Projecting the San Francisco 49ers' Top 10 Big Board at Wide Receiver in 2014
Oh, the big boards for the NFL draft—what an alluring organizational concept it is.
Every fan wonders all offseason what their team’s big board looks like at top needs positions and how it got that way. The mystique of it: Wanting to be a fly on the wall in the room when the general managers, coaches and scouts are sharing reports and giving their candid insight on players.
These info-sharing sessions, which end in a several ranking-based lists made up names of hundreds of 20-22-year-old college grads, essentially represents the team’s business model. Reading each position, the commonalities detail every level of the schematic infrastructure.
You can see what’s valued and what isn’t.
Not to mention, the effort by each individual involved and the overall seriousness of the process is never underestimated because there is the unspoken understanding that jobs are at stake with these analyses. It’s quite the time of year for NFL teams. There’s a lot of reflection and forward thinking.
When it comes to the San Francisco 49ers, this is the most enticing year to daydream about the team’s big board.
They’re only a piece or two away from completing coach Jim Harbaugh’s masterpiece, which could be set up for a few more Super Bowl appearances. And what do you know, but for a third year in a row, the No. 1 need is wide receiver, which is fortuitously plentiful in 2014.
Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have a litany of options, but cutting through the fog, one can imagine how this class may look from their perspective.
And that’s what we’re going to try and do with three months left before the draft. While it may look a bit unorthodox, the big board you are about to dive into is one that is team-specific, which you won’t find everywhere else.
Round projection isn't the end-all be-all here.
Were looking at the most desirable players for the 49ers, while trying to assess whom they may be able to draft at an optimal value.
It’s also an important factor in this team’s current state on offense, including what it needs, as well as the recent history. There’s also a very real possibility the 49ers draft one, or maybe even two, of the players listed here, so keep an open mind.
Without further delay, your first inside look at what San Francisco’s big board may look like at wide receiver in 2014.
10. Allen Robinson, Penn State
Weight: 210 lbs
Projected Round: 1-2
Let’s start before the snap…
PSU’s Allen Robinson has good burst at the line of scrimmage, which is also relative to him reaching his top speed. He isn’t uniquely fast overall, but the acceleration is enough where it gives him a head start on defenders.
He’s not a burner and there’s no wiggle to his game, but he has a strong first step.
As a receiver, he has that indestructible frame that gives him the confidence and ability to power his way to the football. He muscles his way through coverage, often showing good timing at the catch point. Robinson has also displayed the focus to make difficult grabs while covered.
And that’s where his value really skyrockets: after the catch.
Robinson’s raw toughness, once he has possession, is what pops out on tape to most. His ability to break tackles and his effort after the catch is extraordinary. It’s what separates him from other prospects in this class.
His field vision and size is exceptional, and when he has the ball, he’s like a long-bodied running back. And Robinson has heart. He doesn’t go down easy, and with him, you can see the play is never dead. It’s a real “it ain’t over till it’s over” mentality and that’s just the kind of fight the 49ers love in their players.
San Francisco will also like his physicality and how he wins with leverage and strength in the run game.
However, Robinson needs to refine his moves at the line of scrimmage to sell his routes more consistently in the NFL. He doesn’t have elite speed already, so there is the risk of him being taken away if he can’t separate. Modest speed and no basketball moves will get you nowhere fast.
And in his short career, there were also a fair amount of body catches. Securing the ball with his hands really didn’t come on until 2013.
While he had a number of “wow” catches for the Nittany Lions, you could argue that Robinson has unspectacular hands and still struggles with consistency. Physically, he’s already vanilla, but then add in the unpredictability, and teams really don’t know what they’re getting.
And for the 49ers, they may be scared off by the fact that he doesn’t add anything unique to the red zone, despite being 6’3”.
Allen Robinson is draftable but he does not come off as a first-round talent. And it would be risky by the franchise to lean on him as some sort of front man that will somehow change their offense. This is a player that they can take after Round 1 to help fill out the receiving corps.
9. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss
Weight: 226 lbs
Projected Round: 3-4
One of the better receivers in the SEC the past two seasons has been Donte Moncrief of Ole Miss.
And that’s no empty statement or filler of any kind.
It speaks to his ability, given what a tough environment the Southeastern Conference is for offensive players to stand out. Moncrief's grit showed through as he made a lot of noise for the Rebels, especially over the past two seasons, coming up with 1,917 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final years as a starter.
Moncrief consistently displayed strong hands, as well as quickness, in every facet of his game (the footwork and hands to snatch it out of the air). He is a natural-looking receiver that does it all, running everything on the route tree and making effortless catches.
