8 Potential Value Picks to Patch Up the 49ers' Roster
Starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick was selected in the second round, while the likes of NaVorro Bowman, defensive end Ray McDonald, cornerback Tarrell Brown and free safety Dashon Goldson—who have both since departed for pastures new—outside of the first round.
San Francisco has also regularly struck gold in the opening round, with Eric Reid proving to be the latest in a long line of successes that has included Patrick Willis, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith to name but a few.
General manager Trent Baalke will have 11 picks to work with as he looks to fill the holes in a roster that is considered to be among the deepest in the NFL.
The 49ers are expected by many to execute a trade to move up in the first round in order to secure the services of a premier prospect, which they did in 2013 when they use some of their selections to leap to No. 18 and take Reid.
However, there is depth throughout the 2014 class, especially at the wide receiver and cornerback positions, the two spots where San Francisco is arguably the weakest, meaning that the Niners may not necessarily need to move up the board in order to find talent at positions of need.
There is plenty of value in the 2014 draft for San Francisco to find, and here I look at eight selections that could patch up the gaps in the team's roster.
The 49ers lost a hard-hitting safety in free agency as Donte Whitner departed to join the Cleveland Browns
San Francisco immediately filled that hole at strong safety by bringing in Antoine Bethea from the Indianapolis Colts, a player who should form a strong partnership with Eric Reid, who impressed during his rookie year in 2013.
But below that pair there is little in terms of quality depth at the position, and the Niners could look for a rookie to develop behind their starting duo.
And Baylor's Ahmad Dixon is arguably one of the best candidates to provide insurance at safety.
Without doubt the hardest hitter in the 2014 draft class, Dixon is an excellent fit for a defense that has lost some aggressiveness with Whitner's departure.
Dixon was a playmaker in his four seasons with Baylor, totaling 288 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in his time with the Bears. However, he remains a very raw talent in terms of the NFL, and will need to fine-tune some aspects of his game to make it in the pros.
There are some issues in his technique in coverage, which are understandable considering that Dixon played two seasons as a linebacker-safety hybrid before making the permanent move into the secondary in 2013.
His lack of play recognition and tendency to arm tackle are also problems that Dixon and his prospective coaches will need to address once he finds a home in the NFL, while his sometimes overaggressive nature is likely to see him draw fouls on a regular basis.
That should not deter the 49ers, a team that has been heavily penalized in recent years due to the physical nature of Whitner and former free safety Dashon Goldson, from considering adding Dixon to their roster.
Dixon, who is viewed as a third-round prospect by Bleacher Report's Ian Wharton and as a sixth- to seventh-rounder by Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, could greatly benefit from the knowledge of a veteran such as Bethea and may prove to be a steal should he develop into an impact player.
One of the greatest challenges the 49ers will likely need to overcome in 2014 is filling the void left by injured All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman is slated to miss much of the regular season with the ACL and MCL tears he sustained in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He will leave a substantial hole in one of the NFL's premier defenses.
A member of what is widely regarded as the best inside linebacker duo in football, Bowman's shoes will not be easy to fill, although Michael Wilhoite—who signed his exclusive rights tender earlier this week—is a candidate to play alongside Patrick Willis in Bowman's absence.
However, San Francisco could look to infuse some competition at the position through the draft, and if that is the case, then Stanford's Shayne Skov deserves to be on their radar.
Widely projected as a potential third-round pick, Skov possesses excellent explosion off the line and put up superb numbers during his career with the Cardinal.
There are likely to be concerns over the torn ACL, MCL and fractured tibia that Skov sustained in 2011 and the subsequent drop-off in performance that followed in 2012. However, the way he rebounded in his final year in Palo Alto was extremely impressive.
Skov was a playmaker for Stanford throughout 2013, continually penetrating the opposing backfield and recording 109 total tackles with 13 for a loss and 5.5 sacks.
His lack of elite speed makes Skov more suited to the Niners' 3-4 system rather than a 4-3 and, although doubts over his injury history remain, Skov is a strong fit as San Francisco aims to enjoy another successful year despite the loss of Bowman.
Perhaps the deepest area of the 49ers roster is the defensive line.
Veteran Justin Smith is still playing at an elite level, and Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey also performed well last year. Furthermore San Francisco is set to be boosted by the returns of nose tackle Ian Williams and highly rated defensive end Tank Carradine, both of whom saw their 2013 seasons hampered by serious injuries.
San Francisco is without doubt one of the strongest teams in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball, but with Smith in his mid-thirties and Dorsey's contract set to expire at the end of the 2014 season, the Niners would be wise to look into investing in some insurance for the future.
