Coming into the offseason, the San Francisco 49ers’ top three needs were fairly clear. They needed a cornerback to replace the likely-to-be-cut Carlos Rogers, a safety in case Donte Whitner departed in free agency and a wide receiver to either replace Anquan Boldin or start in the slot behind Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
Even with Boldin’s new two-year contract, the 49ers’ needs remain mostly the same. In fact, with their recent commitment to Daniel Kilgore, it becomes less and less likely that the team uses any of their top selections in the 2014 NFL Draft on any other position. The needs aren’t great enough to totally rule out a different pick, but with three picks in the first two rounds, it’s somewhat logical to assume the 49ers will look to shore up their top three needs early.
Of course, there are a number of different ways to go about doing that. Does the team go for the top receiver available in the first round, and then restock the secondary in round two? Do they instead get a shutdown corner early, and deal with the offense later?
With none of the three main needs standing out as being much stronger than any other, the order of the picks comes down to value in each slot. The team can group all three positions together, and select whatever player they happen to fall in love with. It’s a bit of an enviable position to be in—they won’t have to reach for a player simply because they play a position of need.
With that in mind, here are some options at all three positions for San Francisco’s first three draft picks. This will help layout the team’s possible options, assuming they stay put in the draft.
Round 1 (30th selection overall)
WR: Odell Beckham Jr, LSU; Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State; Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
CB: Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech; LaMarcus Joyner, Florida State; Jason Verrett, TCU
S: Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
If you want an argument for paying the premium to re-sign Donte Whitner, here it is—the quality of safeties at this point in the draft is lower than ideal. The top two safeties in this year’s class are, in some order, Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but they are likely to be long gone by the time the 49ers get on the clock.
That leaves both corner and receiver as legitimate options here, and there are some solid choices. At receiver, Benjamin is a gigantic target at 6’5”—a physically dominating player who can box-out his opponents to catch jump balls in the end zone. Beckham and Cooks are smaller and faster, playmakers with the ball in their hands. Any of the three would provide an aspect that neither Crabtree nor Boldin bring.
Of the three cornerbacks, Verrett is my favorite. Fuller is a better tackler, but has worse technique than Verrett, and if I’m looking for a starter this year on a Super Bowl contender, a raw player like Fuller concerns me. Joyner might end up with the most turnovers of the three, but he’s only 5’8”, and I worry he’ll be too small to handle some of the larger receivers in the league.
We know that the 49ers met with Cooks at the combine. That’s about as far as the team has tipped its hand when it comes to this draft choice. It could mean the team legitimately wants to add Cooks’ speed to the team, or it could just be offseason noise. If all of these players were available at the No. 30 slot, I’d have no problems with taking Cooks here.
My mock draft had them taking Verrett, simply because I’m not sure Cooks will get this far. However, with the Philadelphia Eagles re-signing Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, that takes one team out of the running for a first-round receiver. It’s something worth watching as draft day approaches, at least.
Round 2 (56th overall)
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
CB: Keith McGill, Utah; Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida; Marcus Roberson, Florida
S: Deone Bucannon, Washington State
With San Francisco having two picks so close together in the second round, there’s some overlap between the sorts of players who could be available at each slot. Thus, the 49ers have an outside shot to grab two of these players as the draft goes on.
Another reason I had the 49ers taking Verrett in the first round is the probable availability of Jordan Matthews down in round 2. I love his strength and toughness, and the fact that his route running is already of NFL quality. Add in the 4.46 seconds he turned in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and I think he’s a great selection; someone with a bright future in the NFL.
Florida’s Pro Day is scheduled for March 17th, and if you’re looking for a second-round cornerback, that’s the place to be. Besides Purifoy and Roberson, they also have Jaylen Watkins coming out this year. Purifoy is my favorite of the three, as his man-coverage skills are the best of the bunch. Roberson’s much more physical and better at jamming receivers off the line of scrimmage. At 6’3”, I love McGill’s stature—I’m just concerned about his durability, after missing a year and a half with a shoulder problem.
McGill could also play safety, but if the 49ers are looking in that direction, Bucannon’s a much better choice. Bucannon brings a hammer to the secondary, unloading on anyone brave enough to try to catch the ball over the middle of the field. He forces a lot of turnovers, with his hard hitting backed up by a sense to rip at the ball as he’s bringing people to the ground. He’s not fast and bites too much on double moves, but he’s an enforcer in the secondary.
Bucannon might be the best match of need-to-skill here, but he also might slip down to the 49ers’ second pick. Still, if the team does move on from Whitner, Bucannon would be a very solid choice to put back in the secondary across from Eric Reid. I’m holding out for Matthews here, but there’s something to be said for a player who can provide a physical presence in the secondary.
Round 2 (61st overall)
WR: Bruce Ellington, South Carolina; Donte Moncrief, Mississippi
CB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska; Keith McGill, Utah; Marcus Roberson, Florida
S: Terrence Brooks, Florida State; Deone Bucannon, Washington State
I’m less enthused with the quality of the receivers at this slot. I feel it’s a front-loaded draft at the position, with the value being had earlier on. Ellington, at only 5’9”, is too small for my liking. He has a good burst and solid athleticism, but I fear he’ll vanish in coverage in the NFL. Moncrief struggled in college with press coverage, which is not something you want to hear with the Legion of Boom waiting up in Seattle. He’s solid and runs a variety of routes with power, but I’m not completely sold on him, either.
The secondary, on the other hand, has some holdovers from the previous selection, as well as some interesting new names. It’s only five picks later, so McGill, Roberson and Bucannon could easily be available at this position if the 49ers don’t take them earlier. It might be ideal for them to grab two of those three players with these picks.
If they are gone, there are some new names that start popping up around this point in various mocks. Jean-Baptiste only has average speed, but he’s big and aggressive. At 6’3”, he can hang with the larger receivers in the league, too. Brooks is the most athletic safety in the class, and has experience playing cornerback as well. He’s got better closing speed and athleticism than Bucannon, so which player you prefer is really a matter of style.
If you’re assuming the 49ers will deal with their three biggest needs with their first three picks, this selection very much becomes dependent on who the team took with picks one and two. Passed on the talented receivers early on? Time to take someone like Ellington. Watched as Bucannon went to someone else as you stocked up on cornerbacks? Brooks might be your man. dded offensive weapons at the expense of your coverage abilities? Time to take Jean-Baptiste and cut your losses there.
Whichever need the 49ers leave until last will, by definition, be stocked with the lowest-quality player. The team is fortunate enough to have the luxury to make that decision based on how the draft flows, rather than having to reach to fill a gaping hole anywhere on the roster.
The team is, of course, playing it close to the vest—no sense on tipping your hand this far in advance of the draft. For now, all we can do is sit and speculate.