Breaking Down the Most Important Pro Days for the San Francisco 49ers
Pro days are the last chance for this year’s class of incoming NFL rookies to impress scouts, general managers and coaches.
Teams know whom they’re interested in by now, but they’re attending these workouts as the final interview process. It’s a very small percentage, but since teams have eyes all over the nation, and they only have a certain number of picks, these players better impress if they hope to be selected early.
It’s a never-ending competition.
For the San Francisco 49ers, their nationwide tour will include several Southeastern Conference schools because that’s where they’ve been fond of taking players. They have roughly 20 players from the Southeastern region of the United States. It’s apparent in the starting lineup, but even more so down to the depth and recent picks under the new regime.
This is not for no reason, either.
Director of College Scouting Matt Malaspina, a rising star in this business, is an alumni of Central Florida—he has a home in the state of Florida, and that is where the heart of his network is. People he trusts reside in the Sunshine State, and he knows that’s where many of the blue-chip prospects hail from.
Malaspina is the man responsible for picking out UCF’s sack leader, Bruce Miller, knowing he could convert to fullback. The selection of Tank Carradine out of Florida State in 2013 also has his name written all over it. It's not just general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh rolling up their sleeves here.
So from Florida to Mississippi to Texas and up to West Virginia is the sweet spot for this team. They’re not big fans of the Northeast, having stayed clear of schools like Rutgers, Connecticut and Penn State, for the most part, which is certainly something to consider with several key players coming out of this draft from those universities.
However, they have a respect for the Pacific Northwest and those coastal schools.
Now that we've provided a brief overview of this team's inner-workings and how they operate, we'll take a look at where San Francisco's reps have been and where they're going as the countrywide pro days wrap up.
Player(s) of Interest: Jaylen Watkins (CB), Marcus Roberson (CB) and Louchiez Purifoy (CB)
As most know, San Francisco will be one of the top teams gunning for cornerbacks in this draft—looking to finally bolster the unit after years of cost-efficient supplementation. Not addressing it until now has hurt them at the worst times (namely Super Bowl time), so they should dive headfirst into this year’s rich crop.
They may select one of these players or perhaps a combination of two, much like Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh did when he rebuilt the secondary in 1981, selecting teammates Carlton Williamson and Lynn Thomas from Pitt. And Jim Harbaugh, being a man of letters, may appreciate this philosophy.
On the other hand, if they do only select one, look for it to be the lesser known of the three players, Jaylen Watkins.
His versatility beamed through with the Gators, as he looks to be a perfectly moldable fit within this defense. He’s a long corner with press ability that can plug into the nickel spot like Chris Culliver did in 2011, but also slide outside and man up when needed. Watkins is an athletic freak with a ton of upside in this defense.
Player(s) of Interest: Logan Thomas (QB), Antone Exum (CB) and Kyle Fuller (CB)
As Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News reported, one of the notable faces in the crowd at the Virginia Tech pro day was 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. This made a ton of sense because this year VT has several pro prospects at positions of need for San Francisco.
First on the list of players to look at was 6’6” Logan Thomas, the Hokies’ multi-tooled quarterback. Inman summed up why the 49ers head coach and QB guru may be interested in the physically gifted, yet underdeveloped passer:
Thomas attracted attention at the combine by posting the best numbers among quarterbacks in the 40-yard dash (4.61 seconds), vertical jump (35 1/2 inches) and broad jump (9 feet, 10 inches). He measured in at 6-foot-6 and 248 pounds, which is a bigger frame than 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (6-4, 230).
If he is to fall to the sixth or seventh round, which is where most projections have him, Thomas may be worth a late-round flier. The fact that Harbaugh was there at all may mean denote some interest. However, Thomas, as a fringe draft prospect, was not the one headlining the workout.
We mentioned the Niners’ attention to the cornerback position and Virginia Tech has two of the finer ones this year.
The most prominent of which is Kyle Fuller, the 6’0”, 4.4-running first-round prospect. He could make for the ideal selection at 30th overall. The 49ers would go from mediocre in the slot to outstanding—and they’d still have 10 draft picks remaining. If they stay put, Fuller could be had.
Antone Exum is another tall corner with an imposing frame that would be a movable piece in this defense. He’ll require a bit more time and polish, but certainly worth bringing into this particular defensive system.
