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How Trent Baalke Can Win the 2014 NFL Draft for the San Francisco 49ers

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How Trent Baalke Can Win the 2014 NFL Draft for the San Francisco 49ers
Michael Conroy
He isn't quite Mike Evans, but Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin would provide the 49ers with a legitimate game-breaker at wide receiver.

For the Super Bowl-contending San Francisco 49ers, formulating how Trent Baalke can “win” the 2014 NFL draft wouldn’t seem all too challenging a task.

After all, there are naturally few needs that exist on such a championship-caliber roster.

A versatile cornerback and a speedy, red-zone-proficient wideout—two incredibly deep positional areas in this year’s class—easily qualify as the top two.

Targeting those positions early on, taking the best player available in the middle rounds and adding depth-worthy players thereafter is a reasonable enough approach—it certainly can be done.

Especially with 11 available picks at Baalke’s disposal.

USA TODAY Sports
As serious as they come—49ers' GM Trent Baalke will be all business come May 8-10.

That said, this endeavor is entirely more difficult than what the above sentiments would otherwise suggest.

Scouting collegiate prospects, evaluating existing personnel and projecting future additions is a ceaseless, highly complex process. It never ends.

Baalke has, is and will always be on the clock as a general manager at professional football’s highest level. The 49ers are the cream of the crop, and Baalke must ensure that continues with top-notch execution come the second weekend of May.

With the annual selection process indeed just over three weeks away, the draft life cycle has nearly come full circle.

Baalke’s big board is just about set, trade scenarios have been fleshed out (within reason) and an actionable draft-day plan is in place.

Of course, an absurd number of contingencies will invariably throw a wrench in the whole deal. Case in point: Aldon Smith found himself in trouble with the law yet again after being arrested Sunday for claiming ownership of a bomb in Los Angeles International Airport.

Can anyone still say that outside linebacker isn’t a need for Baalke and Co.?

In any case, which strategy should prevail for the Red and Gold? How can Baalke address team needs, best make use of San Francisco’s numerous picks and ultimately win the draft for the 49ers?

Let’s lay out the six-part plan.

 

6. Forgo Round 7 Altogether

Denis Poroy
Can you name this 2013 seventh-round pick that ended up with a division rival?

Quick—name the last player drafted in the seventh round who made a significant impression on the 49ers.

Okay, outside of Bruce Miller.

If you pointed to Cam Johnson (2012) or Ricky Jean-Francois (2009), both found themselves on another team before last season began. If you chose Northern California-native Larry Grant (2008), the inside linebacker actually didn’t make his short-lived presence felt until returning to the Bay in 2011.

And 13-year legend Brian Jennings (2000-2012) doesn’t qualify either. Services rendered by long-snappers—however proficient and reliable—aren’t exactly high impact.

So, how does a general manager of an upper-echelon franchise allocate these seemingly barren resources in the draft?

Trade them.

The 49ers are in position to win both now and in the immediate future. They aren’t stockpiling and they certainly aren’t rebuilding.

Baalke must act accordingly.

He must use these three lowly draft selections as trade capital in the early rounds. He must parlay them into moving up and acquiring roster-solidifiers on Day 2.

As for the specific prospects, well, you’ll just have to stay tuned.

 

5. Recognize Historical Success of Draft-Prospect Pressure

Matt Dunham
Outside linebacker Corey Lemonier made his presence felt for the 49ers, despite logging minimal game action.

Competition stifles complacency and breeds excellence.

That applies to incumbent players both with and without guaranteed contracts.

The 49ers selected Oregon running back LaMichael James with the No. 61 overall pick in 2012. They had previously added Brandon Jacobs in free agency. A corps that already featured a dynamic one-two punch was now well above capacity.

On the surface, backfield leader Frank Gore played the role of amicable team player to perfection.

He called the new additions “great,” saying that “LaMichael is very quick and fast” and “that makes our team better,” during a 2012 training camp interview covered by the San Francisco Chronicle (via SFGate).

Yet fast forward to season’s end and take a look at Gore’s remarkable numbers. He scored eight touchdowns, ran for his best average since 2009 and compiled the second-highest rushing total of his career.

That would certainly appear as a man motivated by an immensely talented young gun encroaching on his territory. NFL running backs don’t always post career years that close to their positional expiration date.

