7 Hidden Gems San Francisco 49ers Should Have Noticed at the Combine
If the NFL draft can be compared to a top movie yet to be released, the NFL Scouting Combine should be considered the preview.
The same could be argued when evaluating what the San Francisco 49ers do in preparations for draft day.
San Francisco is once again in a unique position approaching the draft—boasting a plethora of picks, again stockpiled by general manager Trent Baalke.
With a total of 12 picks in the upcoming draft, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers find themselves capable of executing a number of different approaches.
Will they trade up? Probably. Will they take a flier on injured players whose draft stock has dropped? Possibly.
Plenty of focus already exists on players the 49ers may target early in the draft. For example, 49ers.com writer Taylor Price discusses San Francisco's need for multiple wide receivers and highlights the draft as the primary resource to bolster this particular unit.
Most of the buzz will focus on some of the top-tier targets—wide receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson and Mike Evans all come to mind.
Targets at other positions also warrant attention. Look no further than safeties like Deone Bucannon or Ahmad Dixon to possibly replace veteran safety Donte Whitner if he departs via free agency.
While evaluating some of these high-profile types, expect San Francisco to pay close attention to some of the lesser known prospects that may have slipped some of the headlines and therefore may be sleeper picks entering the draft.
Baalke does not typically show his hand when it comes to evaluating talent and targeting specific players, so it is difficult to assume—from the front office's perspective—which prospects the 49ers are closely monitoring, especially in the latter rounds.
For the purpose of this slideshow, let us evaluate prospects that are projected to be drafted in Round 3 or later during the upcoming draft. We shall use the projection rankings provided by CBS Sports for the sake of consistency.
Keep in mind, the combine is yet to be completed—the event lasts through Tuesday, February 25, per NFL.com.
Offensive linemen, tight ends and special teams prospects participated on Saturday, February 22 and quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs on February 23.
Defensive linemen and linebackers partake in the combine on Monday, February 24 and defensive backs are evaluated on February 25.
So which hidden gems made it onto San Francisco's radar?
Let us take a look at seven of them.
Strong Safety Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Ahmad Dixon, Strong Safety
Height/Weight: 6'0" / 205 pounds
To kick off this list, let us focus on the defensive backfield, even if the combine results are yet to happen.
San Francisco may be looking to replace veteran safety Donte Whitner this offseason with cap savings in mind. It is possible they may use a mid- to late-round pick to do this.
In a perfect world, the 49ers would have the tools and ammunition to land a replacement for Whitner from the likes of Deone Bucannon or Jimmie Ward—both of them are projected by CBS Sports to be drafted higher than this target, Ahmad Dixon out of Baylor.
Yet considering San Francisco may be utilizing some of its picks in potential trade-up deals, a player like Dixon may be the bargain pick that not only falls to the 49ers in later rounds, but supplements a specific need at a reasonable price.
Dixon is currently projected to go in the fourth round, which gives San Francisco the time necessary to determine whether or not to draft him.
If they did, here is what they would be getting, according to Dane Brugler of CBS Sports:
Strengths: Extremely fast downhill and loves to get his hands dirty in the run game, striking through his target with strong hands to finish. Dixon has an accurate first step with the quickness and range to play both sidelines with an alert, active mentality. Displays the feet and overall body coordination to hold up on an island if needed. Excellent size/speed athlete with the fluidity and natural speed to cover the entire field, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and in the deep half of the field. Works hard to shed blocks to make open-field stops and is a physical tackler. He is confident in coverage to jump routes and aggressively go after the ball.
Weaknesses: He still needs some technique and recognition work when it comes to coverage. Needs to consistently wrap up and not just hit his target with body shots.
Dixon's performance at the combine will unquestionably affect his draft stock, which further influences what the 49ers will do.
But if the 49ers are looking beyond the Whitner era in San Francisco, evaluating Dixon would be a smart move.
Tight End Richard Rodgers, California
Richard Rodgers, Tight End
Height/Weight: 6'4" / 257 pounds
One may not particularly think of third-string tight ends as being potential "gems" on a franchise, yet Cal's Richard Rodgers may wind up fitting the bill no matter how small it is.
