2014 NFL Draft Prospects Who Could Be Instant Starters for San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers shall approach the 2014 NFL draft, not with the intention of trying to revamp an already dominant franchise, but rather to tweak and bolster a roster that is already towards the elite of the NFL.
This is a good situation for the 49ers to be in. The 49ers have few needs to address this offseason. They also have a total of 12 picks to utilize per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—a situation similar to the one the team found itself in back in 2013.
That year, the 49ers elected to draft only a couple of immediate-impact players—safety Eric Reid and tight end Vance McDonald—while using many of their other picks to draft injured or developmental players like Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore.
Should we expect San Francisco to approach this draft with a similar mindset?
Despite having 12 picks in this upcoming draft, the 49ers do not have 12 on-the-field needs. They may not even have 12 roster spots up for grabs next season.
In the humble opinion of this author, San Francisco has four pending needs that could be addressed in this draft—safety, cornerback, wide receiver and center.
All of these needs are directly related to what the 49ers do in free agency, both with their own, and outside the organization—the details of which shall be described further in this slideshow.
In spite of San Francisco not needing to rely on this draft for players that fill immediate needs, the 49ers will still look for a number of players that shall have the capability to be instant starters.
We will take a look at eight prospects, two at each of the aforementioned positions, that could start immediately for San Francisco in 2014. We shall also describe need and evaluate what they could bring to the team.
Center Bryan Stork, Florida State
Bryan Stork, Center
School: Florida State
Height/Weight: 6'4" / 312 pounds
With incumbent center Jonathan Goodwin having reached the end of his three-year, $10.9 million contract, the time may be now where San Francisco starts to look for its future center.
Goodwin is 35 years old and has even contemplated retirement, but is willing to keep playing per Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com.
The only question is how the 49ers will approach the situation.
While re-signing Goodwin remains a possibility, it is hard to fathom San Francisco—already trying to save money under the cap—not getting younger and cheaper.
This either means promoting one of their current linemen—like Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney or perhaps Adam Snyder—or taking a look at an eventual replacement via the draft.
Here is where Florida State's Bryan Stork fits in.
Stork is the recipient of the 2013 Dave Rimington Trophy—an accolade given to the best collegiate center in the nation.
According to his draft profile on CBS Sports, Stork is slated to be drafted either late in the third, or early in the fourth round. Here is what draft analyst Rob Rang had to say about him on the same page:
Tenacious and technically-sound center whose awareness and reliability made him an underrated factor in Jameis Winston's Heisman campaign. Very good initial quickness, whether snapping the ball out of shotgun or the traditional exchange and turning to seal off defenders or releasing to block downfield. Shoots his hands into the chest plate of defenders and plays with his knees bent and butt down, maximizing his leverage.
Alert and active. Seeks out extra opponents to block and switches quickly to handle stunts and blitzes. The unquestioned leader of the Seminoles' offensive line. Leaves FSU with 40 career starts, including five at right guard and one at left guard. Also practiced at tackle prior to the 2012 season.
Let us get back to San Francisco's draft options around the time Stork would be available. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers currently have four picks in rounds three and four.
Obviously, some of these picks may be part of a trade-up, yet San Francisco may still be active in selecting a center.
Perhaps Stork is their guy as San Francisco bids goodbye to Goodwin.
Center Weston Richburg, Colorado State
Weston Richburg, Center
School: Colorado State
Height/Weight: 6'4" / 300 pounds
While Bryan Stork may be a simple choice for a draft replacement on San Francisco's offensive line in 2014, one cannot overlook the possibility of Colorado State center Weston Richburg.
Already noted is the 49ers' need for a center in 2014. If drafted by the 49ers, Richburg would be in open competition for the starting job, potentially with current San Francisco offensive linemen Joe Looney, Daniel Kilgore and even Adam Snyder.
Richburg has the edge over Stork according to his draft profile on CBS Sports.
Slated to be a mid-rounder in the third round, Richburg could be one of three potential selections the 49ers have in this round.
Here is what Rob Rang of CBS Sports said about him:
Prototypical build for an interior lineman with a powerful, square frame to handle bull rushers and good initial quickness and overall athleticism to block on the move. Good upper body strength to move the defensive tackle and has the balance and quickness to turn and seal his opponent from the action.
