San Francisco 49ers: Scouting Virginia Tech Cornerback Kyle Fuller

Bryan KnowlesContributor IIIMarch 13, 2014

Virginia Tech defensive back Kyle Fuller runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Even though free agency is still in full swing, it’s important to remember that the San Francisco 49ers will be doing most of their offseaspn work in the NFL draft. 

While they traded away a sixth-round pick to acquire quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the team still sits pretty with 11 selections.

Free agency has already refocused the 49ers draft strategy somewhat.  Most notably, signing Antoine Bethea likely takes them out of the running for a safety in the first round.  With so many picks, the possibility existed of trading up to the middle of the first round for someone like Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but the Niners now should be content to sit back and take a safety later in the draft.

That leaves cornerback and wide receiver as the major two needs for that first-round pick, and that has been reflected in Mel Kiper’s mock drafts so far this season.

In his first two mocks this offseason, the ESPN draft guru had the 49ers taking a wide receiver from LSU—first Odell Beckham and then, in his second mock, Jarvis Landry—with their first selection. With the third edition, however, Kiper goes in another direction; he has the 49ers taking cornerback Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech.

The need’s a fairly obvious one.  With Tarell Brown still unsigned and Carlos Rogers released, the 49ers need someone else, even if it’s only to play the nickel position.  Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock are an interesting set of starters, but they have only 13 career starts between them.  There’s enough uncertainty that another player or two could easily be added to the mix.

The first thing that impressed me about Fuller was his ability to tackle, despite his small stature.  Fuller only weighs 190 pounds, but he plays with a toughness that belies his small size.  In run support, he makes plays fighting through blocks that would swallow up other corners.  He has a size disadvantage against tight ends, but makes up for it with closing speed and quick reactions.

Fuller had a good day at the combine.
Fuller had a good day at the combine.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

He ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the combine, which was faster than expected.  He didn’t always play up to that speed on film.  He didn’t show the ability to run with some of the faster receivers at the college level, and if he loses a step at the line, he’s going to get beaten by elite players.

That being said, he only had a burn percentage of 16 percent in man coverage in 2013, meaning he didn’t let receivers get past him very often.  How to reconcile his lack of speed on film with his positive results?  Simply put, Fuller sits back, and usually played off in coverage, as opposed to crowding receivers in press coverage.  Playing off allows him to keep the play in front of him and react to plays as they happen.

Essentially, Fuller’s liable to give up short, quick completions, but then use his awareness and play recognition to break on the ball and prevent opposing wide receivers from turning it upfield.  He excels at limiting run after the catch.

He needs to improve his technique, however.  He tends to freelance, and can overpursue, with his aggressiveness leaving him vulnerable to double-moves.  When he’s asked to play in tight, press coverage, he doesn’t show the proper technique for getting good jams at the line.

Such undisciplined play would make him a bit of an anomaly for the 49ers.  They like their cornerbacks to go up and play press coverage.  Fuller certainly has the measurables and physical talent to learn to do that, but the team would have to be convinced they could clean up Fuller’s technique if they were to take him.

Fuller's injury history is a red flag.
Fuller's injury history is a red flag.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

The other red flag with Fuller is his injury history.  He had hernia surgery in November and missed 11 total games over the course of his college career.  That’s to be expected with his smaller frame, but his size and injury background could jeopardize a lengthy NFL career.

Fuller showed decent improvement in his senior season, and I think the issues with his technique can be corrected through good coaching.  I still prefer Jason Verrett out of TCU, but Fuller would be a fine choice for the team.  He could eventually take over one of the two outside corner positions, but he has the versatility to play nickelback and even safety, if the need arises.

Fuller could make an immediate impact on the field, as he’s not a full-on project. Still, he has plenty of room to grow and develop.

Virginia Tech’s pro day is scheduled for Wednesday, March 19.  We’ll see then which members of the 49ers coaching and scouting staffs show up and possibly get a better gauge of how interested they are in Fuller.  If he drops to No. 30, he’s definitely a player the 49ers should strongly consider.