Why San Francisco 49ers Must Finally Draft True No. 1 Wideout or Shutdown Corner

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Why San Francisco 49ers Must Finally Draft True No. 1 Wideout or Shutdown Corner
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Wide receiver Mike Evans shows off his patented over-the-shoulder ball skills against Mississippi State.

Let’s face it—the 49ers successfully draft top-flight wideouts and/or cornerbacks about as often as tornadoes hit the city of San Francisco.

A weather index rate of 3.78 in the latter over the past 60 years correlates accurately to the 49ers’ bleak draft history of early-round receiving and defensive back prospects.

See: Jimmy Johnson (1961), Jerry Rice (1985) and Terrell Owens (1996).

Recalling the disappointments and outright failures selected before, in between and afterward generally results in commitment to an asylum for the criminally insane.

(Do not) see: Terry Beasley (1972), J.J. Stokes (1995), R.W. McQuarters (1998), Mike Rumph (2002) and A.J. Jenkins (2012).

Point being, outside of a select few, the 49ers have not drafted a true No. 1 receiver or corner who later developed into a bona fide star.

The annals of this otherwise illustrious franchise is bereft of “homegrown” all-time greatness at those positions—in both a short- and long-term basis.

So then, is 2014 the year when all that changes? Will this latest draft class produce a once-in-a-generation talent or a player who is worthy of weekly discussion?

Will the Red and Gold finally discover a legitimate successor to one of those three stalwarts mentioned above?

It’s not a question of will, how or why—it’s an imperative must.

And from the standpoint of yours truly, only two such prospects exist in this draft: WR Mike Evans and CB Justin Gilbert.

 

Mike Evans, Wide Receiver, Texas A&M

Evans is a physical marvel with 35-plus-inch arms that extend from his 6’5’’, 231-pound frame, per NFL.com.

He transcends the traditional mold of a gridiron scoring threat with his alley-oop-on-the-hardwood sensibilities.

A tremendous basketball player in high school, he transferred that handiness onto the football field. He highpoints the ball better than any receiver in this class and utilizes unmatched hand-and-eye skills on overhead passes. 

To that end, he accumulated 1,394 yards and an SEC-leading 12 touchdowns at a second-ranked 20.2-yard clip in 2013. But don’t characterize him as a smooth and finesse hoopster by any means—Evans is not soft.

Per lauded NFLDraftScout.com analyst Rob Rang, via CBS Sports:

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…separation, when boxing out defenders on jump balls and in providing excellent downfield blocking for teammates.

Oh, Rang isn’t finished:

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…to adjust to the ball…Evans challenges cornerbacks to tackle him…at times dragging would-be tacklers for extra yardage…deceptive straight-line speed, making him a very effective deep threat.

Now, to anyone who is familiar with the deficiencies plaguing the 49ers over the years, what shortcoming do you think Evans would eliminate?

Red. Zone. Scoring.

And how?

Size, strength and consistent separation.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Mike Evans leaps to the ostensible heavens to haul in a red-zone score against Vanderbilt.

Indeed.

Evans is exactly what the NFL doctor ordered for the 49ers. He will elevate their West Coast offense through chain-moving, big-play-generating and point-scoring production.

He personifies completely the X wide receiver that San Francisco doesn’t have.

Colin Kaepernick should crumble in pure giddiness at the prospect of utilizing his rocket arm in connecting with such a big-bodied target.

OK, Evans isn’t perfect.

He has not executed a full route tree, will draw flags with his unrefined technique for getting open and doesn’t run the fastest 40—4.53 seconds, per NFL.com.

ESPN Scouts Inc. (subscription required) accurately notes that he is “slow...getting out of [his] breaks and...pushes off to create separation” a bit too often.

But he possesses the length and furious demeanor necessary for winning contested passes that end in touchdown paydirt—especially in an area where the 49ers have consistently failed.

And the fact that he’s a “very effective downfield blocker” who also “shows no fear working [the] middle of the field”—per Scouts Inc.—will keep Evans off the sideline.

After all, we can appreciate how much the coaching staff favors those who block in the run game and operate with legitimate toughness.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Former Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans would provide an Anquan Boldin-like target that could also produce more in the end zone.

Ultimate case in point: Anquan Boldin.

Concerning the draft, general manager Trent Baalke has the luxury of a 12-pick surplus with which to move up from No. 30 and grab Evans. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area notes the considerable stockpile.

Baalke can and must maneuver as such—even if that entails sliding into the top 10.

He traded up in last year’s draft for safety Eric Reid and must do so again when addressing this team’s greatest need.

May the two-month-and-change countdown begin until the gravelly voiced personnel evaluator pulls the final trigger.

 

Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State

Gilbert might stand five inches shorter and have 30 fewer pounds on his frame than Evans.

But oh, is he fast...and strong.

