Previewing What the 49ers Will Be Looking for at the Scouting Combine
The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine kicks off on Saturday, February 22, providing teams with one final up-close look at the players they're interested in drafting three months from now.
It goes without saying that coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke of the San Francisco 49ers will attack this process with "enthusiasm unknown to mankind," knowing that a proficient four-day visit at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis may be the final polish they need for this year's draft analyses.
Over the past three years, this is a club that has thrived in the offseason behind the planning and execution of these two.
They've built this team up to win now, while laying the groundwork for a different kind of animal four or so years from now. This is very much their time to shine. The combine has helped them in this process because they've been able to to get player measurements and judge what translates, as well as what they have to work with.
Moreover, and certainly unique to the 49ers, they value the interview process.
They ask the right questions and find the players with the mindset that's fitting to their organizational philosophy. It's all about confluence. Sometimes commitment and heart can make up for being a tenth of a second too slow on your 40-time, and the 49ers understand this.
So, in their quest to add another layer to this team, we'll narrow down San Francisco's to-do list at the last major scouting event of the year.
Thirty-five-year-old Jonathan Goodwin has finally come to the end of a three-year deal he signed back as a free agent in 2011.
At 6’3”, 318 pounds, Goodwin was no pushover, playing good football as the starting center for an offense that experienced a huge turnaround. They went from being a group of scrubs to a refocused and technically proficient squad.
And Goodwin was one of the notable add-ons, having won a Super Bowl already with the New Orleans Saints two years prior. It was a good signing.
But now, after 12 years of wear, and jammed between two titanic guards, he began to look like the frail part of the Niners offensive line. Interior pressure became a regular issue in 2013 and the unit’s ground productivity actually became more prevalent outside the tackles (via PFF), which was odd for this team.
It’s believed, and Goodwin’s professed, retirement may be in his future, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
That being the case, center is one of the top positions San Francisco is expected to take a close look at in the draft. And given their M.O., they will likely view it as an opportunity to upgrade their run-first offense.
Physically speaking, the 49ers will want a 6’3” or 6’4” 300-15-pounder that almost seems broader than he is tall. That big wall of a center. But with that size, the ability to slide also has to stand out. They’ll want someone with quick, meticulous footwork and good balance.
And they’re going to see a lot of players with this many tools, but consistency and high performance among multiple events will get them noticed. The 49ers need that total package right away. They’ll be able to gauge that by observing who looks automatic and never misses a beat.
San Francisco can’t afford to thrust someone into the lineup that is not well-built or sound enough to start.
They covet that callus and red-lining mean streak: dagger eyes, foaming at the mouth, mitts swollen and coarse. Ideally, the 49ers find it, and that brutish physique and nasty demeanor enhances an offense that loves to run it up the gut and lean on the ground game in the red zone.
A player at the combine with a quick get-off and a strong first punch may appeal to the 49ers. So you can trust your eyes when it comes to the center position, particularly when it comes to their physical presence and technique. But most of all, said player has to have it going on between the ears.
They need a smart, forward-thinking player with a high football IQ. Interviews will be key here.
A player that is both confident in his ability and his intellect—where he can read the defense, make appropriate calls, communicate what he sees and execute complex blitz pickups without fail—will have an opportunity to push his way high up San Francisco’s big board.
All in all, the 49ers will need someone they can plug in and play from day one.
Some guys that may jump out include Florida State’s Bryan Stork, Colorado State’s Weston Richburg, Arkansas’ Travis Swanson and Marcus Martin, an underclassman from the University of Southern California. They project to go anywhere between the second and fifth rounds.
Kelvin Benjamin's Gauntlet Drill
Needing a new long-term fixture at wide receiver, magnetizing FSU wideout Kelvin Benjamin is sure to be on San Francisco’s radar.
At 6’5”, 235 pounds, he simply dwarfs the competition, providing any offense with a pass-catching weapon that’s open even when he’s covered. Benjamin uses his giant frame to box out defenders and high point the ball, which makes him dangerous wherever he stands.
This is exactly what this offense needs.
And as a red-zone machine, all he does is catch touchdowns, which would mend San Francisco’s eternal issues there. In Benjamin’s final season for the Seminoles, 100 percent of his red-zone catches went for touchdowns (7-for-7, via ESPN Stats & Info).
He only had one career red-zone catch that wasn’t a touchdown, scoring on 10 of 11.
Capping off drives with TDs helped Florida State become the NCAA’s No. 2 scoring offense in 2013, posting 51.6 points per game.
So this is what the 49ers want. And with Benjamin, there are few questions about his talent and his ceiling. The size and length is eye opening, especially in today’s NFL. However, he does catch a ton of heat for his drops, which he became notorious for during his career.
Now, he should test off the charts when it comes to physical drills and measurements, but his pass-catching drills will be the most scrutinized.
