Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects Who Fill the 49ers' Biggest Need
Jim Harbaugh's men could do with speed and a red-zone threat at the receiver position to give quarterback Colin Kaepernick more options next season.
However, San Francisco already has two excellent starting receivers in Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, and a promising youngster in the form of Quinton Patton.
The 49ers' depth at cornerback is less impressive following the departures of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are expected to be the starters in 2014, but behind them there are doubts about Eric Wright and newly acquired free-agent signing Chris Cook.
San Francisco has no clear candidate to play at the nickel spot in 2014, and that should be its biggest area of concern in the draft come May 8. The 2014 class is a deep one at the cornerback spot, and the 49ers could conceivably fill what is their biggest need outside of the first round.
But what will the 49ers be looking for when they more than likely choose to address the position?
Their main division rival, the Seattle Seahawks, has set a precedent with big-bodied, long-armed and physical cornerbacks. A number of teams will be eager to find their answer to the likes of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.
Size, physicality and tenacity are all important in grading a cornerback, as are key factors such as speed, coverage and ball skills and versatility.
Here I look at the top 10 cornerbacks who can fill a glaring hole in the 49ers defense.
10. Keith McGill
Big cornerbacks could soon be the norm in the NFL, a possibility that figures to improve the prospects of Keith McGill.
McGill, a senior out of Utah, boasts an impressive stature of 6'3" and 211 pounds and uses that substantial frame to his advantage.
A converted free safety who played five games at that position in 2011, McGill utilized his frame and leaping ability to enjoy a strong season in 2013. McGill finished his final year with the Utes with 12 passes defensed and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown against UCLA.
However, McGill heads into the draft with questions about his durability and toughness.
He missed the entire 2012 campaign following shoulder surgery and was troubled by cramps, as per CBSSports.com, during Senior Bowl practices.
But despite those concerns, McGill has the build and the abilities that NFL teams may well look for in following the Seahawks' blueprint for building a great pass defense, and the California native could represent a mid-round steal for the 49ers.
9. Pierre Desir
Few would have known the name of Pierre Desir prior to the start of the pre-draft process.
But after catching the eye at the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, Desir now has the chance to be the first player drafted from a non-FBS school.
B/R draft supremo Matt Miller named Desir as one of his top 10 cornerbacks in the draft, and it is easy to see why.
The Haitian-born Desir transferred from Washburn to Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, and lit up the small-school program with his performances.
Sports a lean, athletic build with excellent height for the position. Fluid athlete with light feet, flexibility and balance. Has a low backpedal, controlled transition and is a smooth accelerator with good top-end speed. Trusts his athleticism, showing the patience to allow receivers to get close before opening his hips to turn and run downfield.
Aggressively closes on underneath routes. Locates the ball well, showing good hand-eye coordination and body control to adjust to make the tough grab. Has dominated lower-level competition based largely on his natural gifts.
Desir had four interceptions in his final season with Lindenwood, and there can be no question that he has the potential to develop into an NFL starter.
There are issues with his technique, especially against the run, but in a league that is increasingly keen to acquire size at cornerback, Desir is an exciting prospect and could be a gamble well worth taking for the 49ers.
8. Stanley Jean-Baptiste
The Seahawks' success in developing their defensive backs could well prove to be great for the career of Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
That is because the former Nebraska cornerback has the ideal size for teams looking to imitate Seattle's blueprint for the secondary.
The 6'3" and 218-pound Jean-Baptiste is the biggest corner in the draft, and his sheer length and leaping ability—he posted a vertical jump of 41.5 inches at the NFL Scouting Combine—will be attractive to pro scouts.
A former receiver turned corner, Jean-Baptiste had 25 passes defensed and seven interceptions in three seasons with Nebraska.
While Jean-Baptiste has the build and ball skills that teams look for, he does not possess top-end speed, and at the age of 23, he is still adjusting to the position, as NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki explains:
Green positional instincts. Picks and chooses his spots to be physical—inconsistent run defender. Has tweener traits. Football aptitude is lacking—could struggle to grasp and execute complex assignments. Will be a 24-year-old rookie.
Jean-Baptiste would work well for a team employing a Cover 2 or press scheme, and his frame may lead him to be drafted much higher than his talent warrants.
San Francisco could certainly use a corner of Jean-Baptiste's build. Still, his relative inexperience at the position may dampen the 49ers' interest.
The physical tools are certainly intriguing, but for a 49ers team keen to recruit immediate impact players, a developmental prospect such as Jean-Baptiste should not be considered until later in the draft.
7. Marcus Roberson
While San Francisco is disappointed to lose a corner of Tarell Brown's talents, they will still have opportunity to draft a player who shares many of the same traits.
Marcus Roberson is a strong press-coverage corner who isn't afraid to get up in the face of receivers.
