Regular- and post-season football is done, and it is officially the offseason, or “draft season,” for the San Francisco 49ers. This is a ballclub that takes bargain shopping in free agency to a whole new level. Their high-priced acquisitions last year were a place-kicker and a special teams gunner.
They are entirely dependent on drafting, which makes top picks all the more important to this team.
That top draftee not only has to live up to his first-round status, but he has to be that all-encompassing offseason acquisition that covers up the fact that the Niners didn’t sign anybody out of house.
After hitting in 2011 and 2013 (Aldon Smith, Eric Reid) and missing badly in 2012 (A.J. Jenkins), general manager Trent Baalke is hoping to break the pattern this year. Whatever it takes, they’ve got to hit a home run on the first day of the draft. The upside is they have a boatload of picks and no shortage of options.
They have three real needs, specifically at wide receiver, cornerback and safety, but Baalke has the liberty to go in any direction in Round 1.
To put forth a more concise listing, I’ve narrowed San Francisco’s big board to seven players, which are ranked down to No. 1 (with No. 1 being the best). Other than seven or eight players in the first round, drafting anyone else would seem like the 49ers are veering from their needs or are willing to settle for anything.
No, this is more about a perfect fit and really projecting who they might realistically be after, when they’re on the clock on May 8. For an organized breakdown of their top targets, proceed through the following. And if there’s anyone you feel was left out, feel free to make your case below.
Yes, it is true that the defensive line isn’t a top need in this draft, but the 49ers are a team that thinks outside the box, often emphasizing the best player available (BPA) business model. Doing this over the years has resulted in them having more Pro Bowl selections than any other club, as well as incomparable depth.
So, they won’t rule out anything.
That being said, Golden Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman qualifies as a BPA prospect, merely because he is an immense talent and a perfect schematic fit for San Francisco’s 3-4. His projected draft status, which is mid-to-late first, could make him stand out on Day 1, if the 49ers stay put.
Hageman is a big boulder the 49ers can park on the end, hoping to develop him as a long-term solution in their base scheme.
They have to prepare for the future, and frankly, he can do it all within their system. The 6’6”, 318-pounder can set the edge for the linebackers, but he also can collapse the pocket like an avalanche when asked to pass rush. Hageman is broad enough, strong enough and nimble enough to do all these things.
Some underclassmen will compete w/ him, but Ra'Shede Hageman seems like top 3-4 DE in '14 class. 6'6" 320. Ferocious. Can't move him. Motor.
—Chris Trapasso, member of Pro Football Writers of America (@ChrisTrapasso) January 22, 2014
Brandin Cooks, the ballistic missile from Oregon State, is riding an awful lot of momentum into this draft, drawing comparisons to St. Louis Rams X-factor Tavon Austin and Carolina Panthers all-time receiver Steve Smith. Speed and elusiveness enable him to bust a game open from the wide receiver position.
That ability to dictate solidifies his first-round status, providing any team that selects him with a true difference maker.
General managers and coaches will view him as a chess piece that can be deployed in a litany of ways, hoping Cooks can increase their scoring output and offensive efficiency. Given his natural ball skills and open-field athleticism, he can evolve into a premier return man in the NFL.
Having missed on a track guy in 2012 with A.J. Jenkins, the 49ers may return to the draft finally hoping to lock down the speed component to their offense.
Brandin Cooks on potentially playing for his favorite NFL team, the #49ers: "Hey, I would love to blow the top off for them."
The 49ers could be in the market for a first-rate cornerback to give the defense more of a complete finish, other than just being dominant up front.
As far as boundary corners go, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert is one of the supremely gifted ones in this class. Physically, the six-footer has the upside to be a shutdown corner in the NFL. With his speed and awareness, he can be one with incredible ball skills and return ability.
Gilbert has star potential because he can change the way offenses play the 49ers, while infusing some playmaking ability.
He’s tall, fast and fluid when running with receivers, and if he crafts his technique in the right system, he could be one of the best in the league. With Gilbert, there is the feeling that he’ll be a far better pro than he was as a collegian, which is saying something, given his track record.
He just needs to be coached and hopefully fall into a good situation. With that being the write-up on Gilbert, the prospect of pairing him with secondary coach Ed Donatell could be a very attractive option to the 49ers, if they feel they can help him see his potential at the next level.
It’s a position they’ve had success at in the past with far lesser prospects.
So, with this front seven, a coaching staff that has helped undrafted free-agent corners become starters and a top safety in Eric Reid, it’s hard to imagine a better environment for Justin Gilbert to come into. He projects to be high on San Francisco’s board come May.
Doing work on OKL St. CB Justin Gilbert. Forgot that he picked off RGIII and Andrew Luck in the same season (2011-'12). Not bad.
With the downfield quickness of Mike Wallace and the core strength of Dez Bryant, LSU’s stud wideout Odell Beckham Jr. is garnering a lot of much-deserved attention leading up to the draft. Teams are going to start seeing a true No. 1 receiver in him—one that is both explosive and can run everything on the route tree.
He’s quick and strong enough to be a threat underneath, moving the chains and potentially turning plays up field.