Given his type, Moncrief is great underneath and would probably be best suited in the slot.
On the other hand, he has also shown that he can stretch the field at times because he’s a clean route runner that knows when to accelerate to pull away from defenders. It’s a sneaky quickness that makes him efficient but unglamorous on film. You really have to look at it.
But to consider he’s getting free with lesser physical tools shows that he is a smart football player.
And there is no question about Moncrief being a team player. He makes tough grabs, can take a hit, will lie out for the football and was very active in the Rebels’ blocking game (including screens and in the run).
So what you’re seeing is a total receiver. Good cut ability, a knack for finding soft spots in coverage, and the timing to look back and draw the eyes of his quarterback to earn the target makes him someone that can pitch in from day one.
But again, he’d be best in a complementary role.
He might not measure out to anything spectacular anywhere, but when the pads are on, Donte Moncrief is a gamer.
8. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Weight: 186 lbs
Projected Round: 1-2
Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks is an absolute rocket, drawing comparisons to Tavon Austin of the St. Louis Rams and Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. Like them, he operates in a compact build and is nearly impossible to capture. There is tangible game-breaking ability in Cooks.
He makes his way on San Francisco’s board because of their dire need for a home run threat on offense. Cooks just happens to be one of the more interesting ones this year.
The lateral quickness, top speed and stop-and-start ability is truly unparalleled in this draft. Literally, if a cornerback even blinks in coverage, it could mean a touchdown. And it is in that sense that Cooks doesn’t leave the defense with a lot of margin for error.
That’s the X-factor he brings just by being on the field.
And despite his tiny stature, he is dense and fearless in his routes, putting to bed the physical and psychological concerns of smaller receivers. Cooks competes for the ball as if he’s 6’2”-and-change. He’ll come across the middle, operate in tight spaces and catch in traffic.
And for San Francisco, which needs someone to stretch the field, he does that as well.
But Cooks is a small target and you have to worry about him coughing up the football, getting injured and failing to see his ceiling in San Francisco’s offense, which has not helped fast players operate in space. With their scheme, they may fail to weaponize him.
The 49ers have also gambled on several undersized receivers over the years but none have worked out.
It’s either they’re misjudging talent or failing to teach these players to separate in that critical developmental window in the first three years. Each has suffered the fate of being jammed at the line and losing all confidence. It’s a high-risk move to roll the dice on this type of player again.
7. Marqise Lee, USC
Weight: 195 lbs
Projected Round: 1
It may surprise many to see Marqise Lee so low here, considering he is projected to go in the top 15 or 20 picks, but there is reason.
It’s about finding a fit. And a lot like we said about Brandin Cooks earlier, will that lighter-bodied speed guy translate here? Can the 49ers help Lee to reach his ceiling when this team seems to veer further and further away from the West Coast concepts that suit this type of wideout?
Moreover, can quarterback Colin Kaepernick consistently throw him open where he’s running with a head of steam?
Just know going in that despite Lee’s pedigree, this isn’t a foolproof pick. There is a mountain of evidence that raises questions about his potential for success in the Bay Area.
But nevertheless, he makes this top 10 for a reason.
Lee’s polished route running and explosiveness are bound to translate to one degree or another. It is what he’ll be leaning on to make for a seamless transition while he picks up a new playbook in the NFL. Half the battle is that the Biletnikoff Award winner already looks the part.
He understands the X’s and O’s and possesses the innate receiving skills—namely the speed, acceleration and fluidity in and out of his breaks—to contribute right away.
Few receivers nowadays can jump on the scene and be heard from Day 1. But like a similarly skilled Keenan Allen—a Cal product now with the San Diego Chargers—Lee can lean on his fundamentals and natural receiving ability to pitch in from opening weekend on.
The floor on him looks higher than average.
Then again, there is a notable drop history with Lee, which may send cold tremors down the spines of general managers on the clock in Round 1. If you have a need at wide receiver and you’re considering Lee, all those deflections off the hands will be one of those things that’ll be hard to ignore.
So outside the frail body, which has succumbed to injury, the hesitance to catch in traffic and consistently compete hard for the ball is worrisome.
While highly decorated, USC’s Marqise Lee has a lot to prove once he arrives in an NFL training camp. If the 49ers select him, they need to be prepared to really give him the attention and time he deserves in terms of his development. They’ll also need to rethink passing concepts that cater to him.
6. Jarvis Landry, LSU
Weight: 195 lbs
Projected Round: 2
Louisiana State’s Jarvis Landry is one of the premier quick-twitch receivers in the 2014 NFL draft.
