9 NFL Draft Prospects Every San Francisco 49ers Fan Should Know About
Much like last year, the 49ers will enter the 2014 draft with a plethora of picks—13 to be precise, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
That gives San Francisco and general manager Trent Baalke plenty of flexibility to make some moves in this upcoming draft. Like last year, the 49ers do not have 13 holes to fill on the roster.
They will have some pressing needs, however.
For starters, the 49ers may potentially be losing a number of key players to free agency this upcoming offseason.
Safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Tarell Brown and wide receiver Anquan Boldin highlight a cast of pending free agents in 2014.
While it is possible the 49ers look to bolster their current roster through free-agent acquisitions, re-signings and trades, the NFL draft may be the best means for San Francisco to find its future stars.
Let us take a look at nine collegiate prospects the 49ers may eye in this upcoming draft.
Every one of these prospects fits a specific need San Francisco will have this offseason and entering next year. While some are bona fide stud prospects, others may be less noteworthy yet no less significant.
Bryan Stork: Center, Florida State
Bryan Stork, Center
School: Florida State
Height/Weight: 6'4"/300 pounds
At 35 years old, incumbent 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin is probably witnessing the twilight of his NFL career. It is also worth noting that he will be a free agent in 2014.
Last season, San Francisco elected to give Goodwin another shot at the center position, anchoring an offensive line that was one of the best in the NFL in 2013.
Will it do the same in 2014, or will the team decide to get younger and cheaper?
My guess would be the latter.
A center is one of the needs the 49ers have entering this draft. While the rest of the offensive line is in excellent shape, a future center would bode well for the franchise moving forward.
The team could, of course, give the job to veteran backups Joe Looney or Daniel Kilgore, although drafting a center could be a plausible route.
Assuming San Francisco uses one of its potential three third-round picks on a center, it could do worse than draft Florida State center Bryan Stork.
Stork received the Rimington Trophy in December 2013, per Kevin McGuire of NBC Sports. The accolade, which is awarded to the best collegiate center in the country, lends credence to Stork's abilities and is something that Trent Baalke, Jim Harbaugh and Co. would love to have in a rookie prospect.
According to CBS Sports' prospect rankings, Stork is slated to go in the third round of the draft.
San Francisco has at least two picks in the round—with the possibility of a third after losing safety Dashon Goldson before the 2013 season.
At 6'4" and 300 pounds, Stork is big enough to handle the position. He would also benefit from having one of the best offensive lines in football flanking him.
Ja'Wuan James: Offensive Tackle, Tennessee
Ja'Wuan James, Offensive Tackle
Height/Weight: 6'6"/318 pounds
Let us stick with the offensive line for a moment here.
Unlike Bryan Stork potentially replacing Jonathan Goodwin at center, the 49ers do not need anybody to replace their remaining members of their vaunted offensive line.
They could use some depth, however.
This is where offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James out of Tennessee comes into play.
James is familiar with both tackle positions and would provide tremendous insurance if incumbent tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis were injured.
What makes James special is his durability—37 consecutive starts for the Volunteers—along with his abilities as a run blocker.
CBS Sports' Rob Rang highlighted these by writing:
Surprisingly quick off the snap, showing the ability to slide to protect the edge against the variety of speed rushers he has faced in the SEC. Plays on the balls of his feet but with his knees bent and his butt down, putting him good position to shuffle laterally as well as anchor against a quality bull-rush. Surprisingly light feet also stand out while run-blocking, as does his competitive spirit. Powerful at the point of attack and can drive defenders off the ball. Not shy about peeling off of them to target would-be tacklers at the second level, as well. A plug and play candidate, James looks like a solid bet to crack the first 100 picks of the 2014 draft.
Given the run-first nature of the 49ers, drafting a guy like James would be a smart move. James is listed as potentially going in the third round—where the 49ers potentially have three draft picks—so utilizing one of those picks on a guy like James would be a wise investment.
James would likely start out as insurance for the 49ers, but that would be a coverage policy worth investing in.
E.J. Gaines: Cornerback, Missouri
E.J. Gaines, Cornerback
Height/Weight: 5'11"/195 pounds
The 49ers could have plenty of problems this upcoming offseason pending the loss of some of its veteran cornerbacks.