Often asked to pull on sweeps, screens and shows impressive quickness and change of direction for a man of his size. Intelligent. Makes all of the line calls and keeps his head on a swivel to help teammates when uncovered.
Durable. Started all 49 games of his career.
Rang admits that there is some questions regarding the level of competition he had at Colorado state, yet he does admit that Richburg performed well against Alabama in 2013.
Also in the description is a need to get better at being "nasty" in blocking schemes. Fortunately enough, this is something that can be coached up.
If the 49ers do not pursue a center via fee agency, or potentially through their own roster, look for them to take one in the draft. Richburg may be a viable target and would benefit from playing alongside one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Cornerback
Height/Weight: 6'3" / 220 pounds
It may be an understatement that the 49ers need to bulk up on the cornerback position this offseason.
This need is in direct response to both contractual and performance-based issues that San Francisco faces heading into 2014.
Chief among these are the contracts regarding both Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Brown just finished the final year of his three-year, $9.113 million contract and may be a hot target as a 29-year-old free agent.
Rogers on the other hand may be on his way out for another reason. Rogers is in the midst of a four-year, $29.3 million contract that expires in 2016. At 32 years old, it is safe to assume that Rogers' best years are behind him and, as San Francisco's most expensive yearly commodity, is a prime target for either a contract renegotiation or an outright release.
In addition, the team could part ways with Eric Wright who is also a free agent.
This opens the door for a couple of options via the draft. While it would not be a surprise to see San Francisco to target a top cornerback early in the draft, the 49ers may also look to supplement the position in the middle rounds.
Here is where Nebraska's Staley Jean-Baptiste enters into discussion.
First, take a look at his sheer size. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Jean-Baptiste is a physical specimen that would be a tremendous asset against some of the larger wide receivers the 49ers will play in future seasons.
In three seasons at Nebraska, Jean-Baptiste totaled 50 solo tackles with seven interceptions.
According to his draft profile on CBS Sports, Jean-Baptiste could be one of those targeted in the third round, a round the 49ers currently have three picks.
Here is what Dane Brugler said about him (and fellow prospect Pierre Desir) via NFLDraftScout.com:
They both did a nice job in press-man to get physical at the line of scrimmage and then ride the receiver through the route, although both got away with a little too much holding. Neither are elite when controlling their start/stop momentum, but neither are allergic to contact either. And with several teams who utilize press-man techniques on defense looking for the next Richard Sherman, both Desir and Jean-Baptiste are players to watch this week.
While Rob Rang of CBS Sports acknowledges that Jean-Baptiste does not always play to the level his size would otherwise indicate, it is worth noting that this particular element can be coached.
If drafted, Jean-Baptiste would have to compete with returning corners like Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver for a starting job, yet his sheer size is worth paying attention to. His ability to play in press-man coverage also bodes well considering San Francisco's use of this on defense.
He could likely fit into the 49ers' defensive plans as a potential No. 2 or No. 3 cornerback if he impresses enough during training camp.
Cornerback Jason Verrett, TCU
Jason Verrett, Cornerback
Height/Weight: 5'10" / 176 pounds
While TCU's Jason Verrett may not possess the size compared to Stanley Jean-Baptiste, he does have all the other elements that make him a top defensive target on draft day.
Hailing from Northern California (Fairfield), Verrett put together quite a collegiate career at TCU—117 solo tackles, 43 assists and nine interceptions over three seasons.
His college statistics and accolades have given him a shot to crack the first round, potentially as a late first- or early second-round pick per CBS Sports.
It is also worth noting that CBS Sports' Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have both tabbed Verrett as a target for the 49ers in the first round in initial mocks.
Here is what Brugler had 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 ballhawking 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.
San Francisco's pass defense was surprisingly good in 2013, ranking No. 7 (3,536) in passing yards against. Yet with the potential loss of Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Eric Wright from the cornerback position, drafting of Verrett may be the supplement that helps alleviate these potential losses.
While it would be ideal for Verrett to be taller, one cannot overlook his ballhawking abilities as stated by Brugler. That is something the 49ers would benefit from in 2014.
It is hard to speculate how San Francisco will spend their first two, or three, picks this draft. Yet if the 49ers are in need of a top-tier corner and Verrett is on the board, do not be surprised if he gets the nod.
