Cunning general manager Trent Baalke and the San Francisco 49ers have a league high in draft picks again this year, expecting a total of 12 in 2014, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Judging by the way things went last year, this should put the ballclub in position to dictate each of the seven rounds and make several value picks again.
However, with the roster about set in stone with depth at virtually every position group and draftees from last year still to be added to the active game-day roster, the 49ers will conceivably need even fewer players than they did an offseason ago.
That's when they went in with 13 picks, traded up three times in the top 100 and still overdrafted players.
In order to avoid drafting talented players that land with other teams, they may make more aggressive trades, target specific players at needs positions and draft less bodies overall.
Knowing that this team is looking for just a few key contributors, the following is a comprehensive list of several ideal fits. This means, as of January to February, they are the best-looking prospects with the least questions and most potential to influence San Francisco’s team. The Niners can't waste picks on players who disappear on their roster.
So for this draft, we're looking for players who cannot only crack the lineup but also change the look of the team while making it more productive.
That being said, these are all “gold-helmet guys” who already look like 49ers. These players can fill a need this year while enhancing their respective position group and helping the team to get over the Super Bowl hump.
Stats provided by Sports-Reference College Football. Round projections and measurements courtesy of NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports. (*) Denotes the optimal choice based on round projection, team need and player fit.
*Deone Bucannon, Washington State
Right off the bat, the 49ers have to be awestruck with Deone Bucannon measurables.
At 6’1” and 216 pounds, he is a well-built safety who would not look out of place in even the most-conditioned defense in the league. He is stocky, dense and fast to the football, which adds to his domineering presence.
Not only does he look the part, but he also plays to it. With his size, quickness and measurements, he is the total package at safety—an explosive hitter who can cover and make plays when the ball is in flight, too.
He has a 78-inch wingspan, per Rob Rang of CBS Sports, which measured out as the highest among the 2014 safety class. And on average, he runs in the 4.5s, which makes him a rangy defender. His physicality translated to 14 career interceptions and 22 pass deflections in 45 games.
That gives the 49ers more value on the deep part of the field.
The other characteristic that the 49ers would get from him—which they must consider as something they need to replenish with the potential loss of strong safety Donte Whitner—is the leadership role. Bucannon was a defensive captain for the Cougars. At the forefront of the football program, he ran it like a middle linebacker or quarterback.
If you look at their backgrounds, all of San Francisco’s defenders have this leadership quality.
Bucannon fits the 49ers in every conceivable way.
Keep an eye on Washington State SS Deone Bucannon. Has size (6-1, 216), will close on the ball with some speed & he wants to compete.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 21, 2014
Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
While not as physically impressive or rangy as Deone Bucannon, Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon remains a top prospect at the position and be moldable within the 49ers' defensive system.
After all, he's versatile and has a mind for coverage. Crafting his game as a four-year player for Baylor, he tried his hand at both nickelback and safety and eventually evolved into an All-Big 12 and first-team All-American selection.
However, he had just four interceptions in his lengthy playing career (15 pass deflections).
If the Niners were to invest another high pick in a safety, ball skills seem like a must, especially with the teams that they'll seeing by season's end.
But like 49ers safety Eric Reid, that is something that can always develop at the next level, so it's not condemning of Dixon. And at 6’0”, 205 pounds, he has the dimensions, athleticism and fearlessness to charge up and make the tackle, having piled up 288 in 47 games (38 starts) with the Bears.
Really like Ahmad Dixon. Just showed nice range getting to pylon from centerfield.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 22, 2014
*Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Odds are that the 49ers will be looking for a box-out receiver who can fill in for wideout Anquan Boldin in 2014 or seamlessly in 2015 if No. 81 is able to return for another year. They also need a player who can help the passing attack from the outside, contribute in the red zone and also go up and compete for it on 3rd-and-long situations.
For all these reasons and more, Texas A&M superstar rebounder Mike Evans is the perfect fit.
The 6’5, 225-pound physical jump-ball specialist is everything that the 49ers need for the offense, which has been a bottom-ranked passing attack for all three years under the new regime. It's one facet of the team that just hasn't improved a whole lot. And the characteristics that make him great are what this offense has been missing.