More on the need for a top corner to come.
Yet on the deeper end of things, San Francisco should consider adding at least a couple of corners this offseason.
Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines could be one of those players that add depth at the position.
In four collegiate years, Gaines totaled 63 tackles with eight interceptions, proving he has the ball-hawking abilities NFL teams want.
With the 49ers looking to find some long-term solutions at the position, drafting Gaines makes sense in a number of ways.
First, Gaines is likely to be drafted in, or around, the third round of the draft—a round where the 49ers could have as many as three picks to utilize.
Gaines is well built for the position and features a wide frame for a corner, per Rob Rang of CBS Sports. He also specialized in both press- and off-man coverage schemes that would bode well in 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense.
Rang also notes his exceptional abilities in open-field tackling.
That flexibility would give him a chance to earn a job as a slot corner against many of the three- and four-wideout sets employed by a plethora of NFL teams.
The 49ers need some cornerback help this offseason, and do not be surprised if they draft at least a couple of corners in 2014.
Gaines could easily be one of them.
Anthony Steen: Guard, Alabama
Anthony Steen, Guard
Height/Weight: 6'3"/309 pounds
It is hard to fathom the 49ers dismantling their top-rated offensive line, but the fact remains that this particular unit will not stay put forever.
Already discussed is the pending departure of center Jonathan Goodwin.
Next season, it may very well be guard Mike Iupati.
Iupati will enter the final year of his five-year, $15.11 million contract in 2014, and he is likely to command a hefty contract on the open market.
If San Francisco elects to sign him to a long-term contract—similar to what it did with Anthony Davis in 2013—this point may be mute.
Yet let us assume for a moment that the 49ers decide to part ways with what promises to be an expensive commodity, instead electing to draft his replacement.
That guy could be Alabama guard Anthony Steen.
Steen was regarded by NFL Draft Scout as one of the top offensive linemen coming out in the 2013 draft.
Yet a shoulder injury suffered late in his senior year has certainly hurt his draft stock and CBS Sports now has him listed as a potential second-round pick.
The injury, which could potentially limit, or eliminate, his participation in the Senior Bowl or at the NFL Scouting Combine, per CBS Sports, may even drop his draft stock further.
San Francisco has already shown its willingness to draft injured players as future investments—look no further than 2013 draftees Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore as examples.
The fact is that the 49ers would not need Steen to contribute immediately. Rather, he could lay low, waiting and recovering while Iupati's contractual situation develops. At worst, Steen is a viable backup at either guard position. At best, he becomes a starter in his second season.
It would be smart for the 49ers to evaluate the future of their offensive line now while it is still dominant and build for a solid foundation in coming years.
Steen would fit that desire.
Ahmad Dixon: Strong Safety, Baylor
Ahmad Dixon, Strong Safety
Height/Weight: 6'0"/205 pounds
In 2013, the 49ers lost a Pro Bowl safety when Dashon Goldson departed the team via free agency. San Francisco supplemented the loss with first-round pick Eric Reid and have not looked back.
The 49ers may be forced to do so again, but this time with Donte Whitner.
At 28 years old, Whitner is entering the final year of a three-year, $11.65 million contract and will be a free agent in 2014. He is coming off a 2012 Pro Bowl campaign and should receive top dollar on the open market.
With the 49ers trying to save cap space this offseason, it would be no surprise for the team to get younger and cheaper wherever it can. As a result, Whitner could be let go.
So where do the 49ers look for a replacement at strong safety?
There are a couple of in-house options. They could consider sliding backup Craig Dahl over to that side of the field, or perhaps give the starting job to a corner like Chris Culliver—although that option would thin out an already depleted cornerback position.
Instead, San Francisco could consider drafting a safety like Baylor's Ahmad Dixon.
Projected by CBS Sports to be drafted in late in the second round, or early in the third, Dixon should be available on, or around, some of San Francisco's mid-round picks.