Like Brandin Cooks of OSU, he is someone that plays a game infinitely larger than his own dimensions would indicate. Along with hands and body control, great burst, deceptive speed and shocking toughness makes Landry a complete receiver.
He'll put on a show.
During his time with the Tigers, No. 80 showed he that can deploy from the X, Y or Z positions at any time, and can even run out the backfield if asked. He is not at all restricted by routes, running one as good as the next. And no matter his size, there is red-zone value with him because of his aggressiveness at the catch point.
All told, he can plug into any offensive system because he can flat-out play.
Landry has the ability to stick his foot in the ground, pivot and make a defender fall down, creating space for himself. Or if it so happens that a cornerback has watched enough film on the LSU receiver to get lost by a head bob or a stutter step, Landry can still go over the top of him and make the contested grab.
Turn on any of his games and you’ll see he has that spectacular catch ability. The confidence is constantly on display, as if that ball is his come hell or high water.
He competes hard and when the ball is in flight, Landry has the tunnel vision to ignore his surroundings and secure it. Reliable hands and a team-first mentality makes him a safe pick and just the kind of player the 49ers need to a corps that will be in full-on rebuilding mode.
There are shades of a stronger, faster Victor Cruz here, the small-statured star for the New York Giants. That said, Jarvis Landry is an ideal Day 2 pick for San Francisco regardless of what the front office does in the first round.
5. Martavis Bryant, Clemson
Weight: 200 lbs
Projected Round: 2-3
Though he has been lost in the shadow of top-10 prospect and former teammate Sammy Watkins, one of the best go-receivers in this entire draft is Clemson’s Martavis Bryant.
Nearly 6’5” with world-class speed, he is a fascinating prospect that San Francisco will have a tough time ignoring. Dazzling pass-catching ability in tandem with those physical dimensions will make him too hard to pass up. And he may come as a bargain, since he’s raw and the body of work is open to interpretation.
The hands aren’t on par, but sincerely, he fits the prototype. In Bryant, teams would be able to add a long strider that can blow the top off the defense and make those dynamic over-the-shoulder grabs. But he’s also a pass-catcher that can high point all over the gridiron, most notably in the red zone.
Any way you cut it, his skill set equates to chunks of yards at a time, as well as more points on the board.
Most importantly, the threat he has to kill teams deep would provide the 49ers with an offensive dimension that they still don’t possess. That’s why he is this high up on their board. Tight end Vernon Davis has that ability, but he is approaching 30 years old and spends far too much time blocking.
They need a wideout that specializes in banging defenses out of big plays.
Admittedly, he doesn’t block too well and there’s concern that he may struggle to get off jams at the next level, but the ceiling on Martavis Bryant and projected round makes him a major blip on San Francisco’s radar. If they sit tight at the end of Round 1, this may be the selection.
4. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Weight: 193 lbs
Projected Round: 1-2
The two-year starter from LSU was one of the most tantalizing wide receiver prospects in the country because he was a danger all over the field. A smooth route-runner with top speed and contact courage, Beckham Jr. functioned as a true No. 1 receiver and placed a lot of strain on opposing defenses in the process.
His all-encompassing skill set makes him one of the best overall athletes in the draft, and he's honed his craft at his respective position.
Beckham flashed the short-area quickness to shake defenders underneath and cut up field for big yardage, while throwing down the straight-line speed and blowing past defenders on a skinny post for six points on the next play. He’s a very tough play for any type of cornerback.
Aside from getting open, the focus and hands catching solidifies his first-round grade.
Whether or not Anquan Boldin re-signs, the 49ers can draft Odell Beckham Jr. and plug him into the lineup. And either this coming season or in 2015, he will have cemented his place as a starter—hopefully as the long-term partner-in-crime to star wideout Michael Crabtree.
3. Davante Adams, Fresno State
Weight: 216 lbs
Projected Round: 2
It’s startling how one of the disregarded names has been the nation’s leading receiver, Davante Adams. In the months of February, March and so on, when the games have ended and there’s nothing left but 40-times and height/weight listings to look at, it’s easy to see why a prospect like him would lose steam.
However, when you look at the ability and the resume, Adams makes a strong case for the most complete wide receiver in this entire draft class.
With his particular playing style and small body of work, that included two dazzling seasons with NCAA-leading production, he very closely mirrors former Texas Tech superstar and current 49ers front man Michael Crabtree. They share a lot of the same physical qualities and playing history.
You’ll notice with both of them that theirs is an unsexy style, but nobody can deny the constant productivity.
