Sure, every team says it, but when you’re nearly maxed out on talent and aren’t looking to change the scheme, the task becomes more rigorous.
Fortunately, general manager Trent Baalke, national scout Matt Malaspina and the scouting department have been hard at work all year.
One of their first live opportunities is the 89th annual East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, January 18. This will be the first of two all-star games as the draft process really begins to pick up steam. At this game, 114 NFL prospects will be on display, representing 85 different schools.
Last year, more than 90 of the game’s participants were drafted or signed as free agents to NFL teams. And at least 100 were in NFL training camps. All told, a good percentage of the competition in Saturday’s game will be relevant. And no doubt, the 49ers will have eyes in the building.
Considering San Francisco’s team needs and philosophical approach to the offseason, we’ve compiled a list of prospects who are set to compete at the Shrine Game. The following will entail a briefing of the players that Baalke and Malaspina may be spying on and how they might be a fit.
The 49ers will be on the lookout for a slot corner to potentially replace Carlos Rogers, saving north of $5 million in the process.
One of the candidates to do so is Ricardo Allen, the 5’9”, 186-pound cornerback out of Purdue University.
For the type of developmental prospect that the Niners might be looking to groom into that role, Allen meets the criteria. He is a quick, tough and scrappy nickel corner. He looks like a younger, reinvigorated version of Rogers and one who could hopefully be more consistent.
And from what we can see, he looks like a natural.
According to the school’s official website, Allen, a top recruit in the state of Florida, showed up to Purdue as a 3-star prospect and started 12 games a true freshman. He went on to play out a strong career, starting 36 total games in three years and taking the reins of the defense.
Stylistically, his fluid hips and instincts suggest he has the tools to play in San Francisco’s man-to-man-friendly scheme.
He also has the ball skills, as he holds a Purdue record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns (13 for his career).
Certain elements in his game lead to comparisons to Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, who is coming off a very strong year. Not only is Grimes proof that a player of Allen’s size can be durable and effective but can play on the boundary as well.
The former Boilermaker will be wearing No. 21 for the East defense.
Despite being the shortest player on the field this weekend, swift, 5’8”, 187-pound Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon is one of the bigger-name prospects of the Shrine Game.
He’s a dart who can be deployed from all over, which is noteworthy when it comes to the 49ers offense.
He projects as a multi-tooled player who can play the slot, work out of the backfield and contribute in the return game. And since he doesn’t possess the elite size or strength to outmuscle the coverage, he’s learned to create separation with his speed and agility.
But it's a bit of a double-edged sword. Teams will want to see how he does when everybody is fast, which is why the Shrine Game will be significant for Gallon (as will drills at the NFL combine). Can he run everything on the route-tree and give the quarterback an open target?
There are also concerns about his ability to get off the line.
Another thing to note is that he is an ascending player who made strides each year with the Wolverines. As a senior, he had his best campaign and one of the best in Michigan history. The All-Big Ten second-team selection led the program with 89 grabs and nine touchdowns.
Gallon’s 1,373 receiving yards were also a single-season record for the university.
Is this just inflated college production, or is he on a fast track to NFL stardom?
WR Jeremy Gallon will be an interesting #NFLDraft case study. Will likely measure under 5-8 and run a 4.50, but the tape shows a reliable WR— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) December 29, 2013
On the East team is University of Miami receiver Allen Hurns—one of the many big-bodied receivers that the school spits out each year.
At 6’3”, 195 pounds, Hurns is taller than he is big and freaky, but it doesn’t mean he can’t add size.
But right now, without the upper body strength and polished college career, he may have limitations at the next level. There are also questions about his production, since he produced only one 1,000-yard season for the Canes.
But Hurns is going to get a look, and the WR-needy 49ers have as good a reason to take notes as any team.
After all, he did average 18.7 yards per catch, which will make him an interesting late-round flier or undrafted free agent. And according to team writer David Kenyon of Bleacher Report, the Miami receiver came up with a whopping 30 receptions for first downs, which is just the kind of element that teams are looking to add.
The Niners, which have had third-down and red-zone issues, may want to consider a player like him.
#Miami WR Allen Hurns' acceleration throughout his route is very impressive— Emory Hunt (@FBallGameplan) January 15, 2014
The 49ers will need to bring in a couple of 3-4 nose tackles, and one prospect who looks the part is Wisconsin’s Beau Allen, who is a load at 6’3”, 334 pounds.
He isn’t going to wow with his 40 time, but he is a big, powerful guy who can develop into an interior presence. He looks a lot like ex-Baltimore Ravens nose guard Kelly Gregg. If he's developed by defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, there’s really no telling what Allen could become in the NFL.
Given his size and grit, he can be a run clogger and block absorber, serving a much-needed purpose in San Francisco.
So this weekend against other mountainous linemen, it will be noteworthy to see how imposing his size still is. Does he play up to it? NFL teams will want to evaluate Allen’s technique and what they’re working with.
For the 49ers, they have shown that they can turn even the most unknown late-rounders and undrafted free agents into serviceable starters. If they like what they see in the Badger, they might be able to find another solid project player on the defensive line.
Wisconsin DT Beau Allen displayed great functional strength in practice. He was tough to move and gave the O linemen here all they handle.— Scott Bischoff (@Bischoff_Scott) January 17, 2014
Expected to perform for the East is quarterback Jordan Lynch, a two-year starter formerly of Northern Illinois.
