In last year’s draft, the 49ers selected South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round. Normally, fourth-round picks go more or less unnoticed outside of the fanbases in question, but Lattimore was different.
Prior to the draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper described Lattimore as the only elite back in the entire 2013 crop—better than Giovani Bernard, better than Le’Veon Bell, better than Eddie Lacy. However, a devastating knee injury in his last season in college tanked his draft stock.
He wouldn’t play at all in the NFL in 2013, so anyone taking him would have to be prepared to wait.
With Frank Gore still being more than adequate at age 30 and a complement of other backs already on the roster, the 49ers were that team. Lattimore, the plan is, will one day replace Gore as the featured back in the 49ers offense—perhaps as soon as this upcoming season.
It was a decision made with the future in mind, as opposed to 2013. The team was talented enough that it didn’t need immediate help at the position and could afford to be a bit speculative.
It wasn’t unique last season, either. Tank Carradine, the 49ers’ second-round pick, was also coming off a knee injury and ended up essentially redshirting his rookie season. He wouldn’t have seen much playing time last season anyway, but with Justin Smith turning 35 next season, he’ll need to be replaced sooner or later.
He was another luxury selection—a player the 49ers could afford to wait on due to the level of talent already on the roster.
The 49ers’ 2014 draft, then, essentially not only has the 13 picks they’ve earned this season, but will see the addition of top-round talent in Lattimore and Carradine. While there’s no guarantee that either will develop into a superstar or anything of that nature, both are additions to this year’s team—immediate improvements.
They also have a leg up on a normal draft pick, having received a year of instruction from San Francisco’s coaching staff. They’ll be more prepared to hit the ground running than a traditional draft choice.
This year, the 49ers have a few more holes to take care of, making the possibility of them selecting another medical redshirt a bit more remote.
Carlos Rogers is a potential salary-cap casualty, as Spotrac.com indicates that he is scheduled to count for more than $8 million against the cap this season. If he does go, a new cornerback is a priority. Anquan Boldin is a free agent, meaning he’ll either need to be re-signed or San Francisco will need to select a new receiver to replace him.
With salary-cap decisions coming up in the next few years for a number of key starters—including Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis—some cheap, rookie-contract contributors are going to be key if the 49ers want to extend their recent run of success.
Still, with 13 picks, the 49ers can afford to use a couple of them on more speculative picks. The player who most slides into Lattimore or Carradine’s position in this year’s draft appears to be Aaron Colvin.
Colvin tore his ACL at the Senior Bowl, which is absolutely horrible luck for a player who had been projected to go in the first few rounds by Draft Insider. The injury likely slides him down into the sixth or seventh round, where the 49ers hold five picks.
Even if he had been fully healthy coming into the year, Colvin would not be an instant patch for San Francisco’s secondary—someone else will likely have to be picked early to take over at least the nickel corner role.
However, with one of those late-round picks, Colvin is exactly the type of player you can gamble on. Remember, the average sixth- or seventh-round pick isn’t Tom Brady or Marques Colston—those are the best-case scenarios.
No, the average late-round pick nowadays is more along the lines of a Mike Richardson—a depth player for a few years who maybe picks up a spot start.
With so many picks, it makes sense that a team like the 49ers, who have shown they’re willing to take fliers on injured prospects, might decide to grab Colvin and redshirt him for the season.
When you can pick up a second- or third-round prospect in the seventh round, that’s a move you should make every time—even if the benefits are delayed by a year or so.
Just like with Lattimore and Carradine, there’s no guarantee that such a move would work out, but it’s the sort of move a smart front office would make.