The same type of impetus affected second-year man—and the “two” of the “one-two punch”—Kendall Hunter.

He matched his rookie touchdown mark, obliterated his rushing average and totaled just 102 fewer yards despite playing in five fewer games (before tearing his Achilles). Like Gore, he was a man possessed.

Unlike his veteran teammate, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks operated under a six-year deal, including the assured luxury of $8.5 million guaranteed, according to Spotrac.

But when Baalke drafted the supremely gifted Corey Lemonier in 2013—trading up in the third round, in fact—there again came the encroachment-based incentive.

Brooks responded by setting career-highs in sacks, tackles and pass breakups. He also earned his first Pro Bowl invitation.

Now, which players need and/or could benefit from a similar draft approach in 2014?

 

4. Apply Competitive Pressure to C, OLB

Moving to this season’s upcoming draft, Baalke must extend that motivating pressure to the center and outside linebacker positions.

Former fifth-round lineman Daniel Kilgore signed a three-year, $4.85 million deal during the offseason. Baalke also let veteran Jonathan Goodwin walk in free agency.

Those complementary moves all but guaranteed Kilgore the starting job at center, the only area in question on the offensive line. The coaching staff has been patiently developing him both behind the scenes and in jumbo personnel groupings on the field.

By targeting that position on draft day—say, Arkansas’ Travis Swanson at No. 94 overallBaalke will ensure that Kilgore remains focused, hungry and removed from any more potential incidents of public intoxication.

Speaking of unsavory off-the-field matters, no 49ers player needs more pressure-filled guidance than—you guessed it—Aldon Smith.

After his latest character-wasting transgression, the otherwise football productive outside ‘backer is now approaching the tipping point of risk versus reward.

Smith is an undeniable top-five NFL pass-rusher who has compiled 42 sacks in 43 career games. He is one of the most integral assets on a 49ers defense that sets the winning tone for the entire team.

The tireless scouts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) have recognized his consistent dominance. They awarded him the No. 2 ranking among 3-4 OLB in his rookie year (above DeMarcus Ware), a top-five spot against the run, pass and overall in 2012 and more of the same for his work, albeit limited, in 2013.

Disregard the 49ers' 5-0 record without him last season. It came against lesser competition and in no way reveals that they’re better off with Smith donning a different uniform. He wreaks havoc in the backfield and neutralizes the most important position on the field, and few do it at a higher level.

That being said, Smith is also a troubled young man plagued by substance abuse issues, four arrests and pending legal cases at just 24 years of age.

Jeff Chiu
Aldon Smith is front and center in the media spotlight for all of the wrong reasons.

His rookie contract runs out after this season. Even if the 49ers exercise the fifth-year option by the May 3 deadline, his 2015 money is only guaranteed by injury. The team could cut him at any other point without incurring financial repercussions, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

This organization has wholeheartedly supported Smith since drafting him No. 7 overall out of Missouri in 2011. It must continue doing so by taking a potential game-changing sack artist come May 8-10.

Mid-round prospects Will Clarke of West Virginia and Adrian Hubbard of Alabama are two high-intangible, 6’6’’ physical freaks that come to mind (more on them later).

In the end, that’s really the only motivating tactic that remains for a once “gold-helmet”-approved gridiron force for the Red and Gold.

 

3. Draft For Character, Not Risk-Laden Talent

Damian Dovarganes
Jim Harbaugh might think of tapping the Farm for both high-character and highly talented linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov.

A generally immaculate franchise that prided itself on being above reproach has been anything but in recent days.

Bleacher Report’s stellar NFL scribe Mike Freeman agrees and reminds us of what 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said last June.

“We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules,” said Harbaugh. “If you don’t, if you cheat to win, then you’ve already lost according to Bo Schembechler.”

Like Freeman said, the Niners aren’t cheaters in the performance-enhancing-drugs-sense when on the field. A select few, however, are law-breaking transgressors off of it.

We won’t delve fully into the “eight other 49ers [who] have been the subjects of police investigations since 2012,” as the San Jose Mercury News’ Cam Inman summarized in a recent column. These non-football-related matters are beyond the scope of this article.

What we can safely say is that the 49ers are in need of some high-character prospects from the collegiate ranks.

