The San Francisco 49ers have had one of the most interesting offseasons in recent memory. First it was the Jim Harbaugh-Trent Baalke dilemma, then it was the Harbaugh-Cleveland Browns fiasco and lastly it was the DeSean Jackson trade rumors.
Coincidentally enough, nothing ever came of these "hot topics," and the 49ers were business as usual in free agency.
They acquired a Pro Bowl free safety to replace Donte Whitner, added depth on the offensive line, traded for a backup quarterback, re-signed a special-teams ace and bolstered their cornerback position.
Not a bad haul for a team that has made three straight NFC Championship Game appearances.
However, San Francisco knows it still has plenty of work to do before the season starts. The 49ers need to add an All-Pro-caliber cornerback to shore up the secondary and find a vertical threat at the wide receiver position.
As good as Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree were last season, the 49ers lacked explosive plays deep down the field. Of the 46 pass plays that went for 20 or more yards, only 23 of them came from the team’s wide receiving corps. Boldin led the way with 19, Crabtree tallied three in five games and Quinton Patton recorded one on five targets.
Even for a run-first offense, that is simply not good enough. San Francisco has to find a way to take pressure off its run game. Frank Gore is nearing the end of his career, and the NFC West is full of run-stuffing defensive lines.
In 2013, the Arizona Cardinals had the No. 1 rush defense, the Seattle Seahawks were No. 7 and the St. Louis Rams were No. 9. Based on the fact no other division had two teams in the top 10, it’s evident the NFC West was the stingiest division against the run.
Yet, finding a wide receiver who can stretch the field vertically is easier said than done. The free-agent market offered up a couple noteworthy names (Eric Decker and Golden Tate), but their asking prices were too high. The 49ers are tight against the cap and won’t find any relief until June 1.
This, in turn, means the 49ers' pursuit of a vertical threat at wide receiver will extend to the 2014 draft.
Sure, Jackson would be a logical option if the Philadelphia Eagles were open to trading him, but it doesn’t sound like they are.
According to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News, a source close to Jackson said Chip Kelly’s message to Jackson was “don’t worry about anything and keep working hard and be ready for camp.”
Plus, the 49ers would have to do something about Jackson’s contract if they did acquire him, because he’s scheduled to make $10.5 million in 2014, per Spotrac.com. As I mentioned above, San Francisco doesn’t have that kind of cap space right now. Per the NFLPA, it has $3,991,335 in cap room as of Wednesday morning.
The good news is this year’s draft is incredibly deep, especially at the wide receiver position. Mike Mayock of NFL.com agreed when he spoke to reporters prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, via Taylor Price of 49ers.com: “There’s more quality at the top of this draft that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the best wide receiver class that I’ve seen in years.”
With six top-100 selections, San Francisco’s options are seemingly endless. It could trade up, trade down or simply stay put at No. 30 overall. If the 49ers choose to stay put, their most realistic options would be LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin.
Of the three, Dylan DeSimone of Bleacher Report believes the LSU speedster is the safest pick: "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 appropriate for San Francisco because the team has missed on receivers in the past.
Furthermore, the 49ers know Boldin and Crabtree won’t be around forever. Crabtree is set to hit the open market in 2015, and Boldin could easily retire at the end of the 2014 season.
One would have to think Baalke is already thinking about the long-term impact of drafting a wide receiver, which is why Beckham makes a ton of sense. He’s a refined player who won’t have a steep learning curve.
Moreover, he’s as pro-ready as it gets and was an extremely productive pass-catcher over the course of his three-year career at LSU. In 39 career games, he caught 141 passes, garnered 2,305 yards receiving and scored 12 touchdowns.
Matt Miller of Bleacher Report views Beckham as the third-best receiver in this year’s class and compares him to DeSean Jackson.
Cooks possesses a lot of the same attributes as Beckham, but there are major questions surrounding his size. Here’s an excerpt from Dane Brugler’s scouting report, via CBS Sports: "Lacks ideal size with below average height and length for the position. Limited strength, muscle and overall growth potential. Struggles with physical defenders and doesn't have ideal body strength - will be overwhelmed in man coverage."
Despite his lack of size, there are plenty of things to like about Cooks’ game. He’s explosive, has a natural burst and can elude defenders at a moment’s notice. Additionally, he has speed to burn and can fool defenders with his quick footwork.
Those are the types of things teams look for when they draft a speedy wideout.
Overall, he is the National Football Post’s fifth-best receiver in this year’s class, and it awarded him with a plus-6.7 grade. That is the same grade it gave Beckham and USC wide receiver Marqise Lee.
The bad news is he will never be a true No. 1 wide receiver. He won’t be able to step in and play the boundary. In the NFL, he will most likely be relegated to the slot. This could ultimately turn the 49ers off. Surely, they will love his speed, but he wouldn't be an adequate replacement for either Boldin or Crabtree.
Benjamin, on the other hand, would be. He has rare size, a monster catch radius, impressive hops (32.5” vertical) and above-average speed (4.61 second 40-yard dash time).
Yet, his most sought-after trait is his ability to score touchdowns in the red zone. In 28 games at Florida State, Benjamin had 11 red-zone receptions, 10 of which were touchdowns, via ESPN Stats & Info. For those of you scoring at home, that’s a 90.9 percent conversion rate, which could pay immediate dividends.
Since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2011, San Francisco has fielded one of the worst red-zone offenses on an annual basis. Per TeamRankings.com, the 49ers scored a touchdown on 53.03 percent of their red-zone trips in 2013. You would have to think Benjamin’s presence would single-handedly help raise that number.
Which wide receiver should the 49ers draft in the first round?
Nonetheless, the matchup player might be a tough sell in San Francisco because Benjamin isn’t a wideout with exclusive top-end speed or lateral quickness (4.39 short shuttle, 7.33 three-cone drill). Having above-average speed wouldn’t make him any different from Crabtree or Boldin.
Yes, the 49ers want to find a capable replacement, but they want a wide receiver with elite top-end speed. This is why San Francisco would be better off selecting Beckham or Cooks at the end of the first round.
Both players are impact players who can step in and produce right away. After the A.J. Jenkins debacle in 2012, Baalke and Harbaugh will be apt to chase the more polished wide receiver prospect.
You can’t blame them. Getting burned in the first round is bad for business. It sets your team back and forces you to use another pick on the respective position at a later date.
Nevertheless, fans tend to have short memories as long as you hit on the pick the second time around. With less than 50 days until the draft, that’s exactly what Baalke is trying to do by putting in the proper legwork.
Statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.