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports had this to say about Dixon:
Extremely fast downhill and loves to get his hands dirty in the run game, striking through his target with strong hands to finish. Dixon has an accurate first step with the quickness and range to play both sidelines with an alert, active mentality. Displays the feet and overall body coordination to hold up on an island if needed. Excellent size/speed athlete with the fluidity and natural speed to cover the entire field, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and in the deep half of the field. Works hard to shed blocks to make open-field stops and is a physical tackler. He is confident in coverage to jump routes and aggressively go after the ball.
Brugler also notes that Dixon needs to work on his coverage skills instead of going for the big hit.
The same could have been said about Whitner when he was young, however.
If San Francisco elects to draft a strong safety, the team would have an option of either starting a player like Dixon—if he impressive enough during training camp—or going with one of the aforementioned options that would allow Dixon to develop for at least one year.
At least in the long term, San Francisco would be looking to the future in the secondary.
Odell Beckham Jr.: Wide Receiver, Louisiana State
Odell Beckham, Wide Receiver
School: Louisiana State
Height/Weight: 5'11"/193 pounds
The lack of a deep receiving corps hurt the 49ers in 2013.
That much is known. With Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out for the majority of the season, and the 49ers receivers, not named Anquan Boldin, struggling, San Francisco's passing attack fell to 30th in the NFL over the course of the regular season.
This needs to change moving forward.
It is clear that quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs some more weapons to work with. Rookie Quinton Patton is yet to develop as a bona fide target and this author believes he will in due time. Yet aside from Boldin and a recently returned Crabtree, there has not been much from a wide receiver standpoint.
Both Boldin and Manningham are set to be free agents this offseason. Pending Patton's developments, as well as that of former first-round pick Jon Baldwin, the 49ers receiving corps could be in dire straits in 2014.
As a result, the 49ers will likely target a high-profile receiver in the 2014 draft. They could do worse than draft LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
In three seasons at LSU, Beckham totaled 141 receptions for 2,305 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. He also was the recipient of the fourth annual Paul Hornung Award as major college football's most versatile player, per NFL Draft Scout.
SB Nation's latest mock draft has the 49ers drafting Beckham with a predicted 26th-overall pick. Dan Kadar of SB Nation writes:
Even with Crabtree in the lineup, the 49ers need more talent at wide receiver. Players like Jonathan Baldwin and Manningham just aren't getting it done. Beckham is a sure-handed receiver who can get vertical in a hurry. Get more weapons for Colin Kaepernick and let him become the quarterback Ron Jaworski thinks he can be.
The part of that statement that should intrigue most 49ers fans is Beckham's ability to get vertical in a hurry.
San Francisco needs a deep threat on offense. So far, the only one they have is tight end Vernon Davis.
Expect the 49ers to take a serious look at Beckham—or at least a top receiver early in this draft.
Kelvin Benjamin: Wide Receiver, Florida State
Kelvin Benjamin, Wide Receiver
School: Florida State
Height/Weight: 6'5"/242 pounds
At 6'5" and 242 pounds, it is safe to say that Florida State wideout Kelvin Benjamin is huge. His ACC-leading 14 touchdowns lends credence to his abilities.
Imagine that type of physicality in San Francisco's passing attack, especially in the red zone.
In fact, that is one of the attributes that Benjamin received from Dane Brugler via NFL Draft Scout. Brugler writes:
He has near-tight end size with a ridiculously large wingspan, giving him a catching radius that is probably on-par with anyone at the NFL level. Benjamin is still developing as a route runner, but he shows the gliding speed and short-area quickness to create some separation and be a terror in jump ball situations, especially in the red zone. With the NFL featuring a number of big, long athletes at receiver, Benjamin fits what pro teams are looking for right now.
Benjamin is also slated to go either late in the first, or early in the second round, according to NFL Draft Scout, which is right about where San Francisco is slated to draft.
So why would the 49ers be interested?
First, San Francisco needs to get better in the red zone. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee described the lack of execution back in November by writing:
They have scored touchdowns more than 60 percent of the time they’ve gone inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, ninth-best percentage in the league. The vast majority of those touchdowns, however, have come on the ground. They’ve scored 12 rushing touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line and just four through the air.
This is where having a player like Benjamin could provide a huge boost to the 49ers.