More on Rodgers' accolades shortly.
First, let us take a look at a need from the 49ers' vantage point. Currently, all three of San Francisco's active tight ends—Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek—are under contract through at least 2015. There are also alternative options like Derek Carrier and Demarcus Dobbs.
Davis shall remain the unquestioned No. 1 tight end on the roster. It is also hard to envision McDonald losing his spot at No. 2 unless his maturation comes crashing to a halt.
At the No. 3 position, however, the door remains open for competition.
Is this something the 49ers would consider?
This is argued by Christian Gin of Examiner.com, who writes, "It would not be surprising if they sign another athletic undrafted free agent or draft someone in the seventh round who could play more than one position."
Here is where Rodgers comes in.
CBS Sports projects Rodgers as a late sixth- or early seventh-round pick. Of course, by the time the draft reaches these stages, it is almost impossible to speculate where late-round prospects will be drafted. This means the 49ers may be able to pounce on a developmental player like Rodgers with one of their three seventh-round picks.
Rodgers has experience playing both at wide receiver and tight end from his days at Cal.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports admits that he needs some development but has a tremendous upside, citing his sneaky athleticism and ability to be utilized as an H-back or in a Joker role.
This gives Rodgers points regarding his versatility, and this element is something that could fit into Greg Roman's offense.
With a 5.2 grade from NFL.com, Rodgers may be the perfect candidate to compete for San Francisco's No. 3 tight end position.
If he does anything beyond that at the NFL level, it would be a sheer bonus for the 49ers—thus earning the honor of being touted a "hidden gem."
Quarterback Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
Logan Thomas, Quarterback
School: Virginia Tech
Height/Weight: 6'6" / 248 pounds
Yes, the San Francisco 49ers will surely be targeting a quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft.
The role of this quarterback however, will be to back up Colin Kaepernick under center. With No. 2 quarterback Colt McCoy likely on his way out during free agency, the competition for Kaepernick's backup spot is up for grabs.
As such, expect the 49ers to be looking for that piece during the draft.
If San Francisco looks to pursue this option with player development in mind, general manager Trent Baalke might be considering Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas.
Thomas possesses all of the physical attributes desired from a quarterback that would fit into a similar offense handled by Kaepernick. Like Kaepernick, Thomas is a big guy and owns blazing speed—being named a top performer at the NFL Scouting Combine, per NFL.com.
If we were evaluating only Thomas' physical nature, he would likely be touted as a top-ranked prospect. Yet Thomas is anything but that at this point.
There are plenty of marks against Thomas entering the draft—all of which have combined to thwart his draft stock to the seventh round or even as an undrafted free agent, per CBS Sports.
According to Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, Thomas' biggest flaw is his lack of consistency. While he does have the ability to make tough passes, this aspect of his game is shaky at best. He will make one great throw followed by another horrid one.
This drawback stands in stark contrast to all of the talk about his physical gifts and what that could translate into on the field.
Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com sums up Thomas on his combine profile by writing:
Unrefined, strong-armed, sturdy pocket passer who looks the part and has intriguing, raw arm talent, though he is a converted tight end whose inexperience showed throughout a yo-yo career in Blacksburg. Has definite developmental value given his starter-caliber skill set and intangible makeup. Would benefit from coaching continuity, more specifically a QB coach capable of refining his crude talent.
Nawrocki's last sentence should be the one that grabs the ears of 49ers fans.
Is it far from the truth that a player like Thomas, in spite of his raw talents, could be coached up by the likes of a quarterback-friendly coach like Jim Harbaugh?
Not at all.
One could even make the argument that if Thomas fails to be drafted, the 49ers take a flier on Thomas in free agency and land him as a work in progress.
Similar to Richard Rodgers on the previous slide, Thomas would be the type of player that could develop into something of use for the 49ers, with the potential of being a viable asset.
Quarterback Connor Shaw, South Carolina
Connor Shaw, Quarterback
School: South Carolina
Height/Weight: 6'0" / 206 pounds
Staying with the emphasis on backup quarterback candidates, let us take a look at another collegiate prospect in Connor Shaw out of South Carolina.