They’ll want to see how smooth he is as a route-runner and how well he tracks the ball. Is he hands catching or using his body? Is he looking it in before he turns up field? Can he make grabs consistently? What types of routes and catches does he struggle with, and is it detrimental to his value in this offense?
One event that will take precedence in particular should be the gauntlet drill.
This is where the pass-catcher runs a straight line from sideline to sideline, looking off left and right, attempting to catch as many balls as he can while remaining in forward motion.
It is a great focus and hands drill that was incorporated not too long ago.
Here is what CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler had to say about the drill, and you can imagine why it is applicable to Benjamin:
One of the most helpful position drills scouts use when evaluating the wide receiver position at the NFL Combine is the gauntlet.
It tests balance, hand-eye coordination and playing speed.
It's also a fast-paced gauge of a receiver's ability to react and doesn't allow players to hide their deficiencies.
Kelvin Benjamin is the one player that can least afford a bad showing in pass-catching drills. He has to prove that it is something that’s been overblown or, at the very least, that it’s fixable. If the drops are in any way noticeable, the 49ers must proceed with caution or acquire a different receiver altogether.
Grizzly Defensive Linemen
Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman and Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt are two higher-end prospects the 49ers may consider since each fits so well. After all, their ceilings as 3-4 ends are astronomical in San Francisco with coach Jim Tomsula. But defensive line isn’t even a top-five need.
Besides, the team has never drafted very high there.
Ray McDonald is a third-rounder that sat on the bench for four years before entering the starting lineup. Justin Smith and Glenn Dorsey are former top 10 picks, but they were acquired as free agents. Starting nose tackle Ian Williams was undrafted out of Notre Dame, also sitting for two years.
Meanwhile, all of their backups are late rounders and undrafted free agents, apart from Tank Carradine, who hasn’t even played yet and was acquired as a clear-cut “best player available” in 2013.
We tell you all that to tell you this: The 49ers will be shifting their focus toward grinders with high upside that they can get in the middle rounds. Their starters are already set for 2014, so they’ve got time to develop. No reason to abandon their formula now, unless a unique player falls off course.
So, approaching the combine through the eyes of Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, give the blue-collar guys a bit more attention.
Penn State’s DaQuan Jones, North Carolina’s Kareem Martin, Princeton’s Caraun Reid, and even Josh Mauro and Trent Murphy of Stanford. These are all guys that can play the end spots for the 49ers in their 3-4. Some also have the pure bullishness and pass-rushing prowess to stay in on third down.
Harbaugh and Baalke want to get a close-up look at all of these guys, and more.
The lateral drills and bench press will be key here, measuring their agility and raw upper-body strength. But one thing they must consider among the defensive line prospects is the broad jump. It is a great barometer for explosiveness in players, since a great deal of the power comes from the legs.
There’s a chance the 49ers find another developmental sleeper by identifying a player that fits their criteria and measures well in these events.
As big of an event as the NFL Scouting Combine is, most teams have seen all they need to see on film already. Many of their boards are set.
But they go to Indianapolis with a full schedule, largely because there are plenty of other ways to be proactive. Given the magnitude of the event and the attendants in Indianapolis every year, this is very much a networking opportunity where NFL scouts, coaches and general managers all get to rub shoulders.
They can discuss anything, and a lot of of the times, business comes up.
For San Francisco, Harbaugh and Baalke will likely begin snooping around now, getting a feel for what other teams are thinking. By that, we mean trades. Carrying an NFL-high in draft picks for a second year in a row (12), with one of the more stacked and defined rosters in the league, they're bound to trade up, perhaps multiple times and as early as Round 1.
Teams are going to be receptive to talking to the 49ers for this reason, too, since many are in a rebuilding mode and need players.
Moreover, look at the track record as of recent. With 13 picks a year ago, this was a team that traded up three times in the first three rounds of the draft, locking up their targeted players and at great value. It was a success, and no doubt a learning experience for future drafts in which they're overloaded with picks.
Another lesson they probably came away with was that they still over-drafted players that year.
Not to mention the fact that they still have players from 2012 and 2013 that haven't even able to crack the game day roster yet. So all in all, they have even less room on their roster, as they'll look to get a lot of these recent draftees involved in 2014. The Niners could move up more often and/or make bigger leaps on draft day.
The Official 40-Time of Mike Evans
Texas A&M’s Mike Evans is everything the 49ers need most this offseason, which is a uniquely threatening receiver that can mend the red-zone issues. No prospect in the draft is staring the 49ers scouting department in the face quite like the 6’5”, 225-pound scorer.
He is a top-two player at his position. It’s him, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, a gap and then everyone else.
Evans is a highly regarded prospect with few questions and a world of upside when you consider his age, trajectory and the fact that he’s only been playing organized football for a few years. With his knack for out-leaping defenders to the ball as consistently as he does, Evans is a game changer.
He is a big weapon teams can mobilize before the snap, give any route and it will affect the way defenses protect the field.