His size and speed remind me of that of tight end Vernon Davis. Imagine those two players complementing each other.
Benjamin's wide catching radius would also prove beneficial to quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who still—in this author's opinion—needs to develop a little more finesse with his passes.
The one thing that Benjamin lacks, however, is solid route running and bona fide deep-threat capability—something the next player on this list possesses.
Brandin Cooks: Wide Receiver, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver
School: Oregon State
Height/Weight: 5'10"/186 pounds
Notice a trend here?
Everyone loves a big-play wide receiver.
That is exactly what Oregon State wideout Brandin Cooks is.
2013 was a monster year for Cooks in a number of ways. First, he led the Pac-12 in receptions (128), receiving touchdowns (16) and all of NCAA in receiving yards (1,730).
No wonder he received the 2013 Fred Biletnikoff Award for his accomplishments.
So why would the 49ers need him?
There are two substantial reasons for this. First, veteran receiver Anquan Boldin is with San Francisco on only a one-year deal. It is hard to fathom the 49ers not wanting him back, although it must be considered a possibility.
More importantly, however, San Francisco desperately needs a deep threat on the field. Despite both Boldin and Michael Crabtree, the 49ers' lone deep threat is with tight end Vernon Davis. San Francisco needs some help in this area and Cooks could supply it.
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports highlights Cooks' accolades and notes how he is explosive and fast in spite of not having the best size or strength. Fellow CBS Sports analyst Rob Rang also has the 49ers picking Cooks in the first round.
This type of receiver is what San Francisco needs. If the 49ers are able to retain Boldin in 2014, one can imagine the combination of strength and hands that both Boldin and Crabtree have combined with the deep-play abilities of both Cooks and Davis.
Cooks would also give the 49ers two Fred Biletnikoff Award recipients—the other one being Crabtree.
That would play well into a 49ers offense that ranked 30th in the NFL during the 2013 regular season.
Cooks would have to compete on San Francisco's depth chart if drafted and would have to at least offset Quinton Patton in the receiving department. While that probably would not happen in 2014, Cooks could be a considerable addition in coming years.
This is an element the 49ers should consider.
Jason Verrett: Cornerback, TCU
Jason Verrett, Cornerback
Height/Weight: 5'10"/176 pounds
It is almost a foregone conclusion that the 49ers will need to focus on their secondary this offseason.
No. 1 cornerback Tarell Brown has put together a solid season, totaling 12 pass deflections and 32 tackles in 2013. He is also in the final year of a three-year, $9.112 million contract.
Brown will be looking for a big contract this offseason.
In addition to Brown, fellow corner Carlos Rogers is also a point of 49ers' contractual concerns. While under contract through 2015, Rogers is making an average salary of $7.325 million per year. For a 32-year-old corner whose defensive skills have steadily declined, that is a lot of cash for the 49ers to be dishing out.
Tack on a pending departure of cornerback Eric Wright, and San Francisco needs help in the secondary.
Brown and Wright could walk this offseason. Rogers may be forced to renegotiate his contract or potentially be released to save money.
Whatever transpires, the 49ers need defensive help in the backfield.
2013 has been a good year for San Francisco's secondary—a season that saw it rank seventh in the league in passing yards against.
Let us assume for a moment that the 49ers elect to spend one of their early picks on a corner.
Perhaps that pick should be used on TCU cornerback Jason Verrett.
Projected by CBS Sports to go late in the first round, or early in the second, Verrett could be the type of talented corner San Francisco needs to supplement the potential losses of Brown, Wright and potentially Rogers.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler had this to say about Verrett:
He has smooth hips to easily turn and adjust, showing the fluid footwork to drive quickly on the ball with very good read/react skills. Verrett's best traits are his ball-hawking ability to bait throws and the timing and confidence to undercut routes, looking like a magnet to the ball. He also has good toughness and strength for the position, routinely throwing his body around and making plays in run support.
Ball-hawking corners are never a bad thing in the NFL and San Francisco could use another one to buffer the interception abilities of 2014 standout Tramaine Brock.
Verrett could very well be that guy.
No wonder why Brugler has the 49ers picking Verrett in the first round.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.