Not to mention, they can actually acquire him.
When San Francisco was slated to select at No. 31 last year, it didn't hesitate to move up to fill a need. The 49ers traded up from the back of Round 1 to No. 1 to acquire safety Eric Reid of LSU, who was also a top prospect at his position.
The reason for this was the 49ers had more draft picks than any other team and just a handful of roster slots to fill, so they needed high-quality players.
This could be the case again in 2014, as the 49ers look to trade up for Evans, a former basketball star who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 17 touchdowns in his only two years in the NCAA.
And having shipped 2012 first-round wide receiver A.J. Jenkins out of town, the Niners are looking for a wide receiver and would probably like this to be the last time for a while. In a draft for Trent Baalke that will emphasize quality over quantity even more this time around—and one where the general manager has to redeem himself—this is a very real pairing between team and prospect.
If I had to compare Mike Evans to one NFL player it would be Vincent Jackson. That's who you're getting.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 2, 2014
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
From what we can tell, the 49ers really like Florida State, having selected both linebacker Nick Moody and defensive end Tank Carradine in last year’s draft alone. San Francisco’s national scout Matt Malaspina also has roots in the state and is responsible for the Bruce Miller pick in 2011, who was out of Central Florida—Malaspina’s own alma mater.
From defensive tackle Ray McDonald (Florida) to linebacker Patrick Willis (Ole Miss) to cornerback Chris Culliver (South Carolina), it’s easy to see the 49ers’ forte is in the Southeast. You have to figure they wouldn’t mind spending a first-round pick in 2014 on an area that they’re comfortable with, especially at a position they need to settle once and for all.
While he’s a rawer specimen with room to grow, FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin looks like a picture-perfect fit for the Niners.
Like Evans, the 6'5", 234-pounder is also a freakish jump-ball specialist who would bring something unique to the organization.
Aside from breaking the 1,000-yard mark in his one and only year as a starter—which isn't too shabby—he averaged 18.7 yards per catch and had 15 receiving touchdowns, making him No. 1 in the ACC and third in the nation.
With the overwhelming size/speed combination, he dwarfs the competition, resulting in lots of big plays.
It also helped him become an asset in a particular area that has been trouble for the 49ers: the red zone. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Benjamin had seven receptions in the red zone in 2013—all for TDs. In fact, he only had one career red-zone catch that wasn’t a touchdown (10 of 11).
The Seminoles' website also reports that he averaged a touchdown every 3.6 catches in his final year, which was second best in the country among wide receivers. Much to his size, Kelvin Benjamin’s trajectory is monstrous right now. There’s a world of upside to him as soon as 2014 if he carries this ascension.
There are questions about his hands, yes, but he hasn’t quite grown into them yet and still makes spectacular grabs every game.
Truthfully, he is still evolving as a player, which makes him an interesting prospect since there is so much room to grow and this is what NFL teams will be starting with. He already makes enough grabs to be productive. So for those reasons, he and Mike Evans have to be the top two prospects for the 49ers in Round 1 at the wide receiver position.
That was Kelvin Benjamin's 15th TD of the season (6th straight game with a TD catch) #BCS— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2014
Travis Swanson, Arkansas
It’s hard to imagine the 49ers spending a first-round pick on a center. They can’t view the center position as first-round worthy because it’s not really a game-changer.
Nevertheless, they do have a need, and Razorbacks’ Travis Swanson is the best in the class and projected to go first at his position off the board. Teams know what they’re getting him at 6’5”, 315 pounds with 50 career starts under his belt.
And having blocked for a 3,000-yard passer for three seasons and a 1,000-yard rusher for two seasons, Swanson is arguably the most polished and powering of the 2014 prospects, per the Razorbacks' official website. Knocking down linemen, he sets the tone, clears running lanes and gives the QB a cushy pocket.