And in that sense, a player like Adams is even more frustrating for defenders when they can’t figure him out or stop him. He's a real enigma. Over his career, Adams ran roughshod on teams that game planned for him and only him. Led by a laser focus and finely tuned technique, he won on his routes and at the catch point.
It’s really that simple. He just beats cornerbacks.
Most of all, Adams possesses exceptional body control and focus. When he elevates for the ball, there is the confidence that he’s coming down with it. He might even be the best natural hands catcher available. His timing and vise-like grip is just too good, and it forces defensive backs to be perfect all the time.
And with ultra-fast hands, he attacks the football like there’s nobody around him and just out-executes the defense.
On top of all that, the 49ers are also going to love his toughness and durability. Adams is a very dense 6’2” and he’s cognizant of it. He uses it to his advantage, powering through at the point of the catch and charging for extra yards. He fits this offense like a glove and is ready to go from Day 1.
The only downside to this is that he is essentially the same receiver that San Francisco has in Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton. These are a lot of shifty guys that do their best work underneath. But in that sense, he provides stability and an insurance policy beyond 2014.
Davante Adams can be a lynchpin in this offense no matter what happens.
2. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
Weight: 235 lbs
Projected Round: 1-2
Too unique, too talented and too relevant to this team’s needs to have any lower on this board—and those are just the straight-up facts regarding wideout Kelvin Benjamin and the San Francisco 49ers. Remember why they’re picking at No. 30 every year instead of No. 32.
It all comes back to the inability to score in close range.
The 49ers get in the red zone so much, and so often, it’s a 9-0 game instead of a 21-0 game. They get teams on the ropes but can’t put them away. And sometimes it costs them. With Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis jabbing teams up and down the field, Benjamin can be the guy to come in and deliver the haymaker.
If that’s all he does, it’s worth it.
The Niners are deep enough and their issues are concentrated enough where their hand is almost forced to take the FSU super freak if he’s there. They’ve got all of these twitchy receivers but no speed or size. It’s like a fireworks show with no finale. It just sort of tapers off and ends (usually with a Phil Dawson field goal).
Kelvin Benjamin is that ideal power forward that can beat single coverage, double coverage, triple coverage—it doesn’t matter.
His catch radius dwarfs all others. He provides a target that other players simply can’t reach. Benjamin uses his thick body to box out corners and safeties, while using his length and leaping ability to go up for a ball that only he is a realistic candidate to come down with.
On top of his receiving ability, he brings a nasty temperament in the run game, knocking corners back and cold cocking players that are threatening to come up and hit his teammate. There’s a lot of pride in Benjamin’s game. So he is a player they can have on the field at all times.
Kelvin Benjamin will help this become a more prolific scoring offense, while reinforcing the physical tone this offense likes to set.
1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Weight: 225 lbs
Projected Round: 1
This will not change between now and May. Mike Evans is the picturesque draft pick and team fit for the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 and beyond.
They need him right now and they’ll need him for the long haul, especially if they are to compete for championships in a division that houses the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, who could be favorites to repeat in 2014. The onus is on SF to catch up and build to beat their rival.
With the least questions, the highest ceiling and the most oomph as a Day 1 selection, Mike Evans makes a ton of sense.
Intimidating height and incomparable leaping ability makes him a matchup nightmare. He would instantly change the way defenses play San Francisco. Evans sparks defensive breakdowns that help other players around him succeed, while inevitably setting up the home-run play to himself.
He completes an offense that way.
As an individual contributor though, he can inflict quite a bit of damage. Evans has the ability to take games over from the receiver position, much like Detroit's Calvin Johnson or New Orleans' Jimmy Graham. With his long stride and pull-away speed, Evans can take teams deep or go over the top of the defender where he stands.
This helps San Francisco generate more 20-plus-yard plays, as well as keeping them on the field by converting first downs. As a chain reaction, the offense will inevitably have more freedom on first and second down because they have a player like Evans on third-and-it-doesn’t-matter.
He is that type of weapon. And quite trustworthy for any quarterback, which is relevant when it comes to San Francisco finding compatible receivers.
With his oversized mitts, Evans is a terrific hands catcher, which would be the case even if he weren’t 6’5”. He displays great concentration. But since he is that big with such sure hands, all the better. The arm length is also jaw dropping. He expands at the point of catch, looking like an eagle spreading its wings.
He engulfs the football while blocking everyone else on the field from it.
All in all, Mike Evans separates himself from the pack when it comes to pro-readiness and total ability. He's noticeably better. And for a team like San Francisco that requires this kind of dynamic in their offense and can’t afford to miss on another wide receiver, the team must realistically consider moving up for the Texas A&M phenom.