Player(s) of Interest: Kelvin Benjamin (WR), Lamarcus Joyner (CB/S), Timmy Jernigan (DT), Telvin Smith (LB), Terrence Brooks (S) and Bryan Stork (C)
The 49ers selected two players from Florida State last year in defensive end Cornellius Carradine and linebacker Nick Moody. Honestly, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if they did it again. All signs point to it, as this year’s crop of Noles features a ton of blue-chip players at positions of need.
On top of which, the man himself, general manager Trent Baalke, was in attendance for the FSU pro day. So if that doesn’t get minds wandering, it’s hard to imagine what will.
There are several players they’d like to get a look at, but in terms of need, it’s looking like Kelvin Benjamin and Lamarcus Joyner headline the list. The Noles’ top-flight receiver and versatile defensive back are players that can plug in and compete for field time right away.
Center Bryan Stork seemed like more of an option before Daniel Kilgore was extended and talk heated up of him being a favorite for the starting gig. Of course, Stork can come in and compete for the job, but if the team is truly confident in Kilgore, then it would make for a wasted pick.
Then there’s Timmy Jernigan, the defensive tackle who expects to go in the first or second round. He is a big, brutish monster that could be taken in a “best player available” scenario, evolving into a 3-4 end in S.F. But admittedly, the 49ers don’t need a ton of help on the defensive line.
Player(s) of Interest: Odell Beckham Jr. (WR), Jarvis Landry (WR) and Craig Loston (S)
Churning out corners and safeties like Wonka Bars on an assembly line, Louisiana State University has been aptly tagged “DB U.”
However, this is one of their off years where, outside of safety Craig Loston, there aren’t very many coveted defensive backs. Nevertheless, the 49ers may be on the lookout for some developmental players that may be available after the draft—UDFAs they could look to bring in.
Also, more than just this year’s prospects show up at pro days, too. Younger players are typically in attendance to see the process and support their teammates. In that sense, the 49ers could get an early, nonchalant sneak-peek at next year’s class of defensive backs.
But the reason the 49ers value the LSU pro day in 2014 is because they’ll be eying two of the top wide receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The 49ers are expected to take either one—both are expected to be major blips on their radar. They’re both tough receivers that personify the NFC West playmaker.
Also, both are natural fits in San Francisco’s system.
Player(s) of Interest: Josh Mauro (DT), Trent Murphy (DT), David Yankey (OG) and Ed Reynolds (S)
Not only is Jim Harbaugh the former coach of the Stanford Cardinal—and not only is the university in their own backyard—but most importantly, this is a school that runs a 3-4 defense, which you won’t find everywhere.
Their defensive prospects in the front seven are compatible with San Francisco’s system and they’ve got two hulking defensive ends coming out that would be perfect for the 49ers. Trent Murphy and Josh Mauro are two easy targets. Most can see this coming from a mile away.
The 49ers are preparing for life after Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, having brought in Tank Carradine in 2013.
It would make sense if they brought in Carradine’s future line mate in this draft. They’d like these two to grow together. While Murphy is the more esteemed of the two, Mauro may have more upside and seems like the logical target as a mid-round prospect. San Francisco won’t be taking D-line high and they’ve got time to groom a high-ceiling player.
There’s also safety Ed Reynolds, who hasn’t been linked to this team too much until now, but is another mid-round defender that can come in as a reserve and benefit from some coaching.
Player(s) of Interest: De’Anthony Thomas (RB) and Colt Lyerla (TE)
You want speed? You know where to look.
Year in and year out, the Oregon Ducks showcase some of the most explosive playmakers in the country. Defensive ends, running backs or quarterbacks—it doesn’t matter. They all share similar characteristics, in that they are elusive and exceptional with the football.
While not all of them have panned out in the NFL, there’s always room for guys that can run and shake the opposition.
Two of the more exciting players this year could be late-round steals: running back De’Anthony Thomas and tight end Colt Lyerla.
Of course, in regard to the 49ers, the last thing they need right now is another tailback. They’re stacked on the roster and Jewel Hampton is an extra body that has carried over that has intrigued many as competitor in training camp. So many might dismiss Thomas as an option.
For those that do dismiss Thomas as a possible cog in the offense and special teams, direct your attention to Lyerla.
This is a player the 49ers should absolutely go after in the draft. Off-the-field issues are bound to derail his stock, causing many GMs to hesitate, but he remains one of the NFL Combine and pro day studs. At 6’4” 242 pounds, Lyerla is an absolute marvel, drawing comparisons to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
He moves incredibly well and can be quite the chess piece in San Francisco’s tight end friendly offense.