Much like New York Jets center Nick Mangold was coming out of Ohio State, this is an investment pick for an offensive line. He can be the eyes, ears and voice of the offense. Whether it’s a team starting from scratch on the O-line or one looking for that last link, Swanson is a player whom organizations can build their unit around.
Travis Swanson is a real bully at the 2nd level. Those hands... https://t.co/K1bYxZiEno— Darren Page (@DarrenPage15) January 8, 2014
*Bryan Stork, Florida State
Seminoles Bryan Stork is one of the best in the class, and the Niners won't have to spend a first-round pick for him either. He may be available in the late second or even mid-third round, and he is still a quality center who fills a need for San Francisco.
He is a very sophisticated player who leaves the NCAA game as the Rimington Trophy winner—given to the best center in the nation—as well as a BCS national champion. And at 6’4”, 300 pounds, he’s still a daunting player who can pull his weight in both pass protection and as an interior road grader.
In 2013, he anchored the offensive line for FSU, which was the best offensive unit in the country, bar none.
The Seminoles posted insane figures. Another plus is that Stork has the intelligence to call shots on the offense and help the 49ers run a more efficient unit. He can help identify blitzes and adjust to the exotic looks and stunts that this group has been vulnerable to in the past.
Overall, he projects to enhance this offense and at great value.
FSU C Bryan Stork looked like a rugby house party animal at 6'3 1/2" 306 with relatively short, 31" arms.— Ryan Lownes (@ryanlownes) January 20, 2014
Weston Richburg, Colorado State
The 6’4”, 300-pound Weston Richburg has seen his stock rise as the draft talk has begun to heat up. Having played for the CSU Rams, there wasn’t a lot of praise for the work he had been doing. But after he put forth a noteworthy showing at the Senior Bowl, there is trust that he can compete at the next level.
Also, with his 49 career starts and all the positive output around him, his background looks pristine.
The hulking center was twice named to the All-Mountain West team, including first-team honors in his senior year. Each year from 2011-2013, he was consistently on the watch list for college’s most prestigious honors for offensive linemen, including the Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.
In 2013, he blocked for the nation’s eighth-leading rusher in Kapri Bibbs (1,572 yards), who also had an NCAA-best 28 touchdowns. Offensively, the school saw its best rushing productivity in recent history. And still the line also didn’t let up many sacks, which makes Richburg look like a complete player, via the team's official website.
There’s promise here.
If the 49ers don’t want a high pick but are looking for someone who can legitimately compete to start at center, they can wait to draft Richburg. A battle between him and returning interior lineman Daniel Kilgore could be the low-key way that San Francisco addresses the center position.
I'm thinking about creating the Weston Richburg fan club…anyone else want to join? We could make t-shirts, bumper stickers and coffee mugs.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 23, 2014
Dri Archer, Kent State
This doesn’t stand out as a need, but you have to remember that the 49ers are an authentic three-phase team.
They’ll also be implementing subtle moves like trying to strengthen special teams while transitioning running back LaMichael James to the offense. This will take some maneuvering by the front office.
For starters, they’ll need to make a concerted effort to replace James as a returner and match the home run threats of NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals all have in Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin and Patrick Peterson, respectively. These are players whom special teams gunners lose sleep over.
So, while transitioning James to the offense, the Niners need to try and upgrade here.
Kent State’s Dri Archer is a pocket-sized playmaker who could be a valuable commodity in one of the last roster spots. He's so unique that the coaches would be tempted to get him on the field. He can find a way to contribute in a multitude of ways but namely as a return specialist.
That is something he can do from Day 1, simply because he is a natural with the pigskin.
During his time with the Golden Flashes, he accumulated 3,536 yards from scrimmage, as well as 36 rushing and receiving touchdowns (46 games played). His lightning-quick moves and top speed make him nearly impossible to capture in the open field. He is a dangerous player who fits today's NFL.
In 2012, his most superior season, Archer posted 1,990 all-purpose yards on offense, which included 20 touchdowns. His yards-per-attempt average on the ground was also tops in the nation (9.0 YPC). He had 159 carries that year on offense but no more than 68 in any other season with Kent State.
But clearly when he’s involved, the output is solid.