This isn’t an all-encompassing cultural overhaul. It isn’t necessarily time “to change the culture” in a comprehensive, franchise-shifting manner.

But this organization does require an influx of well-rounded characters who will match—at least in part—the intangible prowess of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore and other locker room leaders. In short, the types of guys who embody intelligent, blue-collar and no-nonsense sensibilities.

The aforementioned Clarke and Hubbard are two such players.

ESPN Insider (subscription required) notes that Hubbard is a “determined, mature young man.” The “hard worker” and “good student” also earned SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll in 2011.

Clarke, meanwhile, was a team captain at West Virginia. Coaches and teammates alike respected him as a “mature individual” and “leader along the defensive line.”

USA TODAY Sports
Just like he applied pressure on left tackles in college, West Virginia's Will Clarke (No. 98) would do the same to the 49ers Aldon Smith.

Both front-seven members garnered high marks in the “intangibles” category of their respective scouting reports.

Some additional Day 2 and mid-round defensive players fitting this description include cornerback Bashaud Breeland of Clemson, Stanford linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov and defensive tackle Caraun Reid.

The diligent folks at ESPN Insider offered these positive evaluations.

Breeland has “good work ethic” and is “accountable and passionate about football.” His status as a 22-year-old rookie should account for some much needed maturity in 49ers camp.

Murphy—otherwise known as Justin Smith 2.0 (personality-wise)—is a “throwback-type player with a great work ethic and a team-first mentality.” The Stanford captain possesses “natural leadership skills and holds teammates accountable.”

Oh, and his “off-the-field hobbies include steer wrestling”—enough said.

Furthermore, fellow team captain Skov “works hard on and off the field” and brings an “infectious personality and energy level.” He would also provide top-notch depth behind NaVorro Bowman and Willis at inside linebacker.

And if the 49ers grab Reid in the later rounds, they would receive a young man hailing “from a strong family background with good morals.” Like the players mentioned before him, there are “no off-the-field issues” with this former Ivy Leaguer.

Now that we’ve exhausted far too much of your time on character necessities, it’s time for the fun stuff.

 

2. Trade Up For Shutdown Nickel CB

Close your eyes and place yourself within the memory of the NFC Championship Game.

Picture the fourth quarter when Russell Wilson launched a deep fourth-down pass into the end zone with the 49ers up 17-13.

Then visualize Carlos Rogers blowing the coverage, Jermaine Kearse coming down with the touchdown and San Francisco’s lead disappearing…for good.

Aldon Smith’s offside penalty and disturbing visualizations aside, that season-crushing play exemplified what the 49ers lacked in 2013—a capable nickel cornerback.

Rogers could no longer keep up with fast, shifty receivers out of the slot. He simply lacked the foot speed and requisite overall skills at 32 years of age. Pro Football Focus provides the corroborating metrics.

Now that both he and Tarell Brown will don the Silver and Black in 2014, the 49ers are in the market for a big-time draft prospect at cornerback.

Many will point to the ostensible abundance of corners in this year’s class. But, unfortunately, only four such players are actually ready for starting action this season.

They include Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett of Texas Christian University, Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and Ohio State’s Bradley Roby.

Check out how the reputable talent evaluators ranked this stellar contingent.

Cornerback Prospect Rankings
Player Justin Gilbert Darqueze Dennard Jason Verrett Kyle Fuller
B/R No. 8 No. 23 No. 27 No. 22
CBS No. 11 No. 16 No. 29 No. 27
ESPN No. 24 No. 16 No. 29 No. 28

Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, ESPN Insider

Even though Roby didn’t qualify among Miller’s top 32, the former Buckeye did land with the San Diego Chargers at No. 25 in his latest mock (CBS: No. 31, ESPN: No. 20). It’s a total consensus that the other four will come off the board before the 49ers pick at No. 30.

Luckily for San Francisco, its general manager has the luxury of 10 tradable picks at his disposal.

Baalke can indeed trade all the way into the top 10 for Gilbert or ascend just a few places for Verrett, Fuller or Roby. We’ll go ahead and eliminate Dennard from contention since his solely press-man coverage skills wouldn’t mesh with Vic Fangio’s hybrid schemes.

Among the final three, Roby loses out because his developmental weaknesses in the short term trump his incredible skill set and upside over the long haul. His immaturity and questionable character also remove him from consideration.

