5 NFL Draft Prospects Who Will Fill the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Needs
The 2013 regular season just ended with the San Francisco 49ers sporting a record of 12-4. They are the fifth seed in the upcoming playoffs and will travel to Green Bay to face the Packers in a first-round contest.
Even though there is still plenty of football left to be played as the 49ers focus on their ultimate goal of winning the sixth Super Bowl in franchise history, GM Trent Baalke and his scouts are already looking ahead to their options for the upcoming draft.
Talent evaluation, the scouting combine, individual workouts and player interviews will be upon us soon enough. Let's take a sneak peek at the 49ers' most pressing needs and who might be available to fill those needs.
The 49ers will once again need to bolster their wide receiver corps. Mario Manningham has almost assuredly played his last game in a San Francisco uniform and Anquan Boldin will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Even if the 49ers retain Boldin to team with Michael Crabtree, the depth behind these two is unproven. Quinton Patton has shown some promising flashes, but injuries have slowed his dev lopment.
Round 1: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Cornerback
In their past two games, the San Francisco 49ers' pass defense has been torched for big yardage and big plays.
Against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers allowed 348 yards passing. In their final regular season game against the Arizona Cardinals, Carson Palmer had a field day: throwing for an alarming 407 yards passing against the 49ers' defense.
A large part of the problem was the lack of consistent pressure on either quarterback. The 49ers' defensive backfield was shown to be quite vulnerable.
There are major question marks surrounding four of the 49ers' top five cornerbacks, it will be imperative for GM Trent Baalke to focus on solidifying this position.
Carlos Rogers will be 33 years old when the 2014 season begins. He has had a decent year, but has looked very inconsistent in these past two games.
Rogers is one of the highest paid players on the roster and San Fran would save roughly $5 million in cap room by releasing him.
The contracts of both Tarell Brown and Eric Wright expire after this season. Prior to sustaining a rib injury midway through the season, Brown was the 49ers' best cornerback.
Brown had a base salary of $925,000 in 2013 but he will want a big raise and hefty signing bonus. If the 49ers do not sign him to an extension and he hits the open market, Brown will be one of the most attractive free-agent defensive backs out there.
There is no guarantee that Brown or Wright will return to San Francisco.
Chris Culliver, who showed promise as the 49ers' nickel back in 2012, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in training camp and his future is uncertain. There is also the possibility the 49ers could move Culliver to a safety spot if Donte Whitner leaves.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the 49ers' cornerbacks, this appears to be their most glaring area of need looking forward.
Barring a trade, the 49ers will be drafting at or near the bottom of the pecking order.
Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu would be an ideal fit for the 49ers. He has good speed and is strong in coverage.
Ekpre-Olomu is 5'10" and 185 pounds, just a bit smaller than most would like. However, he has the athleticism to make up for it.
Playing in the Pac-12, Ekpre-Olomu also had to face some of the top receivers in the country, including Marqise Lee, Paul Richardson and Brandin Cooks. He fared very well and even looked good in the Alamo Bowl, as Oregon held Texas to only 56 yards passing and registered an easy 30-7 victory.
Dane Brugler, of NFLDraftScout.com writes, "Ekpre-Olomu has terrific hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes and explosive footwork to make plays against the pass and the run. If there is a better draft-eligible cornerback in the country, I have yet to see him."
Round 2: Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver
The 49ers have two second round picks, as they own the Chiefs' selection from the Alex Smith trade.
With the first of their two selections, look for the 49ers to grab a wide receiver. And that player could be Brandin Cooks.
Cooks is a junior from Oregon State and, although he has not yet formally declared for the draft, it is very likely that he will do so.
Cooks has made steady improvement throughout his collegiate career. In 2013, Cooks had 128 receptions for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns, all leading the Pac-12.
Although receivers like Marqise Lee and Kelvin Benjamin received much more press than Cooks, after seeing all of them play it is my belief that Cooks will have the best NFL career.
Cooks is extremely quick with fast hands. He is also very elusive in the open field and is a definite big-play threat. Cooks won the 2013 Biletnikoff Award, given to the top collegiate receiver.
The 49ers can also use Cooks in the slot if they have both Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin on the outside.
Cooks would be a tremendous addition to the 49ers' offense.
Stats courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.
Round 2: Ahmad Dixon, Strong Safety
With their own pick in the second round, the 49ers should bolster their strong safety position. Ahmad Dixon out of Baylor would be a good selection.
The 49ers have a tough decision facing them regarding Donte Whitner.
He is having a good year and is a leader of the 49ers' secondary. He has also acted as a mentor to free safety Eric Reid, helping him immensely.
The league officials also seem to be targeting Whitner for his big hits, even though replays have often showed Whitner leading with his shoulder to the upper body, not to the head of the offensive player.
However, Whitner will be 29 years old when the 2014 season begins and has never been outstanding in coverage. Whitner also makes a lot of money at roughly $4 million per year.
When faced with a similar decision this past year with Dashon Goldson, GM Trent Baalke opted to let Goldson leave via free agency.
Even if the 49ers opt to retain Whitner for one more year and he agrees to a contract, it would still be a good move to select Dixon. He would have a year to learn and be more ready to take over the starting job in the 2015 season.
At 6'0" and 205 pounds, Dixon is very physical and a good tackler.
Round 3: James Hurst, Offensive Tackle
GM Trent Baalke and the 49ers have a penchant for selecting players for the future, after they have dropped due to injury. The luxury the 49ers have is that, in many cases, they do not need a player to contribute immediately, so they can stockpile quality talent.
In the 2013 draft, the 49ers selected Tank Carradine, Marcus Lattimore and Quinton Dial, all of whom were rated higher prior to being injured. Carradine and Lattimore have not played at all this year and Dial played only sparingly.
Offensive tackle James Hurst fits the mold of a very good player that got injured and could drop in the upcoming draft. Hurst broke his leg in the Belk Bowl and will undoubtedly miss a lot of the pre-draft workouts.
Hurst started for North Carolina all four years and that experience will be invaluable as he embarks on his pro career.
The injury could work in the 49ers' favor as Hurst was rated as high as a late first-round prospect, according to Walterfootball.com.
The 49ers have been very lucky as their tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis have stayed healthy. Staley has not missed a start in three years and Davis has started every game since he was drafted four years ago.
However, Staley will be 30 years old in 2014 and having a quality player behind him would give the 49ers some valuable insurance.
The 49ers own Tennessee's pick in round three, so if Hurst is available it would be an outstanding selection at that point.
Round 3: Tyler Larsen, Center
The San Francisco 49ers will need a center following this season.
Jonathan Goodwin has performed well for the 49ers since they signed him as a free agent prior to the 2011 season. He has started every game for them over these past three years.
However, Goodwin is 35 years old and his departure will save the 49ers roughly $4 million in salary.
The 49ers do not seem very excited about Daniel Kilgore or Adam Snyder playing the center position so now is the time for them to fill the void.
Tyler Larsen is ranked by NFLDraftScout.com as the fifth-rated center available. He has excellent size at 6'4'' and 312 pounds.
WalterFootball.com says this about Larsen: "Utah State actually evaluated him as carrying out the correct assignment on 97 percent of his snaps with four games at 100 percent. Larsen has some power to his game and could be a nice fit in a man-blocking system."
The 49ers primarily use that man-blocking system and Larsen's size and strength would be a big asset.