The scoring in close range, the bail out he provides for the quarterback and the chunk yardage is too good to pass up. But while they desperately need size, this ballclub can also utilize a more natural deep threat in someone that has the speed to get behind the defense.
That being the case, if the 49ers are going to execute the trade it would take to get Evans (perhaps their No. 30 pick, a third-rounder and a late pick)—than investing that top 15 or so pick that they acquire from team X—then they'd better know if he can outrun cornerbacks at the next level.
At that size, they want to have a ballpark figure of how fast he should run.
An inch shorter and five pounds heavier than Evans, Chicago Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery ran a sub-4.5 40-time before the draft. He’s the most recent. Vincent Jackson ran a 4.46 in 2005, while similarly sized super freak Calvin Johnson blazed a 4.36 two years later, which will probably never be bested.
Both Jackson and Johnson did that at 6’5” and 240 pounds.
That’s the standard: a 4.5 40. Teams want to see Evans on the good side of that. And again, it’s not that he doesn’t have the rare size to win at the catch point, but that’s not everything. A slower receiver means defenders have more time to crowd him between the moment of the throw and the moment the ball arrives.
You can bracket these guys, rattle them, impede their vision and take them away.
The only wideout with similar dimensions as Evans to have success and run slower than a 4.5 40-time was Brandon Marshall (4.52 in 2006). Many receivers 6’4” and over have struggled to perform in the league when they don’t have the speed or polished route-running ability to separate.
The Niners will want to see what Mike Evans runs in the 40-yard-dash, while also paying attention to his 10-yard-split, indicating his burst off the line. If he throws down a solid time, the team may have no reservations about trading up for him on Day 1.
Shifty Slot Cornerbacks
After the standard that the Seattle Seahawks set, who isn’t going to be looking for a long-bodied corner that can run and hit?
This prototype should be very in high demand.
And San Francisco may select one at some point during the draft, but it might not take precedence over a different type of player at the same position.
If you look at who they're expecting to have at their disposal in 2014, and who is likely out the door, it's clear to see that the 49ers will necessitate a slot specialist before a gangly press corner that can't play inside.
It's simply how it worked out, as far as "needs."
As it stands, cornerback Chris Culliver (6’0”, 199 lbs) is returning to the featured lineup from his ACL injury suffered in the offseason training. And after two very strong seasons in 2011 and 2012 that saw him play a majority of the snaps, he looks to be ready for one of the starting jobs. He was playing great football and looked poised for a breakout year.
Overall, it should be the tandem of Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock on the boundary, both of whom are very solid man-to-man corners.
Brock, a newly extended starter, was one of the top-rated corners in coverage, via PFF (h/t East Bay Sports Guy). And with Carlos Rogers being a very real cut candidate, the 49ers will need to bring in an agile cover man that can line up in the slot.
Bradley Roby of Ohio State, Jaylen Watkins of Florida and Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State all have the ideal physiques for the slot position, playing low and bringing topflight speed and hip snap. They've got the instincts and ball skills that would be very complementary in a sound defense that needs to generate more turnovers.
The 49ers will have their pick of the litter, so expect them to be taking notes on some of the quicker, smaller-stature corners.
Not a dire need, no.
But the 49ers will certainly be on the lookout for an individual that is physically outstanding. There's always interest there. And said player will get strong consideration if he manages to impress the football-loving Jim Harbaugh, a head coach that places a great deal of value on the special teams unit.
Game days continually show us that Harbaugh runs a true three-phase team and they've spent picks on special teamers before.
After upgrading the coverage team this past offseason, the 49ers must turn their attention toward the return position. Looking at how vanilla they've been, there's reason to make a push. They can become more dynamic and threatening there, which would not only help with field position but potentially add a scoring element.
And with the late-round pick and a $500,000 salary, it'll be worth every penny.
At the annual Underwear Olympics, the 49ers need to hone in on a burner. If one pops out, don't ignore the phenomenon. It's incumbent upon them to find someone new—a prospect with uncanny top speed but who can still cut on a dime. They're out there.
So San Francisco can find that one-trick pony if they're really looking. And it's pretty clear the team needs help on that end. So whoever players happen to light up the 40-yard-dash this year may find themselves on the team's board in Santa Clara.
Who Is the Most Pro-Ready Safety?
This is the second offseason in a row the 49ers will be asking themselves this question.
Like we said, the 49ers likely have their board set at this point—particularly at a need position such as this one—but this will be the first time where they’ll have all of the safeties in the same facility. It provides a great opportunity for Harbaugh and Baalke to size them all up by witnessing them all compete side-by-side.
The broad jump (measuring explosion), 40-time (range) and cone drills (lateral agility/cover skills) will all be critical inside looks at their respective physical tools.
Deone Bucannon of Washington State may stand out the most among the prospects, as will Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But there are several prospects to like in this draft, including pint-sized Florida State safety Lamarcus Joyner (5'8", 190 lbs), who has the heart of a lion.
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