Harnessing that pure playmaking ability, Archer also doubled as the team’s kick returner, taking 51 kicks back for a total of 1,436 yards and four touchdowns in his career (28.2 average). He was productive on a regular basis, but most of all, he posed the threat of the big play. Sometimes that is enough to scare an opponent into a mistake.
Teams will have to respect his presence alone, and if he lives up to his potential, he could be the next Devin Hester or Trindon Holliday.
I'm studying Kent State RB/WR Dri Archer…Explosive little dude!— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 3, 2013
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
If San Francisco decides to go against its team-building strategy and pursue a top-tier cornerback in Round 1 to complement its front seven, then OK State’s Justin Gilbert is the way to go. This would be a great start for the team.
The 49ers have to hit on a pick, and with Gilbert, there’s not much to knock. He can flat-out play. And as a 6'0", 200-pound long-bodied specimen, he’s an athletic gem with the upside to be, dare we say it, a "shutdown corner" in the NFL. That’s what teams are looking for in Round 1.
In his playing career, he racked up 12 interceptions, including two pick-sixes and seven pass breakups. The most noteworthy takeaway about his defensive numbers was that seven of his 12 interceptions came in his farewell season as a senior, which demonstrates where his game is headed.
And not only is he a talented player on the rise, but he’s also one of the most experienced corners in this class.
Teams will notice that he’s a pure athlete—one who has exceptional ball skills and can master the cornerback position at the NFL level. He could be the first corner off the board, so San Francisco would have to trade up to acquire him.
Gilbert would be the best fit and is probably on the team’s radar, but he is probably not the player that the 49ers wind up taking.
Finalizing game notes on Justin Gilbert (CB-OKState). Would have drafted him over any CB not-named Patrick Peterson in last three classes.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2014
*Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Ohio State’s Bradley Roby (5’11”, 192 lbs) comes into this draft as one of the most decorated prospects at his position.
In 35 games played, the first-team All-American for the Buckeyes racked up eight career interceptions and 41 pass deflections. In 2012, his 19 passes defended led the nation, resulting in him being named a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. He also had two pick-sixes in his last two seasons with the team.
The reason he is not a top-10 overall prospect is because of off-the-field issues and a pedestrian final season.
But of the candidates in this year’s class, he may be a favorite to have the best pro career. He is a special physical specimen who consistently runs in the 4.3s and is rarely, if ever, shown up physically. So while he lacks the preferred size and physical qualities, he can take away options just the same.
Roby possesses the natural field awareness, hip snap and speed to run with and cover anyone. Being arguably the most talented cornerback in the draft—one with the highest ceiling—it seems like a home run to acquire him for renowned secondary coach Ed Donatell.
PICK SIX! Ohio St. executes tip-drill to perfection as Bradley Roby returns INT 63 yards to the house » http://t.co/ahGwAQYkQY— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 16, 2013
Jaylen Watkins, Florida
Teams needing depth at corner should look no further than Florida’s Jaylen Watkins, who offers a lean, fast defender with natural cover skills.
In his four-year career with the Gators, he played both cornerback and safety, flashing the natural field awareness to play the quarterback from anywhere on the gridiron. Whether it’s on the boundary, inside over the nickel or on the deep part of the field, he is a smooth defender who can roam all over.
Overshadowed by Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, the No. 1 and No.a 2 cornerbacks at the University of Florida, a 6’0”, 194-pound Watkins may actually turn out to be the steal in the draft.
All told, he is a highly versatile defensive back with brilliant physical tools (runs in the 4.4s), proving to be light on his feet and good in tight spaces, even with such a long body. Coming off a great week at the Senior Bowl, he may be a sleeper star to watch in the early rounds of the draft and a potential replacement for cornerback Carlos Rogers.
E.J. Gaines, Missouri
Tigers’ defender E.J. Gaines is a complete-looking cornerback in that he is a dependable cover man who can also be counted on in run support.
In his four-year career, he churned out 101 tackles, eight picks and countless pass breakups. The All-SEC first-team selection showed the skill to line up against an array of different-style receivers while displaying the same innate aggressiveness and route anticipation.
The Mizzou product is physically equipped as well.
Even though some may say he is a little undersized at 5’10”, 195 pounds, he plays big and brings a strong demeanor on the field. In his Week 14 SEC Defensive Player of the Week performance, he shut down Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans, holding him to season lows of four catches for eight yards.
With that versatility and do-it-all ability, he is a lot like 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown.
And not only is Gaines unkind with receivers, but he will also come up and smoke the run, giving him the prestige of an aggressive player. He can man up but also has the feel to play in space whenever zone is called. Overall, he is the type of cornerback who would fit San Francisco’s system.
Can't wait to see what #Mizzou CB E.J Gaines' vertical jump is. Showed serious explosion when defending Mike Evans.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 1, 2013
*Tajh Boyd, Clemson
At 6’1”, 225 pounds, Tajh Boyd is a pure footballer at the quarterback position.
As a multi-tool athlete, he made his name throwing and rushing, taking whatever the defense gave him at Clemson. Over four years and 27 starts, he was dynamic in accruing nearly 12,000 passing yards and 107 passing touchdowns for his career.
Improvising, he also posted an extra 1,165 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns on top of that.
Tracking his progress with the Tigers, Boyd has cleaned up his game, improving as a thrower and a decision-maker. He was still able to create but play within the confines of the offense, optimizing the talent around him.
Even though he had a lower vantage point and a bit of a wind-up, Boyd could execute.
In his final two seasons, the two-time first-team All-ACC quarterback accounted for 90 total touchdowns to just 23 interceptions, leading the program to a 22-4 record from 2012-13.
With his strong arm, Boyd’s career passing efficiency rating was still ranked top five in the conference for the three seasons he was taking the snaps, and he finished No. 1 all time in the ACC (155.2). His control was impressive considering he can really rip it.
And again, as a dual-threat QB, his 133 career touchdowns are also 10th all time in NCAA history and first in the Atlantic.
So teams picking from this year's crop of passers have seen lots of production from Boyd over multiple seasons, but outside the strong arm, none of the elite or intangible qualities they’re looking for. There is a chance the Niners take a chance on him, bringing him into camp to develop behind Colin Kaepernick.
Same folks calling Tajh Boyd "undraftable" probably are the guys who had Gabbert rated above Newton and Ryan Nassib going top 5.— P. Schrager (@PSchrags) January 25, 2014
Zach Mettenberger, LSU
Zach Mettenberger is one of the more quality quarterbacks in this class, yet he is one of the least talked-about players. This is because of his season-ending ACL tear, which could potentially mar his draft status in 2014. It may turn a first-round prospect into a third- or fourth-round pick.
This is one of those situations that the 49ers like to take advantage of, so they will monitor him on draft day.
If they could grab him, not only would they have a solid backup for a few years, but they’d also have a bargaining chip once he’s fully healed, has league experience and the Jim Harbaugh stamp of approval.
It’s a sharp plan.
People are going to be interested in Mettenberger. He played exceptional football from the pocket, throwing for nearly 5,700 yards and 34 touchdowns in two seasons. In his final year in 2013, he led the SEC in adjusted passing yards per attempt (10.7), which was also good enough for third in the nation.
And at 6’5” and 235 pounds, he has the size and physical tools to play quarterback in the NFL, drawing comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers passer Ben Roethlisberger, per CBS Sports' Rob Rang. He can extend the play because he’s a big, strong monument behind the offensive line, not because he’s a physically gifted escape artist.
He stands tall in the pocket and has the velocity to kill teams deep.
There’s a lot to like about Mettenberger, and he could wind up being a “best player available” for the 49ers in a later round this year. He is likely to fall, and he fills a need. And like the injured players that this team has drafted before him, the LSU quarterback would not be under any pressure to be ready.
Tajh Boyd: Jake Locker Zach Mettenberger: Philip Rivers Derek Carr: Jay Cutler AJ McCarron: Matt Schaub Aaron Murray: Case Keenum #QBComps— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 11, 2013