While the aforementioned Logan Thomas may be too raw for the 49ers to consider, Shaw might be an attractive option for their sixth-round pick—the round in which CBS Sports projects the prospect to be taken.
A lot of these hidden gems have one thing going for them—size. Unfortunately, this is not an asset that Shaw possesses, which has certainly affected his draft stock.
Is there a comparison between Shaw and Wilson? Absolutely.
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier compared the two on NFL AM (h/t Michael David Smith of NBC Sports) by saying:
He became a starter three years ago—he’s been the quarterback on all three of these 11-win seasons. Connor’s just a winner. He’s a lot like Russell Wilson. He takes care of the ball, doesn’t do stupid stuff, doesn’t take careless sacks, he can throw it away, and he’s really a good passer. Any time you see a guy who can run as well as Connor you don’t think he’s that good of a passer. I think he’s going to wow them at the Combine coming up this week and I hope he’s a mid-round pick, maybe even better. The kid is a winner, he can run with it and he can throw.
And how did Shaw perform at the combine?
Well, he was a top performer in the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, the broad jump and the three-cone drill, per his combine profile on NFL.com.
All signs point to Shaw being a potential sleeper during this draft, and he even warranted the same accolade from Niners Nation writer Trevor Woods, who cites Shaw's ability to protect the ball as one of the reasons behind Shaw's success.
Perhaps Shaw is the type of player San Francisco targets as its No. 2 quarterback in 2014.
Wide Receiver Brandon Coleman, Rutgers
Brandon Coleman, Wide Receiver
Height/Weight: 6'6" / 225 pounds
It is time to finally jump into the area that most 49ers fans probably have the most interest in—drafting wide receivers.
It is worth speculating that the 49ers will target a top-profile wideout earlier in the draft. Already documented is the 49ers' interest in this category—an element that was described by Vic Tafur of SFGate.com.
The only question that remains is, what type of receiver are the Niners targeting? Do they want size—a player that can match up physically and be a presence in the red zone?
Or do they want someone with speed who can help stretch the field and take the top off opposing defenses?
Oregon State's Brandin Cooks may fit the need for speed while Mike Evans from Texas A&M has the size. Yet both of these prospects are early targets, according to CBS Sports, and the 49ers are probably in the market for multiple receivers during the draft.
Let us assume the 49ers will target more than one receiver and perhaps take a flier on a developmental guy later in the draft.
Here is where a physical specimen like Rutgers' Brandon Coleman earns his way onto the radar as a late third- or early fourth-round prospect.
At 6'6" and 225 pounds, there is no overlooking Coleman's sheer size. You cannot coach that. These attributes potentially make him a viable red-zone target—an element San Francisco needs.
Yet there are concerns about his ability to transfer his build into a practical NFL-caliber receiver.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports sums this up by indicating that Coleman is easily knocked off balance and can often struggle gaining separation—aspects that may negate some of the physical attributes that made him an attractive option.
Rang also compares Coleman to current 49ers receiver Jon Baldwin, who also has struggled to have a worthy impact at the NFL level. Coleman's hands are not the best and his skills are nowhere near those of a top prospect.
Following his efforts at the combine, NFL.com gave Coleman a 5.42 grade, which indicates that he has the potential to be an NFL backup or a contributor on special teams.
So why does he make this list?
As previously noted, Coleman's size is something worth considering alone. All the other shortcomings are aspects that can be coached up over time. Sure, that development is never guaranteed, but having a player who possesses the impactful size is always a bonus.
If nothing else, Coleman could be the type of player the 49ers use in red-zone situations.
Given that the 49ers would not be spending a high pick on him, why not give Coleman a chance to compete for a spot on the roster?
Wide Receiver Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss
Donte Moncrief, Wide Receiver
School: Ole Miss
Height/Weight: 6'2" / 221 pounds
Wideouts like Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marqise Lee typically dominate the draft discussion about the position and rightfully so.
Yet considering that these receivers—barring a trade up—will likely be off the board when the 49ers draft at No. 30 in the first round, San Francisco better be looking at depth options.
