This is the most highly debated topic of the offseason for this team, largely because they have an excess of draft picks and a starting roster already in place that enables the front office brass to go after almost anyone. Nevertheless, the popularly mocked selections have been cornerbacks and wide receivers.
If the 49ers need players to participate in a role now, with the possibility of starting in the near future, it’s at those two spots.
That being said, instead of daydreaming, this article will truncate the list to realistic targets, which are players at positions of need that will either be available when San Francisco selects or at least be in trade-up range (15th overall as a rough cutoff point, since the 49ers traded from No. 31 to No. 18 in 2013 for LSU safety Eric Reid).
So, for example, wideouts Mike Evans (Texas A&M) and Sammy Watkins (Clemson)—while fitting prospects—are virtual locks for the top five to top 15 and are unlikely to land with the Niners. There are also plenty of top-tier defensive linemen and rush linebackers that will fall to the back end of the first round but aren’t players that are going to help right away.
It's about narrowing the focus.
With less than 50 days until the draft, it’s important to weed through the junk and try to pinpoint who San Francisco really might be looking at. The following will present the top four prospects that general manager Trent Baalke may be considering at 30th overall or sliding up for in the first round of this year's draft.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Weight: 198 lbs.
40-Time: 4.43 sec.
Louisiana State’s Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the true No. 1 wide receivers in this draft class and one that is pro-ready. He brings a very dynamic skill set and can contribute from Day 1. And unlike fellow top prospects Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin, he is not the mold of the high-risk, high-reward player.
This is a safer pick, which is relevant for San Francisco as a team that has missed on receivers in the draft and is also planning for life after Anquan Boldin and possibly Michael Crabtree.
For those reasons, they cannot afford to miss.
At his core, Beckham is a well-rounded athlete with natural receiving ability who executes all the little nuances of the position exceptionally well. We’re talking about a very crisp route-runner with an extra gear that translates to both deep speed and great run-after-the-catch ability.
His top speed, route precision and fluidity in and out of his breaks have helped him create separation at the college level and should enable him to do the same in the NFL. Oftentimes, this sort of technical proficiency aids receivers in the transition, leading to success right away.
There’s also a distinct toughness and underlying confidence about Beckham Jr. He’s a lot like a cast-iron version of Miami Dolphins pass-catcher Mike Wallace or DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles. Like them, he’ll bring more 20- and 40-yard plays, not just because of his straight-line speed, but because he has the grit to go get the tough yardage.
Not to mention, there’s also the soft hands and spectacular-catch factor.
If the LSU receiver cleared 6’0”, he might be in the running to be the first receiver off the board. He is the most natural of this year’s crop, and there’s not a whole lot to knock him for. And for the 49ers, Odell Beckham will bring the speed element that they don’t have, while providing a building block for the future.
I thought Odell Beckham was a top 16 guy coming into this. I'm happy with a top 12 designation at this point. Pretty special talent.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) February 23, 2014
School: Oregon State
Weight: 189 lbs.
40-Time: 4.33 sec.
Oregon State speed demon Brandin Cooks is a special talent this year, closely resembling Tavon Austin of the St. Louis Rams, who was the first wide receiver off the board in the 2013 draft. Without a doubt, his quick-twitch ability and knack for getting behind defenses will make Cooks a highly coveted weapon this year.
Though smaller in stature, Cooks makes up for it in other areas, playing a much bigger game than his dimensions would indicate. This is a receiver that explodes off the line of scrimmage, which could make him a difficult matchup for any corner, even the 6-footers that all the teams seem to be after this year. And once running free, he’s fearless.
One of Cooks’ strengths, and the one that perhaps surprises most, is his leaping ability and how he catches in traffic. He gives himself to the football, attacking it at its highest point, totally unafraid of being teed up by larger incoming defenders. And once he’s got the ball, look out.
Like the team’s current receivers, Crabtree and Boldin, the OSU rookie could step in and play the slot and boundary, fitting right into this West Coast offense. At the same time, he can help this unit evolve to more of a spread attack, which they are trying to do with strong-armed quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Brandin Cooks is a true-to-life game-breaker, which the 49ers don't have at wide receiver.
I'm watching more Brandin Cooks tape tonight. I see a lot of T.Y. Hilton in his game. Sudden release, has another gear, very tough.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 7, 2014
School: Florida State
Weight: 240 lbs.