The four-year Oklahoma State Cowboy knocked the proverbial socks off evaluators’ feet during the 2014 combine.

He led all corners with a 4.37-40 and qualified in the top three with 20 reps on the bench press.

Just don’t go telling Evans about the latter total (he put up a mere 12—his ridiculously long arms notwithstanding).

More impressive, however, is how Gilbert translated those physical impossibilities into equally unreal production on the field.

He compiled seven of his 12 career interceptions during his senior campaign. He sat atop all of his Big 12 peers and ranked second in the nation with two pick-sixes in 2013.

The blazing 6’0’’, 201-pounder also was a crazy-good returner on special teams.

He amassed a staggering 26.3-yard average and six touchdowns in college. That placed him in the uppermost echelon in the Big 12 for career scores on kick returns.

So, what do our scouting friends at NFL.com have to say about Gilbert?

Per Nolan Nawrocki:

Outstanding size-speed ratio and athletic ability. Fluid movement skills…Very good transitional quickness and recovery speed. Superb feet and agility to pop out of his breaks and close on the ball -- explosively quick. Natural interceptor with very good hand-eye coordination, leaping ability and…ball skills. Very good vision and traffic burst as a returner.

Your summation, Mr. Nawrocki?

A big, fast, athletic, man-cover corner capable of locking down receivers and creating big plays in the return game…most physically gifted cover man in this year's draft…has the athletic talent to walk into a starting job and match up with big receivers from Day One.

In this case, San Francisco would kill two gridiron birds with one cornerback-like stone.

The 49ers lack a genuine cover corner who can shut down the opposition’s best weapon. Especially one who can do so without the benefit of an all-time front seven operating in front of him.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Only Justin Gilbert doing what he does best—picking off would-be completions in pure game-changing fashion.

Not since the 1994 NFL season featuring Deion Sanders have the Red and Gold possessed such an asset.

Sanders racked up six picks in just 14 games, not to mention setting a career high and leading the NFL with three interception-return touchdowns. He eliminated one-half of the field and completely owned any would-be pass-catchers.

Yet, the 49ers coaches did not employ Sanders on special teams that year.

It’s fair to say that they won’t repeat that error if and when they have Gilbert in the fold (remember that whole two birds with one stone thing?).

Head coach Jim Harbaugh witnessed up close the game-changing effect generated by Ted Ginn during his first season—and first week—on the job in 2011.

He effectively propelled the Niners single-handedly over the Seattle Seahawks with two return scores in Week 1.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Touchdown paydirt per usual for former Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert (No. 4).

Neither Ginn nor anyone else since has infused such a positively transformative dynamic on the field for this team. Gilbert will ensure that unfortunate streak ends in 2014.

Again, he isn’t an immaculate product.

Like Evans, his “contact downfield will easily attract penalties” on the occasions when coverage is particularly tight, according to NFLDraftScout.com’s Rob Rang.

Rang also adds via CBS Sports that Gilbert is susceptible to pump-fakes at times and will unnecessarily miss a few too many tackles in run support.

That said, ESPN Scouts Inc. highlights that he usually seals the edge and “uses his length well to wrap up” ball-carriers out of the backfield. Vic Fangio, Ed Donatell and the remaining defensive staff can rest assured.

As things currently stand vis-a-vis roster depth, the 49ers could be adequately equipped with Tramaine Brock, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver, Eric Wright and Perrish Cox at corner.

They could also retain just Brock and Culliver with respect to one overvalued contract (Rogers) and three nonexistent ones, per Spotrac.

But either way, Gilbert is more talented and possesses a much higher ceiling than all those previously mentioned.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Well, it's not like Gilbert lacks the necessary strength for supporting the San Francisco 49ers' defensive efforts.

So, once again, Baalke must trade into the upper portion of the first round if necessary. This team has a need, and it owns the requisite draft capital.

What the 49ers cannot afford is to allow Larry Fitzgerald, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and other big-time wideouts to burn them in 2014.

Such a glaring weakness need not exist on an otherwise championship-quality defensive corps.

 

The Ball’s In Your Court, Mr. Baalke

Whom Baalke ultimately signs off on is anyone’s guess.

Who should the 49ers draft in the first round?

Submit Vote vote to see results

The outside world can wax draft strategy to an ad nauseam eloquence and still never ascertain who will materialize as the newest member of the Red and Gold.

But we won’t stop—because we can.

And we can and will indeed execute that right until an unassailable game-changer arrives in proper attire at 4900 Marie P. DeBartolo Way.

Why not usher in the era of Levi’s Stadium with an unprecedented, draft-derived bang?

Mike Evans...Justin Gilbert...Baalke—49ers fandom awaits the final piece to the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl puzzle.

No pressure, gentlemen.

 

All player statistics come courtesy of Sports Reference. 

Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16

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