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.
*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.
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.