40-Time: 4.61 sec.
Kelvin Benjamin separates himself from the pack here in that he has very rare size for the position. Nobody in this class is built like him and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone next year. So, despite being one of the rawer specimens projected to go in the first round, Benjamin’s freakish genetics make him a hot commodity heading into this year’s draft.
The selling point with him is that at 6’5”, with a 32.5” vertical and an 84” wingspan, he brings an unfathomable catch radius.
He is open wherever he stands and obviously, this translates to moving the chains and ultimately scores. In 2013, Benjamin led the conference with 15 receiving touchdowns, which was also a school record. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he had seven receptions in the red zone, all of which went for touchdowns. He only had one goal reception that didn't go for a score in his entire career (11 receptions, 10 touchdowns).
The 49ers, for all their strengths, are one of the worst red-zone teams in the National Football League. For three straight years, one thing they have failed to improve was their goal offense.
The short and sweet of it is that they run far too much and don’t have any truly intimidating receivers that excel in close-range situations. In that sense, Benjamin would be extremely complementary to what they already have, providing them with a much-needed element.
It would also allow the underdeveloped receiver to play a role, build his confidence and learn the game at the pro level. Benjamin wouldn’t have to carry the offense, but rather turn a good percentage of those Phil Dawson field goals into touchdowns. That sort of thing would have a dramatic impact on this team, which drives the length of the field consistently.
The 49ers can also get him out there on third down.
While that’s not exactly what teams are looking for in a rookie first-rounder, the 49ers are one of the few teams that can afford to make this pick. It may also pay huge dividends in 2014 and beyond if Kelvin Benjamin ever reaches his potential, which at this point is sky high. All told, he should earn serious consideration here.
Finishing up a post on FSU's Kelvin Benjamin. Legit size & talent. Matchup player. Must develop route running, consistency vs. NFL DBs.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) February 28, 2014
School: Virginia Tech
Weight: 190 lbs.
40-Time: 4.49 sec.
In this group of possible first-round selections, Kyle Fuller stands out as the one cornerback.
Frankly, the 49ers won’t be in a position to select Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard or Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert—the top two corners. And who knows if either of them are really worth trading up for, seeing as how they No. 1, aren’t ideal nickelbacks; No. 2, are not perfect by any means; and No. 3, haven’t created a ton of separation in a very deep class of cornerbacks.
On the other hand, Fuller is a baller just the same—and one who could very well be available in the late teens to mid-20s. He’s also more of the versatile type. Fuller can play inside, which is what the Niners need, but also kick outside and man up against some of the taller receivers.
In that sense, his development would be very similar to South Carolina's Chris Culliver, who was a long corner who came in as a nickel contributor but was able to shadow receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson immediately. And now Culliver is preparing to be a starter, which is something that Fuller can potentially do.
Moreover, he is already skilled in zone coverage, with the tools to be an outstanding press corner at the next level.
At 6’0”, running in the 4.4-second range, Fuller is a tall, fluid corner with acute instincts. He is not an elite athlete along the likes of Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, but he is technically sound and does everything well, hence the first-round grade. Most notably, Fuller brings natural ball skills and can elevate with the best corners in this class.
He’ll run stride-for-stride with all kinds of receivers and then challenge them to the catch point. His read-and-react skills are also uncanny, as you can see here.
Now, for the 49ers, which also like their defenders to engage—no matter what position they play—they’ll like Fuller’s aggressive style. He is very proficient getting off blocks and can be counted on in run support, which they had trouble with at times in 2013 with Nnamdi Asomugha and Carlos Rogers.
And the consistent starts and tenacious style of play on tape reveal a tough, resilient player.
Finally, having captained the defense, Fuller was also a known leader at Virginia Tech, which is a quality the 49ers value in each of their defensive players. It’s part of the reason why it is such a commanding unit year in and year out. At every level of this defense’s infrastructure, there is a skipper.
For so many reasons, Kyle Fuller is a can’t-miss prospect in Round 1.
Great to see CB Kyle Fuller getting some love, he's deserved it the past few years. Very natural. I'll take him over Justin Gilbert— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 25, 2014
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Which of the aforementioned game-changers should be the next 49er?
Who should the 49ers select in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft?