Even though the San Francisco 49ers are still battling for a playoff spot, it’s never too early to look at the 2014 NFL draft and try to identify potential targets. In fact, the advantage of identifying players to look at before San Francisco’s officially eliminated is the chance to watch them on Saturdays and during bowl season, during which time the 49ers could very well still be in the thick of their playoff run.
While the draft could shake down any number of ways, there is no doubt that playmakers on offense have to be San Francisco’s first, second and third priority, considering how the offense has performed so far this season.
The 49ers rank dead last in receiving yards per game, the only team held to less than 200 yards. The only 49ers receiver who has produced any significant value so far this season is Anquan Boldin, and he’s both 33 years old and an unrestricted free agent next season.
As for the rest of the team? The statistics are not particularly encouraging:
Is there reason for hope? Well, yes—Michael Crabtree should be activated this week, albeit most likely not for the Washington game. Quinton Patton also looked quite promising during preseason and could develop as he gains experience, though he’s been out since Week 4 with a broken foot. Still, it’s an area where the team desperately needs to add talent.
San Francisco will likely either be drafting in the final 12 slots reserved for playoff teams, or at the very end of the non-playoff teams; the 18th pick is roughly the worst-case scenario in all likelihood. Here are three talented wideouts, all currently plying their trade in the SEC, who may be available in roughly that area.
Mike Evans, Texas A&M
2012: 82 receptions, 1,105 yards, 5 touchdowns
2013 to date: 57 receptions, 1,263 yards, 12 touchdowns
NFL Comparison: Marques Colston
The first thing you see when you look at Mike Evans is his exceptional size—he’s 6'5" and 230 pounds, which would have tied him atop the height list and put him third only to Marcus Davis and Mark Harrison at this year’s draft combine. He knows how to use his size, too, boxing out defenders and fighting for jump balls. He’s a threat over the middle of the field, with big, strong hands and has the toughness to take a shot or two over the middle and keep going.
He’s a deep-threat extraordinaire, as well—25.5 percent of his receptions come 20 or more yards down the field. He has the potential to be a monster of a deep-ball threat.
So why might he be available in the vicinity of San Francisco’s pick? His speed. His 40-yard dash time is projected at only 4.55, which is on the slow end. Only 10 receivers at last year’s combine had a slower time, and that could severely hamper his value. Every other aspect of his game appears NFL-ready, though, so Evans is a name to watch out for.
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
2012: 94 receptions, 1,323 yards, 8 touchdowns
2013 to-date: 83 receptions, 1,076 yards, 5 touchdowns
NFL Comparison: Alshon Jeffery
Jordan Matthews has a very good sense of where the ball is in the air, with top-flight ball skills that allow him to adjust and make the catch—a prototypical possession receiver, in other words.
His route running is more polished than that of Evans, and he catches more balls with his hands, as opposed to letting them come into his pads. He also doesn’t have the benefit of playing with a top quarterback like Johnny Manziel, so his ability to produce for Vanderbilt has been quite impressive.
Most draft boards at this point have him as a second-round pick with some potential to rise—NFL Draft Scout and CBS both have him sliding between the first and second rounds, for example. He doesn’t have the same level of explosiveness or quickness some of the other receivers in the class have, but his level of production is hard to ignore. And as a bonus for 49ers fans, he’s a distant cousin of Jerry Rice, so that’s a fun bonus.
If he had more speed, he’d be a first-round selection for sure. As it stands, he might slide right back to where San Francisco will be picking.
Donte Moncrief, Mississippi
2012: 66 receptions, 979 yards, 10 touchdowns
2013 to-date: 44 receptions, 686 yards, 5 touchdowns
NFL Comparison: Mike Wallace
Donte Moncrief’s a bit of a sleeper possibility, as he’s had somewhat of a slow 2013, compared to his monster 2012. He’s also a candidate to stay in school for another year, so he may not even be eligible to be picked. If he does come out, however, Moncrief is an intriguing possibility and, with his stock somewhat cooled off by lower-than-expected 2013 production, might be available at a bargain—it’s not as if his talent vanished in the offseason.
He’s another big-bodied receiver, checking in at 6'4" and 226 pounds, and has a good initial burst of speed for that size, even if he’s lacking a real second gear to burn people deep. He’s got exceptional route-running skills, too, possessing a strong double-move that allows him to use that burst of speed to get into the clear.
Because so much of his value is tied up in his size, speed and talent, as opposed to his production, he has all the makings of a player who could slide up or down the draft board based on the combine and his pro day.
He could be available here in the first round—or he could be available a round or two later, allowing San Francisco to use its first-round pick on a defensive player like HaHa Clinton-Dix instead.
Other Names to Note
Drafting in the back part of the round, top receivers may be off the board due to other receiver-needy teams—the Chargers, Ravens and Jets all spring to mind. So, while players like Sammy Watkins of Clemson or Marqise Lee of USC would be fantastic for San Francisco’s passing attack, they’re more likely than not to be long gone by the time the 49ers actually get to make a selection.
Other receivers that might play their way into contention for the pick include DeVante Parker of Louisville and Brandon Coleman of Rutgers. Draft boards are very fluid this early in the evaluation process, so either one of these players could end up shooting up the draft board as time goes on. Only time will tell.