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San Francisco 49ers Draft Countdown: Making the Case for Marqise Lee

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San Francisco 49ers Draft Countdown: Making the Case for Marqise Lee
Associated Press
Marqise Lee secures the catch away from his body as well as any receiver in the 2014 draft class.

To the San Francisco 49ers faithful, start counting down the days for when Marqise Lee begins sporting the hallowed red and gold.

Because if you’re in the business of Day 1 production and NFL readiness, Lee is as close to a guarantee at wide receiver as exists in the 2014 draft—first round or otherwise.

Since this speculative draft extravaganza began immediately following the NFC Championship Game loss, wideout has been the heart and soul of the 49ers’ offseason agenda. No other position has consistently garnered the same level of attention.

Sure, safety was a significant enough need when Donte Whitner signed with the Cleveland Browns.

But then general manager Trent Baalke inked proven vet Antoine Bethea through 2017.

Yes, cornerback remains a legitimate concern with the release of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown’s departure in free agency and Chris Culliver’s recent off-the-field transgressions.

Then again, the 49ers also brought in Chris Cook and re-signed Eric Wright and Perrish Cox. This class is also quite deep at cornerback.

The allure of taking a dynamic shutdown corner aside—a la Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert—securing a true game-changing receiver is priority No. 1 for San Francisco.

And Lee is a man who aims—and will—please 49ers coaches, players and fans alike for both the immediate and distant future.

Here’s why.

 

Not Top 5, Top 10 or Top 40

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Lee's draft stock has surprisingly dropped, but the former USC standout is an undeniable first-round talent.

There’s something to be said about a player simply being available at a team’s designated draft slot.

It’s clear that the 49ers own an abundance of selections (11) and have very few deficiencies on this championship-caliber roster.

As such, Baalke will likely package some of that surplus and move up in the opening round for a high-impact cornerback or wide receiver. The generally consensus top two at those positions are corners Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard and wideouts Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans.

Each of those four prospects mentioned above can and probably will start in Week 1, regardless of where they land.

But the same also applies to Lee.

And better yet, Baalke can likely acquire such a talent by staying put at No. 30 overall.

Let’s take a quick look at how these collegiate products rank on various draft boards.

Top-2 WRs and CBs in 2014 NFL Draft
Sammy Watkins Mike Evans Justin Gilbert Darqueze Dennard
ESPN No. 4 No. 6 No. 15 No. 14
CBS No. 4 No. 13 No. 10 No. 16
B/R No. 3 No. 7 No. 8 No. 20

ESPN, CBS Sports, Bleacher Report

Notice a rather conspicuous absence from that foursome?

The fine scouts at ESPN Insider (subscription required) list Lee at No. 23, whereas the astute analysts at CBS Sports rate him 28th overall.

One of the most trusted sources in the business—a certain Matt Miller of Bleacher Reportdoesn’t have him taken until No. 45 in the second round in his latest mock.

Lee persevered through multiple injuries during his final 2013 campaign at USC. That might account for why his stock is currently falling, even though it still “makes no sense,” in the eyes of CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco.

Mark J. Terrill
Lee did suffer his fair share of injuries during his final year at USC.

At any rate, a Super Bowl-contending team with so many picks and so few positional openings (i.e., the 49ers) can afford to do whatever it wants when making its draft selections.

It’s also difficult arguing against moving up in the first round for an ultra-elite prospect.

But by holding his ground on Day 1, Baalke can secure the elite-quality Lee and trade up to his heart’s desire in each subsequent round with the remaining nine moveable picks (No. 100 is compensatory).

That includes stockpiling for future drafts, which is how upper-echelon franchises like the 49ers can chase Lombardi Trophies—year after year after year.

As for this year, the majority at CBS Sports and yours truly project Lee as the top available asset who will help San Francisco achieve that end.

 

Top-Tier Playing Speed and Size

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The sight of Lee running away from collegiate defensive backs will appear just as frequently against NFL corners.

Some guys can run a blazing 4.39 in shorts but can’t even imagine translating that speed onto the football field.

Others are 6’4’’ who possess gargantuan arms and can jump to the heavens, but alas, they are inept at utilizing those skills on the gridiron.

Lee is neither.

References to failed 49ers receiver projects aside, Lee’s measurable traits are ho-hum, yet his functional abilities are superseded by none.

Lee measured in at just 6’0’’, 192 pounds. He ran a mere 4.52 in the 40-yard dash.

But the 2012 Consensus All-American and Fred Biletnikoff Award winner received those remarkable honors for good reason.

He did so by transcending any such mundane numbers taken during the underwear Olympics and performing when it matters most.

Indeed, ESPN Insider notes that his “playing speed appears faster than [what] timed speed indicates and is at the upper-echelon level.”

The folks at the National Football Post elucidate that he “may be [6’0’’] but he plays [6’3’’ or 6’4’’] because of his arm length.” Trumping that average size also derives from his “ability to go up and high-point passes amidst tight coverage,” according to CBS Sports.

So, while championing the cause of the 6’5’’ Evans prevails in draft talk most often for a 49ers team lacking size at wide receiver (I’ve been known to preach the same), Lee is every bit as deserving of that praise.

He overcomes purported limitations, creates after the catch and produces all over the field—especially in the red zone.

 

A Productive and Proven Playmaker

Much like how the “Four Ps” in the marketing mix bolster a product’s utility, the three Ps mentioned above enhance Lee’s NFL value.

He compiled big-time statistics in college, did so consistently when healthy and will continue doing so at the next level.