Albeit a controversial name in regard to how he projects to the next level, he's been on the radar for some time. And in a higher-level contest like the Shrine Game, a lot of people want to see how he performs.
Seeing as how the 49ers are in the market for a backup quarterback, there is no reason they shouldn’t watch Lynch, who was a highly productive college player. Not to mention, he also happened to run a read-option offense. There are things that would suggest this could be a seamless fit.
Especially with Jim Harbaugh, the quarterback whisperer.
In 2012, Lynch’s first full season as a starter, he threw for 3,138 yards and tossed 25 touchdowns to six interceptions. That’s very efficient. The stats aren’t inflated; it looks like 49ers football already. He also finished with a fairly impressive 8.0 yards-per-attempt average, cementing a commendable debut.
As a fifth-year senior, he led his team to a 12-2 record (24-4 from 2012-13).
Most impressive is that he rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons as a starting quarterback.
He has found ways to be productive for a while now.
In his four years at the school, Lynch took snaps in 50 games, finishing with 10,569 yards from scrimmage (passing, rushing and receiving) and 100 all-purpose touchdowns. He is a very athletic QB who moves well in the pocket like a lot of these young new-wave passers who extend plays.
While it’s a long shot, the 49ers are looking for a backup quarterback, and Jordan Lynch could be enough to make due. At worst, he can come into camp and provide a third body in training camp. And if nothing else, he could be fun to watch in the way that B.J. Daniels was.
Jordan Lynch is throwing better today than I think I've ever seen him throw in a game.— Michael Schottey (@Schottey) January 13, 2014
Nebraska team captain Quincy Enunwa, a four-year wideout, will be representing at the East-West Shrine Game.
At 6’2”, 225 pounds, he is one of the more physically impressive and pro-ready prospects. However, he is only projected as a fringe seventh-round/undrafted player, so he has a lot to prove.
Being a bigger bodied player, he’ll have his opportunities to impress between now and the draft, which could lead to him landing in a training camp in 2014.
Once again, the 49ers will be having more of an open competition at that position, and a height/weight/speed receiver like Enunwa could offer something. San Francisco will not discriminate against prospect rank or school and will be a candidate to host a lot of receivers in the offseason.
That being said, if Enunwa averages 14.8 yards per catch in the Shrine game like he was in his senior season and scoring touchdowns as frequently as he was in his final year with the Cornhuskers, he could generate some buzz leading up to May.
#Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa the most put-together WR here this week at 6-2 and 227. Mostly muscle. Thick build on his frame. Looks tight— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 14, 2014
For a late-round prospect like Wisconsin’s Ryan Groy projects to be, a team will be getting something to work with.
The 6’5”, 325-pound All-Big Ten selection is a polished blocker with room to grow, and he hails from a school that is known for its heavyweights in the trenches.
And he logged four years, setting a school record by playing in 54 games and not missing a single one.
He also started 33 total games, getting starts at left tackle, left guard, center and even fullback.
Groy’s versatility and durability are both on display here. And during his college tenure, the Badgers happened to have had their best offensive seasons in school history: 2011 (6,578 yards), 2013 (6,251), 2010 (5,787) and 2012 (5,506), via the team’s official website.
With uncertainty at guard and questions about what Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney are capable of, this may be a player that the 49ers would like to bring in to compete. Not to mention, San Francisco will avidly be looking for a center once Jonathan Goodwin moves on.
Monitor Groy in the East-West matchup.
One position that the 49ers may look to add in a couple of rounds this year is cornerback.
Someone to keep a close eye on is Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir, NFL Draft Scout’s 14th-ranked corner out of 285 prospects who is pegged as a third- or fourth-round pick. At 6’2”, 206 pounds, he is one of the lengthier defensive backs and one that possesses the frame to be imposing at the next level.
The All-American also fits the prototype, looking a lot like past draftees in Chris Culliver (South Carolina) and Marcus Cooper (Rutgers).
Like them, Desir brings pretty good long speed to the game, running in the mid 4.4's on a good day. He has the size/speed combo that projects well to the NFL. And with his track record, he has also proved that if he gets his hands on the football, he has the ability to do something with it.
The ball skills and body control are sophisticated for a guy his size, as he gets good positioning on the receiver and tries to take the football away. Desir is confident in his ability and appears to be in an upward trajectory, so his performance in this game will be something to see.
He’s very good already but still moldable.
According to the school’s athletics department, Desir’s nine interceptions as a senior ranked him second in all NCAA levels. He is also first in MIAA history in career pass breakups (52) and second all time in interceptions (25). There are signs of a defensive weapon here.
And with secondary coach Ed Donatell, Desir could hit his ceiling.
The selling point on him is that he is a proven tackling corner, which the 49ers are always looking for, regardless of position. Desir racked up 171 tackles, including nine for a loss, three sacks and four forced fumbles.
And his closing speed translates to a real thump.
As a complete defensive player, he was named the Cliff Harris Award Winner in 2013, which is an annual award given to the Small College Defensive Player of the Year (chosen from a group of more 5,000 athletes).
After losing Marcus Cooper to the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers may want to revisit this need.
Bet that San Francisco’s scouts will have eyes on Desir. They’ll want to see how imposing he is against the best competition, particularly big West wideouts in Seantavius Jones and Quincy Enunwa.
He’ll be wearing No. 3 for the East.
Pierre Desir has the longest arms of any Shrine Game CB. NFL teams will be focusing on long corners that can match length at the catch point— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 14, 2014