2014 NFL Draft Prospects That Could Be Opening-Game Starters for the 49ers
It’s only April, but if the San Francisco 49ers had a game to play tomorrow, they could field 11 starters on offense and 11 on defense. Not to mention, they also have an All-Pro punter and All-Pro place-kicker. Frankly, there’s not much room on this roster, which makes this draft, from May 8-10, hard to project in terms of who the team will select with its 11 picks.
It also complicates and limits the projections of the following piece.
The 49ers have a set roster in place and can pick and choose where they’d like to enhance certain positions. However, this article will serve to identify high-ranking prospects that have a special purpose or are good enough to compete in camp and take the jobs of the veterans that are currently locked in.
Draft rankings and physical measurements are provided by NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports, unless otherwise noted.
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Looking over San Francisco’s starting lineup on offense, it has 10 of 11 spots fully determined. The one position the 49ers don’t have figured out completely is center, which has been recently vacated by veteran Jonathan Goodwin. His short-term contract has expired, and the team has not reached out to him so far this offseason, according to ESPN.com's Bill Williamson.
Now, while interior offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore received an extension—appearing to be the front-runner for the job—nothing is certain.
They’ll still need competition at the position this summer, and if they bring in a top-rated prospect, they won’t have to be concerned with Kilgore not working out and having no one to turn to. Enter Southern California's Marcus Martin, the No. 1-rated center in the 2014 class, per NFL Network's Mike Mayock's official rankings.
This is a player that has a real shot to take the starting center job and upgrade the eye of the 49ers offensive line.
If Martin were drafted by the 49ers, he would presumably become the favorite to start, while Kilgore would be relegated to backup O-line duties. Kilgore has never started at center and is a former fifth-round selection with not near the amount of upside or polish that Martin has.
Great example of weight room vs functional strength...Marcus Martin/USC. Powerful upper when playing the game/23 reps @ 225 below avg.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) February 22, 2014
Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
This is a continuance of the last slide, as Colorado State’s Weston Richburg is another top-tier center in this draft.
He has all the makings of an NFL starting center, including the girth (6'3", 298 lbs), strong first punch and pristine track record. He’s also got it going on between the ears.
Richburg can beat out Daniel Kilgore and upgrade this front five at its nucleus. And the 49ers, who love the power running game, would be smitten with his attributes. Presumably, they’d have more success on the inside runs, including the slams, draws and dives—their bread and butter.
So, again, if the 49ers happen to wind up with Richburg in the draft, it would be a bad sign for Kilgore’s chances of winning the starting gig in camp, even though he has more experience. Weston Richburg is a starting-caliber center and Day 1 starter. That’s what he’ll be drafted to be.
CSU Center Weston Richburg is a solid player on tape and he had a good day today...Quick feet, balance and anchor.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 21, 2014
Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Though cornerback is a dire area of need for the 49ers, there is less of a chance that a rookie will start at corner than at center, since the team likes the experience they have with Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. Both vets project to be the two starters heading into 2014, and that will trump any amount of raw talent a potentially drafted rookie may possess.
However, with how stingy the 49ers run defense is, they have a tendency to field three-plus corners at a time. It’s how offenses have learned to play them, using multiple wide receiver sets.
So even though the No. 3 cornerback is not technically a starter, he sees a lot of time on the field in the team's defensive scheme. That being said, Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller would be the perfect draftee for the 49ers and a player that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could feel comfortable plugging in from Day 1.
He is a very gifted player with a versatile skill set.
Fuller is one of the top-ranked corners in this class, bringing a long frame (6'0", 190 lbs, 32.88-inch arms) and natural cover instincts to the game. In that sense, his development within this scheme would be a lot like it was for Culliver when he was coming out of South Carolina; Culliver played inside a lot as a rookie but was able to kick out and shadow the taller, faster No. 1 receivers at times.
So, while not a starter, Kyle Fuller will have starter responsibilities if drafted.
I've watched three Kyle Fuller games in a row and I haven't written a single negative thing yet.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) April 7, 2014
Jordan Zumwalt, ILB, UCLA
The 49ers have a quite predicament at the inside linebacker position because of NaVorro Bowman’s late-season ACL tear.
San Francisco, which runs a 3-4 defense, necessitates two stout inside backers to patrol the middle. The team already has two of the best in the league, but it may be without Bowman for a good chunk of the 2014 season, if not the whole year (playoffs pending). The 49ers have depth with Michael Wilhoite, but they could make a concerted effort to upgrade the position given the situation.