That leaves Verrett or Fuller. And, for yours truly, the versatile, high-intangible TCU product is a no-brainer all the way.

Among the specific cornerback traits per ESPN Insider, he possesses elite speed, instincts, recognition and cover skills. He overcomes his one purported limitation—a 5’9’’, 189-pound frame—by playing bigger than his size and simply making plays.

Verrett racked up eight interceptions and 36 pass breakups over his final two college seasons. He earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 for his remarkable production.

Dane Brugler of CBS Sports astutely highlights that Fuller “over-pursues in coverage…to compensate for [his] lack of elite speed.” The 49ers cannot afford that against the likes of Percy Harvin, Larry Fitzgerald and Tavon Austin in the NFC West.

Fortunately, Verrett wouldn’t encounter those same difficulties. Just take a gander at his second-leading 4.38-40 and patently unreal 39’’ vertical he registered at the combine.

Baalke need only sacrifice one of his three third-round selections to move up in the mid-20s and acquire the Bay Area native. He would still retain a full arsenal for Rounds 2-7.

Who Miller calls “one of the best pure cover men in the class” and “Day 1 starter” will help ensure that Baalke wins the 2014 draft for the Red and Gold.

Fans can only hope he pulls the trigger on May 8.

 

1. Trade Up For WR in 2nd, Still Continue Draft Haul After

So Mr. Baalke, you’ve just fortified your Super Bowl-worthy squad with the league’s best new nickel corner in Jason Verrett.

You’ve addressed your team’s No. 1 defensive need. What’s next in Round 2?

Wide receiver—and one with downfield skills, a huge catch radius, red-zone abilities and perhaps all three.

Despite missing out on the likes of Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks, the cupboard isn’t bare. See: Kelvin Benjamin, 6’5’’, 240 pounds, Florida State.

Benjamin doesn’t feature upper-echelon speed, lacks polish as a route-runner and drops a few too many catchable balls. But he also wows the general public in most other conceivable ways on the gridiron.

CBS Sports’ Rob Rang compares him to Plaxico Burress, deeming the former Seminole a “big play waiting to happen” at the pro level. Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com elaborates:

A monster-sized, intimidating, big-play receiver…has the overall strength, length and wide catching radius that will demand extra coverage be rolled his way. Showed continual improvement, is still growing into the position, and possesses the traits to become a legitimate No. 1 receiver. A very intriguing mismatch weapon with ascending talent.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick would benefit from a target who would out-leap the entire defense and come down with jump-balls over the middle, deep downfield and in the end zone.

Even if used in just a situational manner, he would all but eliminate the 49ers’ scoring woes inside the 20-yard line.

To those who don’t believe Benjamin will fall out of the first round, a strong possibility remains that he will.

NFL general managers may view him as too raw in a draft class that’s filled with pro-ready talent. Indeed, four of the five analysts at CBS Sports have him taken outside of the top 32. The majority of experts at NFL.com agree.

With that in mind, Baalke should trade a fourth-rounder and move from No. 56 into the top-five bracket in the second for Benjamin. The stockpiling-inclined Cleveland Browns (at No. 35) would surely be amenable to this swap.

After assuaging the 49ers’ No. 1 positional concerns on offense and defense, the remaining portion of the draft will unfold as continual cherries on top.

Baalke could stay put at No. 61 and take Jaylen Watkins, the most NFL-ready of the trio of Florida defensive backs. The versatile corner would provide insurance behind the ever-problematic Chris Culliver and at safety.

San Francisco’s esteemed GM should then move up in the top of the third for another pro-caliber asset. He could exchange a current and future seventh-round pick for Penn State’s Allen Robinson or Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews. Either one could materialize as the successor to Michael Crabtree or Anquan Boldin.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

In this six-part approach, Baalke would have acquired an elite cover corner and quality backup, a game-changing wideout and another not far behind, a capable center behind Kilgore, a high-upside pass-rusher behind Aldon Smith and depth at inside linebacker.

Most of all, he would have realized the win-now mentality in a way that maximized selection value and brought future team captains to this proud franchise.

Maintaining a sustainable contender in all of the right ways with all of the right people—it’s about time the 49ers reclaimed their dignified status.

All player statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference and Sports-Reference. Combine measurables provided by NFL.com. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16

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