Then comes the tough part—winning the competition for a starting job.
Strong Safety Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Ahmad Dixon, Strong Safety
Height/Weight: 6'0" / 205 pounds
Staying in the 49ers' defensive backfield, let us take a look at some of San Francisco's potential needs at safety.
Whether or not the 49ers draft a safety shall be directly related to potential contract negotiations with Donte Whitner.
Following another solid season in San Francisco, Whitner is now at the end of his three-year, $11.65 million contract.
Even though he has hinted that he wants to return, the fact is that Whitner's re-signing is primarily a business decision. With the 49ers hoping to avoid cap problems this season, and beyond, Whitner could be a necessary cap casualty.
The situation is similar to what San Francisco faced in 2013, when the team elected to part ways with Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson and then drafting Eric Reid in the first round. That move worked out well.
Will the team act similarly in 2014?
If they do decide to part ways with Whitner, drafting former Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon would not be a bad idea.
In four seasons at Baylor, Dixon totaled 187 solo tackles, four interceptions and 15 passes defended.
Currently slated by CBS Sports to be drafted in the third round, Dixon may be a 49ers' target considering their number of existing picks in the round.
It is also worth noting that he is the No. 3 ranked strong safety according to CBS Sports.
Dixon is just as hard of a hitter as Whitner is and shall look to continue that reputation.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler points out this on Dixon's draft profile page, but also notes that Dixon struggles at times with being too aggressive at times as well as having some lapses in coverage.
Fortunately though, these are elements that can be coached. One can imagine San Francisco's backfield consisting of two young-and-talented safeties like Dixon and Reid.
However, the 49ers may elect to be a little more aggressive regarding this position and look for a player that is just as intimidating as Dixon, but without some of the initial shortcomings.
Strong Safety Deone Bucannon, Washington State
Deone Bucannon, Strong Safety
School: Washington State
Height/Weight: 6'1" / 216 pounds
The best way to compare safeties Deone Bucannon and Ahmad Dixon is perhaps best described by Trevor Woods of Niners Nation who writes:
When you watch film of Washington State's Deone Bucannon, you may not be as worried about Whitner leaving. He's the kind of player you watch video of and think "He looks like a Niner." Bucannon does a lot of things well and could be a starting safety right out of the gate in his rookie season. Dixon is similar to Bucannon in frame and jaw-shattering tackling ability, but he has more weaknesses. At times Dixon will launch instead of wrapping up for a sure tackle, and he does have lapses in coverage at times. These areas he will have to improve on to be successful in the NFL.
If you were the 49ers and you had the means to draft either one of the aforementioned players, which one would you take?
I thought so.
Bucannon is currently slated by CBS Sports as being drafted late in the second or early in the third round per his draft profile.
With San Francisco currently owning five picks between rounds two and three, there is plenty of ammunition the 49ers could use to get their hands on Bucannon.
Look at his stats from four years at Washington State. He had 192 solo tackles with 15 interceptions and 22 passes defended.
Those are numbers that would carry over well into San Francisco if drafted. His physical style of play would fit in as well.
As hard as it would be to see a player like Whitner leave, the drafting of Bucannon would make that loss not only bearable, but worthwhile in the long run.
Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver
School: Oregon State
Height/Weight: 5'10" / 186 pounds
Think about this statistic for a moment—the 49ers, who have made it to the NFC Championship three years in a row, ranked No. 30 in total passing yards (2,979) in 2013, just above the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Let us forget, for a moment, all blame that fans may want to cast on quarterback Colin Kaepernick or offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Instead, let us focus on what the draft could do to alleviate this.
One of the problems that has plagued the 49ers in recent years is the lack of a definitive deep-threat receiver. Even after both wideouts Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin were on the field towards the latter half of 2013, San Francisco lacked that down-the-field threat outside of tight end Vernon Davis.
Regardless of whether or not the 49ers re-sign Boldin, they need someone to be able to stretch the field. This would require a speedy receiver who has the potential to get behind the defense, taking the top off of opposing defenses' coverage. It is a basic, yet effective concept.
So where do the 49ers look to accomplish this feat?
Oregon State's Brandin Cooks could be a player that accomplishes this for San Francisco's offense.