The problem is, when adding a new body to the position, they need somebody that is good enough to compete and potentially start for what could turn out to be a double-digit amount of games. However, they don’t want to draft a player too high, because once Bowman returns, that player is going right back to the bench.
If Wilhoite isn’t the guy to start (although he probably is), the 49ers need to put some serious thought into this pick, covering all their bases.
UCLA Bruin Jordan Zumwalt stands out as one of the ideal candidates to be selected by San Francisco. The lanky 6’4”, 235-pounder is projected as a third- or fourth-round pick, which wouldn’t be viewed as an overspend if the team were to select him, especially if the club can get him as late as Round 4. Moreover, his versatility and tenacity will make it so he always has a spot on this team.
While slow in the 40-yard dash and sluggish when changing direction, Zumwalt finds the football.
Zumwalt has an old-school style, and he’s a maniac on the field, bringing a high motor and thirst for contact. He played both outside and inside linebacker for the Bruins, exhibiting an ability to rush the quarterback and drop back in coverage from different spots behind the line.
If the 49ers can get him in the groove of their system, he can contribute right away next to Patrick Willis. And when Bowman returns, he can be both a backup inside and outside linebacker while also contributing as a gunner on special teams. That way, the draft pick doesn’t go to waste.
Jordan Zumwalt plays game with bad intentions. Looks to physically impose his will. Took interviews after prac w/ blood dripping down face.— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) January 22, 2014
Jason Verrett, CB, Texas Christian
We illustrated the picture at cornerback when introducing Kyle Fuller, and the same applies here with cornerback Jason Verrett of TCU.
Verrett is a top-flight option at corner in this class, one most have pegged as a bona fide first-rounder. According to CBS Sports, the 5’10”, 189-pounder is one of only five players with first-round grades. He is also the No. 4-ranked corner, after just Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert and Kyle Fuller.
While not as imposing sizewise as Fuller, Verrett might be the best slot defender in this class—period. He blankets the shifty receivers, possessing the recovery speed and agility to handle the double moves and option routes.
This is exactly the type of player the 49ers need, having lost 2011 Pro Bowler Carlos Rogers, who predominantly functioned out of the slot.
For this reason, Jason Verrett would see an abundance of reps in his first year, which would warrant spending the team's first-round pick (No. 30 overall) on him or trading up to the top of Round 2, if he happens to fall. Either way, this is a player that could crack the lineup and make a name for himself right away.
Jason Verrett plays MUCH bigger than his frame, and his recovery speed is pretty amazing.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 14, 2014
Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
As we mentioned, the 49ers have 11 starters ready to go on defense, even though they had a question at strong safety with the departure of Donte Whitner, who signed a megadeal with the Cleveland Browns this offseason. The club quickly replaced him with two-time Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea.
He’s versatile, durable and, most importantly of all, an experienced leader. If he takes to the coaching of secondary coach Ed Donatell in San Francisco, his game could soar, similarly to the way Whitner's did when he arrived from Buffalo. It’s all about the coaching and the team's pressure-generating front seven.
But while Bethea may be a good fill in, he’ll be 30 years old this season and has a lot of mileage on him. The 49ers can upgrade and bring in a future superstar to pair with Pro Bowl free safety Eric Reid, whom the team drafted out of LSU in 2013. Enter hard-hitting Deone Bucannon out of Washington State.
This is the ideal scenario.
Bucannon is an outright sledgehammer, but he also has the range and ball skills to be a takeaway threat on the back end. In fact, he’s so dangerous that Matt Miller of Bleacher Report says Bucannon could snatch the job from Bethea as a rookie, seeing the veteran Bethea as nothing more than a glorified No. 3 option.
It’s about the upside Bucannon brings and having a low-cost option for the long-term—one that can grow alongside Eric Reid. Bethea is an option the 49ers brought in to safeguard themselves in case they didn’t land their targeted safety in the draft, which is always a risk.
If the 49ers draft a safety, namely Deone Bucannon in the second round with the 56th or 61st picks, there’s a very good chance he wins the starting job in 2014.
Deone Bucannon next to Eric Reid would be pretty dirty for the @49ers. They'd also lead all NFL safeties in fines.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 11, 2014