Additionally, Roberson demonstrated his versatility as a Florida Gator, operating on the outside and at slot corner, while contributing to the return game.
Roberson lacks elite quickness, but his recovery speed helps him to stay with receivers and chase down ball-carriers.
A lean 6'0" and 191-pound corner, Roberson has room to add weight to his frame, however, his off-the-field and injury concerns are likely to drop him down the draft boards. Roberson started only four games in 2013 due to injury, and he also served a one-game suspension for violating team rules, according to NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. An arrest in 2011 for underage drinking may also raise questions about Roberson's character.
Still, he will hope that his impressive 2012 season, which saw him record two interceptions and 14 passes defensed, will convince teams of his quality.
The Niners signed Chris Cook to be a "press guy," per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, but Roberson fits that mold as well and could prove to a better option should San Francisco choose to give him that opportunity.
6. Jaylen Watkins
One of the main issues that is expected to count against Jaylen Watkins is that he was Florida's No. 3 cornerback behind Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy.
As a result, Watkins spent a lot of time playing the nickel corner position. While that may hurt his draft stock, it has the potential to count in his favor when the 49ers assess their options at corner.
San Francisco has a need at nickel that Watkins could fill, and his ability to play at safety, which he did for Florida in 2013 because of injuries in the Gators secondary, is also a potential bonus.
Watkins has great leaping ability to go with impressive speed (4.41 time in the 40) that will enable him to cover faster slot receivers. Furthermore, Watkins does not seem to have the character issues of Roberson, a Florida teammate, and he seemed to accept switching positions to aid his team, a maturity and selflessness that will be attractive to NFL teams.
Watkins may have been the No. 3 corner at Florida, but he has been regarded by many as the best of a talented Florida DB trio. In my view, Watkins deserves to be taken ahead of Roberson and Purifoy.
His experience at the nickel makes Watkins an excellent fit for the 49ers, who could get a steal if the former Gator undeservedly falls to the lower rounds.
5.. Bradley Roby
In terms of pure athletic ability, few players project as a better fit for the 49ers than Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby.
Roby's 5'11" and 194-pound frame is ideal for that of an NFL starting cornerback, but what really leaps out is the first-team All-Big Ten defender's outstanding speed.
That burst and explosiveness was evident at the combine, where Roby clocked a 40-yard dash time of 4.39 seconds, but it is even more noticeable on film.
Watch Roby's performance in this game against Penn State, and you will see his closing speed prevent two certain touchdowns. That quickness also enables Roby to continually make a great break on the ball and would be of great use for a San Francisco team that will have to defend against the likes of Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin twice a season.
Roby's ball skills saw him notch eight interceptions and 36 passes defensed in his career with the Buckeyes.
Physicality should also not be an issue for Roby, who is well versed in press-man coverage. He also has developed a reputation for delivering a big hit, although there are concerns about his tackling technique.
Roby has the speed, the ball skills and the aggressiveness. In addition, he showcased his versatility on special teams, scoring three punt return touchdowns, an ability that will appeal to the Niners.
However, there remain questionmarks over Roby's tendency to miss tackles and rely too much on his athleticism. His inconsistency was on full display in Roby' nightmarish outing against Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who had 10 catches for 207 yards in a prime-time duel between the two players.
Roby is considered to be a diamond in the rough who still needs to iron out some technical issues in his game.
But with the help of 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell, Roby could easily develop into a fine NFL corner for San Francisco.
4. Kyle Fuller
If there is one thing that will hurt Kyle Fuller's draft stock, it is his injury history.
The former Virginia Tech corner missed six games in 2013 after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia, as per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin.
But if that injury background does see Fuller tumble down the board, then it could well play into the 49ers' hands.
San Francisco is not averse to selecting players with durability concerns and did so in 2013 by picking up defensive lineman Tank Carradine and running back Marcus Lattimore, two players who had suffered serious knee injuries in their senior years.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh was present at Virginia Tech's pro day, and in Fuller he will have witnessed a player who possesses excellent instincts, as CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler explained in his scouting report:
Physical demeanor with good length. Excellent toughness and energy—plays like he's 25 pounds thicker. Good vertical leap and smooth hip action to flip-and-go.
Good route recognition and outstanding read-and-react quickness to mirror or plant-and-drive to attack. Above-average anticipation and cover instincts. Studies receivers and does his homework to know what to look for without hesitation.
That ability to dissect a play is extremely useful for a player, who at 6'0" and 190 pounds, lacks the frame and elite speed of some of the corners in the class.
Fuller can also have a tendency to be over aggressive, but he is a versatile corner who played linebacker, safety, cornerback and nickel corner in college and has pro football in his DNA. Older brother Vincent Fuller played six years with the Tennessee Titans, while Corey Fuller is on the Detroit Lions' practice squad.