Having left the Ducks program in 2013, which was followed by a drug-related arrest, Lyerla optioned to participate in the nearby Portland State pro day on March 12, via Pete Socotch of Comcast SportsNet. The Niners, a West Coast-based ballclub, may have kept tabs on his showing.
Player(s) of Interest: Brandin Cooks (WR)
Different school, but consider this a continuance of the last slide.
The 49ers are looking for speed, particularly in a top prospect at wide receiver and they’ll find it with Oregon State's Brandin Cooks. The compact playmaker already had his pro day, impressing scouts with his pure athletic ability. The top speed, acceleration, extra gear and cut ability are second to none in this draft.
He was everything he was cracked up to be.
There’s really nothing he can’t do from a movement standpoint. Cooks is bound by nothing. His physical characteristics have drawn comparisons to St. Louis Rams dynamo Tavon Austin and Carolina Panthers all-time receiver Steve Smith. He’s explosive and its as if somebody is controlling him with a joystick.
There were no 49ers scouts reported at Cooks’ pro day, but in a roundabout way, that may signify interest.
Obviously the organization is not going to tip its hand as to who they’re interested in, especially with its first round pick. The club wants to do everything it can to safeguard itself from revealing some sort of connection. Besides, pro days won’t tell them anything they didn’t see on tape. And since Cooks was the only star coming out of Oregon State, if the 49ers were there, it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to conclude who they were looking at.
Player(s) of Interest: Mike Evans (WR)
One reason and one reason only: Mike Evans. (Sorry, Johnny Football and Jake Matthews).
The Aggies’ king-size wideout can spell all kinds of trouble for NFL defenses, projecting as a mismatch nightmare along the likes of New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. The height and wingspan combines for a near-indefensible catch radius, which Evans has steadily been perfecting.
Not to mention, the long speed and the fact that he’s open wherever he stands makes him the field-stretching weapon the 49ers covet.
Frankly, Evans is everything this team needs for its offense, which is the prototypical height/weight/speed prospect that can go deep and relieve their everlasting red-zone issues. San Francisco’s scouts will want to get a look at this guy, even though, at face value, the team appears out of his range at No. 30 overall.
He is too fitting to their needs to not do due diligence on.
Player(s) of Interest: Sammy Watkins (WR), Martavis Bryant (WR), Tajh Boyd (QB) and Brashaud Breeland (CB)
Wideout Martavis Bryant and cornerback Brashaud Breeland are the most realistic targets here as Sammy Watkins is projected to go top five, and Tajh Boyd is unnecessary with the trade for former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert. Still, San Francisco will do its due diligence because anything can happen on draft day.
But for the sake of realism, it’s worth mentioning Bryant and Breeland as possible acquisitions for the 49ers in May.
Bryant is a tall, fast, long-armed receiver that can stretch the field and leap over the top of defenders, which is quite the hot commodity in today’s NFL. His particular skill set also provides the 49ers with what they need. They need a player to take the top off the defense and be a threat to score in the red zone.
On the flipside, they need a player to prevent that sort of thing, too, which is what Breeland is.
The lengthy cornerback projects as a perfect fit for this team. Again, this is a player that resembles the mold of Chris Culliver, which is exactly the type of defensive back this team is in the market for. Breeland should be on San Francisco’s radar in a big way, especially if the front office feels it can buy low and turn him into something special under its tutelage.
Player(s) of Interest: E.J. Gaines (CB) and L’Damian Washington (WR)
Over the years, the 49ers have been collecting former Tigers, past and present. Besides defensive tackle Justin Smith and quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who were acquired from other teams via the open market, the first draft pick Trent Baalke made as general manager was Mizzou’s stud defensive end Aldon Smith.
That worked out.
With a high rate of success, the 49ers may look to the South to acquire another full-grown man of a playmaker. E.J. Gaines and L’Damian Washington are two of the more logical fits (again, cornerback and wide receiver). These are players that could each fill roles as rookies, respectively.
Gaines is very similar to former 49er and now Oakland Raider Tarell Brown. He could easily take over as a boundary corner, if not in 2014, then down the line. Gaines is a very physical corner with good press ability and ball skills. It is easy to why he’d be a fit in this defense.
While raw, Washington is 6’4”, 205 pounds and would do well as a role player in San Francisco.
He could operate situationally behind wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton, taking on a third or fourth cornerback that is hopefully as raw as he is. In that sense, Washington can be counted on to make plays from time to time, whether it be a chunk play down the field or a red-zone score.