NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock boldly declared this 2014 NFL draft class as the "deepest and best...in ten years," per Pro Football Talk's Curtis Crabtree, which will make it difficult for the San Francisco 49ers to miss on a talented prospect that can help this club right away. With tons of draft ammunition and little roster space, they've got very high hopes for their first-round selection.
Unless, of course, they select an overhyped player who is a bad fit for their system and surrounding personnel.
That's the underlying fear: With all this talent across the board at several positions, particularly ones of need for the 49ers, that their judgement is clouded and they wind up settling for a player that just doesn't excel with what they do.
In this piece, we've identified two top-rated NFL prospects at positions of need—wide receiver and cornerback—who may have a bust factor in San Francisco.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
During his career at Southern Cal, All-American wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee lit it up, garnering NFL attention far before his collegiate career was close to over. Per the team’s website, the prolific pass-catcher set or now shares 22 USC records (five Pac-12 records, one NCAA mark).
Lee made a lot of defensive backs look bad.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about the receiver’s game, namely his quickness and ability as a smooth, precise route-runner. And while he didn’t post a great 40 time, Lee is one of the best breakaway receivers once he has possession of the rock. Teams are going to like what he brings to the table in terms of pro-readiness.
However, this is a player with a lot of questions that some have chosen to ignore during the evaluation process, remembering his accolades instead.
Most notably, Lee has grave durability issues (shoulder, knee and leg injuries, via NFL.com). At 6’0”, 192 pounds, he has a frail, light-framed body, raising two concerns: Can he hold up over time at the NFL level? And can he be physical enough to beat press coverage at the line against tougher, taller cornerbacks?
All-Pro corner Richard Sherman would make minced meat out of Lee, disrupting his timing on routes, redirecting him and beating him at the catch point.
As we saw with Lee in his NCAA career, he had little trouble separating versus D-list Pac-12 defenders. But making contested catches just wasn’t his thing, which could be a precursor to what lies ahead for him in the pros. He seems like a prime candidate to get bullied in the NFL.
This brings us to his ugly drop history.
Lee had an astonishingly bad 12.31 percent drop rate, according to Greg Peshek of Second Round Stats (via Matt Miller of B/R). Analysts knock Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin for this, but Lee was one of the worst. His hands aren’t even among the top-10 in this class, an element of which the 49ers should be wary.
Lee doesn’t seem to trust his hands.
The tape shows a body and basket catcher that isn’t very powerful at the catch point (which goes back to his featherweight size and lack of physicality). He habitually traps the ball against his chest. San Francisco needs an aggressive wideout with strong hands that can battle for the ball in a division where cornerbacks are attacking it in flight.
That’s not Lee’s game.
Moreover, can the Niners really afford to add a drop-prone receiver when they only throw an average of 26.4 times per game (31st in the NFL, per Team Rankings)?
The 49ers need a player who's going to make something happen with the two or three targets he gets a game.
And the questions continue.
Among the wide receivers in this class, Lee was also one of the least impressive after the catch on screens—a disconcerting fact for the 49ers, who have run more of them with YAC machines in Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.
Again, here’s a look and player comparison via Greg Pashek:
This is pretty astounding, considering Lee’s best asset is supposed to be as an underneath receiver that has the upside to cut upfield and make something happen. But these findings don’t make it seem like he is too much of a dynamic weapon in that regard.
But it gets worse.
The 49ers are also looking for a deep threat and/or red-zone scorer, and could find that Lee might not able to help too much there, either. In fact, his deep catches were extremely limited at Southern California, resulting in several incompletions. Everything he did, he did underneath.
If the 49ers are looking for another option to be a split end, Lee’s drops and general incompletions down the left sideline have to raise concerns. Out of 15 total targets downfield last year, Lee only reeled in two balls that went 20-plus yards in the air. Three were drops.
That’s not very good at all.
For scale, 13.11 percent of the receptions Brandin Cooks had for Oregon State in 2013 went 20 or more yards downfield according to Peshek, writing for Rotoworld.
Now here’s the nail in the coffin.
Lee is at his best when thrown open, running in stride. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for all his talent, isn’t phenomenal with ball placement, particularly on crossers and the West Coast routes that best suit Lee. He doesn’t lead players to open space like the other elite passers in the league.
This could pose a problem, because even with a lesser talent, teams want their passer and receiver to be compatible. Kaepernick wouldn’t bring the best out of Lee, and vice versa. While Marqise Lee may have profound success in New England or New Orleans, this could be a nightmare selection for the 49ers.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Most have branded Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard as the safest cornerback to draft in this year’s class.
The three-year starter for the Spartans and 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner—given to the nation’s most outstanding defensive back—has about as much polish as you’ll find in the defensive backs this year. Forty starts, 10 career interceptions: His resume has no holes in it, as the performance has been steady.
But there’s more to projecting players than by the letters and trophies they earned at school.
Trajectory, level of competition, skill set, schematic fit of a player, and more, are such important factors.
The first problem with Dennard is, even though the floor is not low, the ceiling is not too high, either. He sort of is what he is. Bleacher Report’s own draft expert Matt Miller said it wouldn’t surprise him if Dennard fell to Day 2, even after being the No. 2-rated corner, according to the gurus at CBS Sports.
If he were as good as most proclaim, that shouldn’t even be a topic of discussion in a cornerback-needy league.
Dennard is only one of two corners with a unanimous first-round grade. But the inside scoop from Miller is that teams around the league may like Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State) and Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) more—and possibly Jason Verrett (Texas Christian). They’re more fluid athletes with better ball skills and versatility.
They have the range to line up all over, play multiple types of coverages and weaponize the corner position. Teams are more enamored with these players because of the upside.
Dennard is far from the best athlete among the corners, lacking the agility and hip flexion players like Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and the aforementioned names show in spades. Dennard is more heavy-footed than you’d like to see in a top-tier prospect and doesn’t have great recovery speed (4.51 40-time).
Therefore, the issue the 49ers might have when it comes to selecting Dennard would be his physical limitations, scheme limitations and overall lack of versatility. They’re looking for a cornerback that has a long frame, can line up in the slot—but kick outside the numbers on occasion—and play in their scheme, which has a healthy mix of man and zone concepts.
Dennard is pretty limited to press-man coverage. That’s how he’ll be optimized at the next level.
This is a player that needs to come up to the line and play press on every down to be most effective, and that’s not what San Francisco does. They mix it up, and often, you’ll see the defense’s faster and more aware corners playing off-man coverage, 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Dennard will get torched doing that. That’s not what he’s built for. It’s not where his brilliance lies.
When he has the freedom to roam, Dennard’s situational awareness isn’t the best, which could make him somewhat of a liability in the team’s zone concepts. Draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com also noted that Dennard was not asked to play a lot of zone coverage at Michigan State.
When he did play off-man or zone, faster, more agile receivers turned him around, making him do 180s. This was noticeable because otherwise, he fared well in tight press coverage most of the time. But that’s the rub about his game; he’s limited to a degree and his strengths are not suited for S.F.
Altogether, it’s a red flag when projecting a fit.
Versatility, fluidity and a natural take to the position are vital qualities for San Francisco in its quest to acquire a cornerback this year. Dennard is not athletic enough to play the slot nor is he adaptable or experienced enough to beat out Tramaine Brock or Chris Culliver for one of the starting spots outside.
So what do they do with him?
Glossing over all the minute tidbits of his game and what this team does, it’s become overwhelmingly clear that Darqueze Dennard just isn’t the most compatible player for the 49ers. While he looks good in pads and the hype is there, other cornerbacks will play better in a red-and-gold uniform.