Therefore, Kyle Fuller—a team captain in his time at Virginia Tech—is likely have an understanding of what it means to be a pro. That trait puts him ahead of the likes of Roby and Watkins and will certainly appeal to a San Francisco organization that prides itself on having great people as well as great players.
In trading up for Eric Reid in 2013, the 49ers drafted a player who displayed a maturity that belied his lack of NFL experience.
And if Fuller falls into their lap, San Francisco will be able to get the same type of player in the first round for the second straight year.
3. Jason Verrett
The 49ers have a hole at the nickel cornerback spot, and Jason Verrett is a great player to fill it.
Verrett had a superb career with TCU, which ended with him earning first-team All-American and co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Size is the main issue with Verrett, he stands at 5'9" and 189 pounds, but he makes up for that stature with his excellent range of abilities.
The second-fastest corner at the combine, Verrett possesses magnificent speed (4.38 seconds 40-yard dash), and he uses that speed to his advantage. His athletic fluidity and impressive coverage skills were evident in his fine performance against Baylor last season. Verrett ended his collegiate career with nine interceptions and 41 passes defensed.
Verrett is a strong tackler who should be able to contribute in run support, however, there is no escaping the fact that his slight build will be a concern against bigger NFL receivers. But, while Verrett may struggle on fade routes and jump balls, his quickness will enable him to match up with the league's premier slot receivers.
B/R's Ian Wharton believes Verrett projects as an excellent nickelback, and the 49ers may not even have to move up to grab him.
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah and Don Banks of Sports Illustrated both tapped Verrett to fall to the Niners at No. 30 in their respective mock drafts, a pick that would represent great value and shore up a big gap in the San Francisco defense.
2. Darqueze Dennard
The Jim Thorpe Award winner in 2013, Darqueze Dennard is arguably the best cover corner in the draft.
The 5'11", 199-pound Dennard has good size for an NFL corner, yet he still manages to play above his physical attributes. He doesn't have elite speed, but he compensates with an aggressiveness and technique that sets him apart from most corners in this draft class. Dennard's physical at the line of scrimmage and has the vision and ability to attack the ball when it is in the air.
The star of a nasty Michigan State secondary dubbed "The No Fly Zone," Dennard ended his collegiate career with 10 interceptions and 26 passes defensed.
And it is therefore no surprise that NFL.com's draft guru Mike Mayock has Dennard at the top of his cornerback rankings.
There are some question marks over Dennard: His physicality sometimes led to penalties and his questionable lateral quickness may deter the team that drafts him from lining him up in the slot against quick receivers.
Dennard could also improve in run support. However, the fact remains that this is a player who is ready to come in and contribute at the pro level.
The 49ers may be required to use some of their 11 picks in the draft to move up and snare Dennard, but if Harbaugh and Co. are looking for a counterpart to Seattle's tenacious and talented corners, then they should show no hesitation in doing so.
1. Justin Gilbert
Dennard and Verrett would both be excellent selections for the 49ers in the first round.
However, in my view there is no better corner in the draft than Justin Gilbert, and San Francisco is in position to make a run at the former Oklahoma State Cowboy.
Gilbert is widely expected to be the first corner taken in 2014, with NFL.com's Mike Huguenin, Daniel Jeremiah and Charles Davis all tapping him to go inside the top 10.
But with six of the top 100 picks in the draft in their armory, the 49ers have the ammunition to trade up and grab this sensational prospect.
Through four seasons with Oklahoma State, Gilbert had 12 interceptions and 31 passes defensed. Most of those interceptions came in the 2013 campaign, when he grabbed seven. While there are concerns that he could be a one-season wonder, Gilbert has all the tools to succeed in the NFL.
The 6'0", 200-pounds Gilbert possesses the long arms and prototypical build you would want from a corner, and he backs that up with outstanding speed. Indeed, Gilbert clocked a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the combine and consistently showcased during his college career an ability to stay with receivers and make a play on the ball.
Gilbert is an excellent overall athlete and contributed in the return game as well—an area where the 49ers have struggled—by scoring six touchdowns in his tenure at Oklahoma State.
That versatility will appeal to the 49ers, who will have had another first-hand look at Gilbert's skills at Oklahoma State's pro day which, as Matt Miller noted, was attended by all 32 NFL teams.
There are some doubts about Gilbert, such as his difficulties in run support and in press and zone coverage.
However, those faults can be corrected and, for a San Francisco team in the business of winning now, Gilbert is by far the best fit at cornerback.
Do not be surprised if the 49ers, as they did last year in acquiring free safety Eric Reid, trade up and make a move that will instantly improve their defense.
Combine stats courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.