Even with the San Francisco 49ers poised on the edge of the playoffs, it’s never too early to look at potential draft selections. With the college season winding to a close, there are only a couple more chances to see the NCAA’s best strut their stuff on the field.
Soon, these on-field performances will give way to pro days and combine numbers, which are all very interesting but pale in comparison to actually watching a football player play football, even if it’s against lesser competition than you get on Sundays.
Assuming it drafts for need, San Francisco will almost certainly take an offensive player in the first round and most likely someone to catch the ball. Even with the return of Michael Crabtree and two consecutive solid weeks by Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers are still second-to-last in the NFL in passing yards, with only 180 yards per game.
Anquan Boldin has been fine, catching 67 percent of passes thrown his way for 13.5 yards per reception, but the rest of the wide receiver core has been injured, poor performers or both. After Boldin, the numbers get horrible.
Only Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, both in limited sample sizes, have caught at least half the balls thrown their way, and only the recently released Kyle Williams has even topped 100 receptions this season. Total receptions by wide receivers not named Boldin? Twenty-seven.
In addition, Boldin’s set to be a free agent at the end of the year and isn’t exactly a spring chicken, turning 33 in October. So, just from a value-based proposition, drafting a wide receiver would seem to make a lot of sense.
A few weeks ago, we profiled a trio of SEC wide receivers San Francisco could reasonably expect to fall somewhere in the back half of the draft. With three picks in the first two rounds, of course, San Francisco doesn’t have to sit and wait for the receivers to come to it—it can trade up in an attempt to get more hyped names or trade down to get gems it prefers, as well as more depth.
Here are three more potential targets 49er fans can keep an eye on as we enter bowl season.
Sammy Watkins, Clemson
2012: 57 receptions, 708 yards, 3 touchdowns
2013 to date: 85 receptions, 1,237 yards, 10 touchdowns
What better way to keep up with the Joneses in Seattle than by taking a player who has often been compared to his big 2013 addition, Harvin? A big-play machine, Watkins stretches teams vertically, able to separate from close coverage and turn on his 4.4-40 speed to break away deep downfield.
When he gets the ball in his hands, he pairs up his blinding speed with excellent vision, maneuvering through defenders and getting through traffic. When opposing defenders do get their hands on him, he has the toughness needed to run through any attempt at arm tackles or the like—you have to hit him solidly to bring him down.
He’s produced in a major way in the ACC this season, with seven games of over 100 yards receiving. He’s only had one game below 50 yards, for that matter, and that was an easy win over South Carolina State in which Clemson’s starters barely played. He’s a production machine.
Does he have any red flags? Well, yes—last year, Watkins was arrested on drug-related charges, which contributed to his disappointing 2012 season. That hasn’t done any harm to his draft stock, however—Watkins is regularly listed as a top-10 pick, so the 49ers would really have to fall in love with him and move heaven and earth to have a real shot at taking Watkins.
The classic NFL Draft Value Chart teams historically have used to determine trades would indicate that San Francisco would have to give up its first-round pick and both of its second-rounder selections (worth somewhere around 1,400 points, depending on how San Francisco and Kansas City finish the season) to move up into range where Watkins might be available (somewhere around the eighth-overall pick, worth 1,400 points in the classic chart).
That’s a very steep price to pay and likely not something San Francisco would seriously consider doing. If Watkins slips, however—a poor combine or pro day combined with teams choosing to go for quarterbacks or offensive linemen rather than receivers could see Watkins fall—the 49ers could decide to pull the trigger.
Marqise Lee, USC
2012: 118 receptions, 1,721 yards, 14 touchdowns
2013 to date: 50 receptions, 673 yards, 2 touchdowns
NFL comparison: Santonio Holmes
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Lee would have easily been the first receiver on most draft boards after a stellar 2012 season. Winning the Biletnikoff Award, given to the best wide receiver in college football, Lee seemed poised to be a top-10 pick.
However, 2013 has been a disappointment for the receiver. He has struggled with a knee injury as well as suffering from a drop-off in quarterback play, going from Matt Barkley to Cody Kessler. As such, he’s seen his numbers plummet and his draft stock follow.
He’s something of a victim of the NFL’s rule requiring players to wait three years after high school to enter the NFL draft; the gap between a top-10 pick and something in the teens or low 20s is millions of dollars on the rookie contract.
Of course, the skill set that Lee had last year hasn’t gone anywhere—he’s a long jumper and sprinter on USC’s track team, so you know he’s got some explosion. There are very few cornerbacks who can run step for step with Lee, at least when he’s not battling his knee injury.
He’s a threat to score each and every play, turning on the gas as he makes his cuts to leave floundering defenders in his wake. He has very soft hands too, with above-average body control to adjust to balls mid-flight.
His main question marks then are his physical durability and toughness—even before his injury problems this year, Lee was considered a bit on the skinny side, and now his durability has been brought into question. Does Lee have the strength to break through tackles at the next level? Will he survive the pounding an NFL receiver has to take? These questions are very much up in the air.
Lee is waiting until after USC’s bowl game to decide whether or not he’ll declare for the NFL draft, but it seems more likely than not that he’ll make the move.
His down year this season, put next to his star turn last year, has seen his value fluctuate up and down the board; CBS’s two mock drafts have him at No. 11 and No. 24. He’s a player who could see his stock rise when he’s at his pro day and the like because his speed just flies off the page at you. He’s worth watching to see where his stock ends up as we approach draft day.
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
2012: 30 receptions, 495 yards, 4 touchdowns
2013 to date: 45 receptions, 838 yards, 12 touchdowns
NFL comparison: Plaxico Burress
Of course, San Francisco doesn’t have to go receiver in the first round—it could choose to use the pick to add depth to a secondary that could see Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner depart in the offseason or add more depth to its offensive line. It could then choose to go after a deeper prospect in the receiving game.
Kelvin Benjamin is a large, large man. At 6’5”, 234 pounds, he’s a matchup nightmare for opposing cornerbacks physically. He would have been the second-tallest receiver at the 2013 NFL Combine as well as the heaviest.
A redshirt sophomore, he’s already a key focal point for opposing coaches—Duke’s coach, David Cutcliffe, described him as “a monster, and with great skills.” He’s blossoming into a player as well—there have been questions in the past about his work ethic and focus, but those questions have dissipated some in 2013 as his effort has begun to match his sheer athletic dominance.
He’s a dangerous weapon on fade routes—in the red zone, matched up against cornerbacks often six inches shorter than he is, and there’s very little that can stop him. Add in his phenomenal leaping ability and excellent hands, and he’d be a huge weapon down around the goal line.
He’s not just a physical specimen either—he has some impressive ball-handling skills to boot. Scouts Inc. recently moved him into the top 25 on its big board in recognition of his superbly productive season, while other sites still have him down in the third-round range.
He’s a rising star, but that rise may see him stall out in a position where San Francisco could have him for one of its second-round picks. Keep an eye on him during the final weeks of the season and through the offseason workouts—Benjamin might be a name you hear much more very soon.