upside at the position that he’d switch to as a senior. But it also gives you the versatility—this guy has played in the nickel, he’s played on the outside on the perimeter now, and he’s played on the back half of the defense as a safety. So he’s played all over the defensive backfield.
The notion of switching Culliver to free safety stems back to 2011, when he first drafted.
The 49ers could have taken a pure corner like Brandon Harris (Miami), Aaron Williams (Texas) or, had they chosen to do so the in the first round, Prince Amukamara (Nebraska). But they went with the tweener defensive back from South Carolina in the third round.
As a rookie, Culliver brought flexibility to San Francisco’s secondary and a natural ability to play all over the back end. And again, with the new regime in place, the 49ers were in the midst of evaluating the roster and building for the future.
It was at this moment that Harbaugh and Baalke likely knew Dashon Goldson was not going to be a 49er lifer. And if you believe this theory, it opens your eyes to the team’s deferral when it came to getting a long-term deal done.
Moreover, the addition of Culliver gave the 49ers a first-rate No. 3 cornerback who had the potential to be a starting safety.
Through his rookie year, Culliver competed in 617 total snaps in 2011 (h/t Sacramento Bee), often playing on the perimeter. In his sophomore season, he saw increased time, participating in 775 snaps in 2012 (h/t CSN Bay Area).
The increased playing time allowed him to overcome the toughest part of the transition: acclimating to the speed of the game.
Oftentimes, a player is rushed into the lineup before he is physically and mentally ready. Fortunately for Culliver, the weight was not thrust upon him early on.
And for those questioning his transition to safety, Culliver’s background at the position is more extensive than most are aware of. According to Rivals, Culliver was a 5-star recruit at the position, the No. 3-ranked college DB prospect in the nation coming out of high school.
The scoop on an 18-year-old Culliver, per Mike Farrell of Rivals.com:
Culliver is an impressive physical specimen with a linebacker’s build and a cornerback’s speed. He is very explosive, closes well and is a sure tackler. He can project to either strong or free safety due to his rare combination of size, strength and speed. Culliver has loose hips although he’s better in zone coverage than man-to-man. He plays physical at times but could be a bigger hitter.
Culliver has a second gear when closing on the ball but needs to be more consistent play in and play out. He has potential as a blitzer, although he needs to be more elusive at the line. His speed allows him to turn and run with anyone and his size lets him redirect receivers and put them off their routes. Culliver could grow into an outside linebacker in college and play at 220 pounds, but he’ll start his career in the middle of the field at either safety slot.
As a highly recruited player, Culliver received offers from Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, N.C. State and Virginia Tech before committing to the Gamecocks.
He played two years at safety, which happened to be his most his most productive at the NCAA level. He then assumed the starting FS job as a sophomore in 2008.
During his tenure at the position, Culliver recorded 122 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and 15 pass deflections (via Sports Reference). Here is the original scouting report from CBS Sports, projecting Culliver as a free safety in 2011:
Showed good instincts as a free safety. While aggressive, Culliver was rarely out of position and showed the discipline to stay home on trick plays and misdirection. Reads the eyes of the quarterback and gets a good break on the ball. Normal acceleration with a late burst to close. Quick, active hands in press coverage. Understands zone concepts and due to his experience at free safety and cornerback, understands the role of each member of the secondary.
Has quick feet to stop, pivot and accelerate quickly. Competes for the jump ball well, showing an explosive vertical and good timing. Shows a late burst to close. Has natural return skills. Prefers to cut the legs out from under the ball-carrier for his tackles, but is more than willing to lower his pads and lead with the shoulder.
In college, Culliver started only six more games at cornerback than he did at wide receiver.
The bulk of the film on him that San Francisco’s scouts looked at was at safety. And that tape showed a rangy, fast (4.4 40-time) athlete with exceptional closing speed and a player who would come in and upend receivers.
By moving Chris Culliver to safety, the 49ers are more ready to field a defense in 2013, and they allow themselves even more flexibility on draft day. The Niners could potentially use the early ammunition to add weapons around Colin Kaepernick.
Drafting Tyler Eifert or moving up to pick West Virginia dynamo Tavon Austin becomes all the more possible.
With the 49ers on the cusp of a sixth Lombardi Trophy, don’t put it past Trent Baalke to make serious waves this year.