But Beckham also possesses the straight-line speed and crispness in his breaks where he can run the 7-route (corner), 8-route (post) and 9-route (fly/fade), bringing game-breaking ability to San Francisco’s offense. Right now, the Niners don’t get as much production from these patterns as they’d like.
For the most part, it’s slants and digs that hopefully yield more via yards after the catch.
As someone that makes spectacular grabs and big plays, Odell Beckham Jr. can be a perfect complement in this offense. He can provide this unit with new elements from Day 1, enabling the 49ers to open up the playbook. At the same time, he will be able to get comfortable and eventually situate himself as a long-term starter.
Congrats to #LSU WR Odell Beckham Jr. on winning Paul Hornung Award (most versatile). Well-deserved.
With size beyond imagination, coupled with long speed and powering strength, FSU's Kelvin Benjamin is a bona fide super freak at the wide receiver position.
He's so big and so fast that every single snap he takes on offense puts the opposition on high alert. He can kill teams on any play, whether it’s converting a first down, taking the secondary the length of the field or scoring in close range. Benjamin brings that dangerous element, and it makes him an exceptional situational player.
He is so difficult to contain, and in an effort to do so, defenses lose individual battles and experience field-wide breakdowns.
He keeps the offense in motion and makes sure that drives end in touchdowns, not field goals.
The 49ers could benefit from a player like this—one to supplement the foundation they already have in place in wideouts Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton, who are all very similar in style. Adding Kelvin Benjamin would allow them all to play more freely, while opening up the playbook and fixing up that calamity they call a "red-zone offense."
FSU WR Kelvin Benjamin said he watches Calvin Johnson and learned to be less selfish by running hard on plays he's not the primary target
Texas A&M University's long-limbed pass-catcher Mike Evans is an elite prospect and one of the most tantalizing players in the 2014 draft.
At 6’5”, 225 pounds, he is the quintessential height/weight/speed receiver, bringing superior playmaking skills to an offense, which will put him in high demand. As a point scorer, teams are going to figure they’ll get a couple of more wins per year by adding him.
And while he still is developing as a professional football player, Evans has the polished ball skills to impact a team right away.
No doubt you’ve seen the many games, analyses or at least highlights of Evans to know why he is as coveted as he is. Towering over the competition, he is problematic in the same ways that New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall are. He high points, consistently beating corners to the ball.
But how does it pertain to the Niners? Besides the positional need and red-zone void, what about Evans screams a fit?
Well, having played with Johnny Manziel, the captivating Heisman-winning quarterback at A&M, Evans would give the 49ers a receiver that has proven to be the best bailout in the nation. It's something S.F. needs with the pressure it sees, along with residing in this particular division that houses all of these tall, smothering corners.
In college, no matter what trouble Manziel was in, he knew he could float that ball up and Evans would climb the ladder and come down with it. It was clutch, and eventually it became an advantage. When Evans improvises with a passer that can extend the play, it results in enormous gains and often points.
Cornerbacks can't cover him for too long, and a winded defensive back is going to have even less of a chance when competing with him for a jump ball.
And with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, it comes down to trust. Kap has to have a player that he is confident in and eager to throw to, in the same way that he is with Michael Crabtree. That is not to mention Kap's ability to extend the play with his legs, combined with his Howitzer of an arm that could get the ball downfield to Evans.
Therefore, in seeking out someone that both satisfies the 49ers’ offensive needs and is compatible with the QB, Mike Evans looks like the ideal guy.
If I had to compare Mike Evans to one NFL player it would be Vincent Jackson. That's who you're getting.
A man among boys—Clemson superstar Sammy Watkins would present San Francisco with a transcendent No. 1 wide receiver that carries All-Pro potential.
Touting an incredible combination of speed, power and receiving ability, he’d be a linchpin in this offense for the future and maybe the greatest thing to happen to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This is particularly important, since the 49ers have several skill players that are aging or coming to the end of their contracts.
A high-profile acquisition like this also would ensure stability at an erratic position group.
But when I call this a long shot, I mean it.
Despite being the top wideout in 2014, the reason Watkins has not been connected to the Niners at all is because he is so good, and he looks to be out of range, even with their draft capital. There is a very, very slim chance the team moves up to the top five or top 10 for him, which is where he is projected to go in 99.9 percent of the mocks.
It would take a couple of first-round picks to move up for Watkins, much like the recent trade-ups for Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones. However, that just is not the MO of the 49ers' front office. There might not be a player on earth for whom they’d give up two first round picks.
If they did do something like that, you’d really have to wonder what their long-term plans were regarding Michael Crabtree.
That being said, Sammy Watkins more than likely will go to a team that can structure the offense around him, rather than the Niners, who are just looking for that final add-on to their passing attack. He is too special to be considered anything less than the centerpiece to an offense.
But he stays on the big board and headlines it for a reason. You just never know.
If they’re feeling the pressure from the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl win, and they can justify this earth-shattering draft day move because of the unknown contract statuses on the team, it’d make the 49ers an absolute powerhouse in 2014.
The team would receive an incredible window in this upcoming season, plus a sensational wideout to form a trifecta with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Marcus Lattimore. It's all about how they envision their team of the future.
Sammy Watkins ran a faster 100m & 200m than Chris Johnson.