We have already covered the fact that the 49ers could use help in both the red zone and in stretching the field. I also mentioned the possibility of them targeting more than one receiver.
Ole Miss wideout Donte Moncrief has the potential to solve both issues, and it would not take a high draft pick to land him.
Currently slated by CBS Sports to go in the third or fourth round, San Francisco may be in the hunt to land this prospect with one of its numerous mid-round picks.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports highlights the physical attributes of Moncrief by writing:
Moncrief's thick frame, deceptive speed and smooth route-running make him a nightmare for cornerbacks. He does not possess the explosive moves of Southern Cal's Marqise Lee or Clemson's Sammy Watkins but might be a better player than either of them. He is sudden in his breaks, showing the ability to generate separation even against tight man coverage, and accelerates quickly, often leaving defenders in his dust on double-moves. Moncrief tracks the ball well and generally shows excellent hands (one drop vs. Texas), as well as the body control to make the dazzling grab.
Rang said it—Moncrief has the potential to be a better player than both Lee and Watkins.
While Rang also admits the one attribute that thwarts Moncrief's game is his apparent lack of straight-line speed, it is impossible to overlook his uncanny ability to create space and utilize his fluidity in getting open.
At the combine, Moncrief earned top-performer accolades—posting a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash and scoring high marks on the vertical and broad jumps, per NFL.com.
On the same page, Nolan Nawrocki highlighted what fans should expect from Moncrief:
Big, physically gifted “X” receiver with deep speed, “above-the-rim” potential and playmaking ability. Has a ceiling as a No. 1 or No. 2 in a vertical passing offense, and his best football is in front him. Likely to elevate his stock at the combine and in workouts.
According to Nawrocki, Moncrief is the type of player the 49ers could use both in establishing a red-zone presence and in assisting them with the vertical game.
Sounds to me like Moncrief will be an enticing target during the draft.
Wide Receiver Paul Richardson, Colorado
Paul Richardson, Wide Receiver
Height/Weight: 6'0" / 175 pounds
Colorado wideout Paul Richardson may be bending the criteria set for this list—projected as a late second- or early third-round pick, per CBS Sports.
Yet for the sake of finding gems in an especially deep wide receiver prospect pool, let us consider Richardson as a gem outside of the top targets at the position.
Hopefully, by this point we have established the needs San Francisco has at the position and, more specifically, what type of receiver the 49ers are looking for.
At 6'0" and 175 pounds, Richardson is not exactly the biggest receiver on San Francisco's radar and that alone may be a concern when matched up against some of the tougher defenses at the NFL level.
Still, Richardson does have one accolade that is impossible to overlook—speed.
Richardson earned top-performer marks at the combine, posting a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash, per NFL.com.
According to Rob Rang of CBS Sports, Richardson possesses excellent straight-line speed and agility, which, in turn, makes him an excellent deep-ball threat. He is also a tremendous route runner and is capable of utilizing this skill set to create space and get open.
This is an element the 49ers need. He also has the ability to excel in slot formations, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
It is hard to overlook the fact that Richardson has the "boom or bust" label placed upon him. If he fails to add some bulk to his small frame or is unable to transfer his collegiate skills over to the NFL level, the pick placed on him may be wasted.
Yet the upside to Richardson's game is too hard to overlook completely. Speed is a necessary element in today's NFL and Richardson has plenty of that.
Like any raw gem, Richardson will need some refinement upon reaching the NFL. If properly developed, however, Richardson could wind up being one of the more viable weapons in San Francisco's offense.
The 49ers will surely use the first couple of rounds in the 2014 draft to solidify their immediate needs. Many of the aforementioned positions could very well be addressed by the time each lower-ranked prospect becomes a target.
Therefore, it is difficult to assume how San Francisco will view any of these proverbial diamonds in the rough.
Yet finding value in Round 3 picks and beyond can often prove to be the difference between a good team and a championship contender. The 49ers hope to remain the latter.
After the NFL Scouting Combine concludes, it will be time for San Francisco's front office, fans and analysts to evaluate and speculate which potential prospects will be targeted during the draft.
In the meantime, let us not overlook some of the targets the team might eyeball in the later rounds of the 2014 draft.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.