Not only is he a Northern California guy (Stockton, California), but he also has plenty of speed to burn per his draft profile on CBS Sports. Here is some of what Dane Brugler said about him:
Special athlete with explosive feet and natural burst - springs in his legs. Fluid body control with excellent start/stop moves, open-field vision and patient hesitation to elude defenders - joystick moves with loose hips and joints. Beautiful acceleration with speed to burn - electric after the catch.
Strong football character. Tough individual - has never missed a game at any level. Experience on special teams as a return man - became full-time punt returner in 2013 (6.0 average). Very productive and 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner as nation's top receiver - set Oregon State and Pac-12 records for catches (128) and receiving yards (1,730), also setting new school record for touchdown catches (24).
Signing Cooks would give the 49ers two Biletnikoff Award winners—the other being Crabtree—on the field. That is definitely not a bad thing.
CBS Sports has Cooks listed as a late-first or early second-round pick.
Yet there is a significant problem that one cannot overlook when it comes to drafting Cooks—his size.
While no one can doubt his speed, it is difficult to get past his shorter stature especially considering some of the other, larger receivers available in the draft.
Thus, the 49ers may be wiser to see if Cooks slips in the draft past the initial CBS Sports projection.
Some, like BaySportsNet.com writer Turron Davenport, feel that Cooks may be a better target if he falls to San Francisco in either the second, or even third round.
If he does, consider it a bargain pick.
Cooks could immediately contribute as San Francisco's deep threat—an element the offense was lacking outside of Davis. How much could this impact the offense?
Well, it would be a step up from anything thus far.
Yet Cooks lacks one primary problem as noted above—his size. Size can be a vital factor in an offense being able to punch the ball into the end zone. Cooks lacks that, unlike the prospect on the next slide.
Wide Receiver Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Mike Evans, Wide Receiver
School: Texas A&M
Height/Weight: 6'5" / 225 pounds
For this to work out, the 49ers would have to execute some sort of move in the first round of the draft.
As previously noted, and as dictated by recent history, they have the means to do exactly this.
Former Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans solves a number of problems that were indicated on the previous slide—red-zone presence and deep-threat capability.
In two seasons at Texas A&M, Evans posted 151 receptions for 2,499 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also lead the SEC in touchdowns in 2013 with 12.
These numbers combined with his physique and gameplay abilities, make him a worthy first-round target.
According to CBS Sports, Evans is slated to go towards the middle of the first round with CBS Sports' analysts Rob Rang and Dane Brugler mocking him to go with the 16th-overall pick.
Here is what Rang had to say about him:
Highly physical receiver who uses his size and strength to simply bully defenders. Possesses an NFL-ready body, aiding him in his fight through press coverage, pushing off to generate consistent (if illegal) separation, when boxing out defenders on jump balls and in providing excellent downfield blocking for teammates.
Possesses excellent body control and sticky hands to make difficult receptions. Shows the ability to track passes over either shoulder, as well as the balance and hand-eye coordination to turn and adjust to the ball. Excellent red-zone target.
Evans challenges cornerbacks to tackle him, initiating the contact and, at times, dragging would-be tacklers for extra yardage. Does not possess elite burst but is a smooth accelerator with deceptive straight-line speed, making him a very effective deep threat.
So why would the 49ers target him?
As noted on the previous slide, San Francisco lacks two critical elements to their receiving game—a bona fide deep threat and someone who gives tremendous red-zone prowess.
Evans can answer both of those as stated by Rang above.
Would the 49ers want to trade up in the first to draft him?
Absolutely. They pulled a similar move with safety Eric Reid last season to address a pending need. That worked out nicely. This move would make just as much sense.
The addition of Evans would give the 49ers' passing offense the final element they need. Regardless of whether or not Anquan Boldin is re-signed, Evans would offer the ability to take pressure off San Francisco's intermediary receivers as well as add to the offense's red-zone presence.
Perhaps that move would be the key to getting the 49ers away from their 30th-ranked pass offense in 2013.
While mock drafts are speculation at best, it is possible to gauge some of the potential targets San Francisco may be looking at in 2014.
Furthermore, a number of these collegiate prospects may be able to have an immediate impact on the 49ers' roster. A number fill needs that San Francisco must address this offseason.
It remains to be seen how the team goes about this, but these listed players could make up the wise investment necessary to assure the 49ers retain their hold among the upper echelon of NFL teams.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.