The former 4-star recruit exploded on the scene as a freshman at USC.

He racked up 73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns. On top of averaging 15.7 yards per reception, he posted a 28.5-yard clip on kick returns, taking one back all the way against Washington.

What amounted to a statistical explosion in 2011 surely elevated to the level of supernova implosion just one year later.

Lee’s production grew to 118 catches for 1,721 yards and 14 scores in 2012. He also averaged 8.2 yards per carry—showing “run instincts [of] a top running back,” per the National Football Post—not to mention equaling his 28.5-yard mark and one touchdown on kickoffs.

He garnered the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year award by pacing the conference in receptions, yards, touchdowns and kickoff return yards.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Getting torched in the open field is not something that Pac-12 opponents will miss in 2014.

And he earned that aforementioned Biletnikoff—the highest honor awarded to his position—via his NCAA-leading catch total and those other “decent” statistics.

Unfortunately, the loss of key offensive teammates (QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, etc.), a trio of debilitating injuries and three different head coaches stifled any notion of similar productivity in 2013.

He suited up in only 11 games, but at least he managed a respectable 57 catches for 791 yards and four scores during his final collegiate season.

Yet, when it comes down to it, Lee will still transfer his playmaking prowess to the big-boy table.

In the words of CBS Sports’ Rob Rang, “Lee’s explosiveness…will almost certainly result in his earning a first round selection come May.”

And according to a few reputable draft boards, there exists an almost certain likelihood that he falls to the 49ers at No. 30 overall.

 

A Versatile Dream for the 49ers

Michael Crabtree is optimally suited for the “X” spot on the outside.

Anquan Boldin does his best work in the slot, or the “Y” positioning on the field.

Second-year pro Quinton Patton will ultimately find his niche as the “Z,” or flanker.

And Lee, if Baalke so chooses, would provide the 49ers with a multiskilled, versatile asset who can play the X, Y or Z.

He would give Colin Kaepernick a weapon who could catch passes underneath, outside, over the middle, down the field and in the end zone.

Mark J. Terrill
Oh, and did we mention going fully parallel and securing catches on the sideline?

Greg Gabriel of the National Football Post details that the USC coaching staff deployed him at all wide receiver positions and even used him out of the backfield. He ran everything from bubble screens to “outs, comebacks, slants and go routes.”

Furthering Lee’s value to the 49ers’ hybrid West Coast offense is his proficiency at running routes and as a blocker in the run game.

Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com underscores that he is a “fine route runner” who “understands how to set up defensive backs and has an innate feel for coverage.” He can also “manipulate man and zone…and can create separation when he needs to uncover.”

Gabriel expands on his previous analysis by offering an account of some particular Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Tom Rathman-approved skills:

He is one of the better blocking receivers you will see. There have been numerous times in the tape I watched where he makes the key block to open up a running lane. He isn't a "shadow" blocker either...he gets after it and tries to put his opponent on the ground. This is a very competitive football player in all phases of the game.

Throw in franchise leader Frank Gore as one who already appreciates the idea of this rising wideout suiting up in the red and gold.

Moreover, ESPN Insider seconds Nawrocki’s earlier comments by giving Lee an “exceptional” grade in both separation and ball skills:

Displays rare ability to get out of breaks without losing momentum. Possesses elite acceleration out [of] cuts…Displays natural hands and plucks away from his frame. Excellent flexibility and body control adjusting to throws…Natural when tracking the ball downfield…[H]as the long speed to turn a short throw into a big play.

Rang perhaps put it most succinctly with this tidbit: “His vision, elusiveness and acceleration make him a terror after the catch, whether as a receiver or returner.”

Lee certainly would instill fear in opponents, infuse a competitive spirit in LaMichael James and ignite the entire 49ers offense if that skill set comes to pass in San Francisco.

 

Gold-Star Locker Room Addition

Mark J. Terrill
Regardless of the HC, Marqise Lee was a coach's dream at USC. If drafted by the 49ers, Jim Harbaugh could expect more of the same.

Barring any additional injury setbacks, what the NFP’s Gabriel calls a “highlight film waiting to happen” will no doubt materialize in the National Football League.

But what about those intangible things that scouts, coaches and front-office personnel love debating?

Would Lee mesh within an NFL locker room? More specifically, would he fit in the no-nonsense, blue-collar culture created by Harbaugh and carried out religiously by the 49ers players?

We’ll let this “exceptional” anecdote provided by ESPN Insider do the talking:

Came from a rough neighborhood and upbringing in Inglewood, Calif., where he had nearly nothing. Older brothers Terreal and Donte Reid were actively involved in gangs. Lee wanted to pursue the lifestyle but the brothers would not allow him. Terreal was eventually murdered and Donte is currently serving a sentence for murder, but is expected to be released in 2015. Father not involved in life. Lee and his sister went back and forth between their mother and grandmother at an early age before entering a foster home. Lee eventually was taken in by the family of an AAU basketball teammate, which was a turning point in his life. Keeps his background to himself because he doesn't want to make excuses or have anyone to feel bad for him. Highly motivated individual. Biological father is deaf and Lee communicates with him through sign language.

Nawrocki saying that he “has overcome a lot of adversity in his life to get to this point” is the understatement of the millennia.

Lee clearly possesses the physical, instinctual and complete playmaking repertoire to succeed at the highest echelon.

Now we can add the mental, emotional and total capacity for understanding the human condition to his resume.

Gold-star locker room addition indeed—any and all 49ers staff, coaches and players would welcome Lee with open arms.

Wouldn’t you?

 

All player statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference. 

Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16.

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