The 49ers have already shown interest in doing just that, meeting with a number of a defensive line prospects during the pre-draft process.
Oregon's Taylor Hart is one such player to have met with team officials, doing so during his pro day last month, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, and could be a perfect fit for San Francisco in its 3-4 defensive system.
Hart possesses great size at 6'6" and 281 pounds and has the ideal frame and length to play as a 5-technique defensive end in the NFL. Additionally, while he does not have elite speed to affect the game as a pass-rusher, Hart has the ideal build to be an anchor against the run in the 3-4.
And that is a trait that will appeal to a team whose defense is built around stopping the run.
The defensive line is unlikely to be the priority for San Francisco heading into the draft, however, with Hart graded as a third-round player by B/R's Darren Page and a fourth- to fifth-round selection by Nolan Nawrocki, there is an opportunity for the 49ers to help solidify the D-line for the future for the scant price of a mid-round pick.
Aldon Smith's latest off-the-field indiscretion has given the 49ers another problem to consider ahead of the draft.
However, Smith, who is to face trial on April 29 for three felony gun charges and a DUI charge, seems likely to receive a suspension from the NFL for his behavior and leave San Francisco with a hole to fill at the outside linebacker spot.
Replacing a player who has 42 sacks through three seasons with the 49ers, who will benefit from the presence of Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta—both of whom performed well as rotational players in 2013—promises to be a difficult task.
But luckily for San Francisco the draft is well stocked with prospects who have displayed a knack for getting to the quarterback.
There are plenty of players in the draft capable of boosting the 49ers pass rush, and perhaps one of the best is Louisville's Marcus Smith.
Much like his troubled namesake, the one-time quarterback turned defensive end/outside linebacker possesses magnificent speed and athleticism and is able to beat blockers with a variety of moves.
It was his senior season in which the 22-year-old really caught the eye, deservedly winning the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award following a 2013 campaign that saw him record 14.5 sacks.
His pass-rushing ability is unquestionable, but the Columbus, Georgia native still needs to develop his experience in coverage and improve as a run defender in order to become the complete package as a linebacker.
Yet, for a player expected to be taken in the second or third round, Marcus Smith is an outstanding prospect and one who certainly has the ability to help the 49ers fill the prospective void left by their premier pass-rusher.
Cornerback is widely regarded to be the 49ers' biggest area of need heading into the draft.
Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers moved across the Bay to the Oakland Raiders. Additionally the status of Chris Culliver, pegged to be one of the starters at corner in 2014, is up in the air following a hit-and-run arrest in San Jose and subsequent felony charges.
Therefore it is certainly feasible that San Francisco selects two corners as it looks to replenish its resources in the secondary. This could be the perfect draft for the 49ers to do that, given the depth of quality available at cornerback.
And maybe one of the more underrated defensive backs of the class is Florida's Jaylen Watkins.
An athletic player with good size for the position at 6'0" and 194 pounds, Watkins possesses clean hips and excellent, fluid movement and displayed superb coverage skills during his spell with the Gators. However, despite his considerable talents, Watkins is only considered to be a third- to fourth-round prospect.
One reason for this is that Watkins spent the majority of his career with the Gators as the No. 3 corner, playing behind Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy—both bound for the NFL—in an extremely strong secondary.
Watkins' draft stock may be hurt by him spending much of his time in the nickel with the Gators, but that could make him attractive to the 49ers, who—per Maiocco—were present at the Florida pro day.
San Francisco has a hole at nickelback following the departures that have hit its secondary in the offseason, meaning that Watkins is likely to be a tempting proposition for Baalke and the Niners.
Perhaps the best of Florida's magnificent trio of corners, Watkins displayed his versatility and commitment by moving to safety in his final collegiate season due to injuries in the Gators defense.
Those traits should also intrigue San Francisco and, if the third-round grade holds true, then the 49ers would be well advised to strike and add a player who has the tools to instantly improve their defense.
Speed kills in the NFL, and it is something the 49ers could certainly do with adding in the NFL draft.
One player who could certainly help San Francisco stretch the field on offense is exciting Colorado wideout Paul Richardson.
An undersized receiver at 6'0" and 175 pounds, Richardson may have trouble creating separation against NFL defensive backs. However, for a player rated as a potential second-round pick by CBSSports.com and B/R's Ryan McCrystal, the positives surrounding Richardson far outweigh the negatives.
Indeed, Richardson has superb acceleration—he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine—and used his pace to good effect during the final year of his three-year stint with the Buffaloes. Through 12 games in 2013 Richardson totaled over 1,300 receiving yards and scored 10 touchdowns, and repeatedly showcased his speed and ability to gain yards after the catch.
And Richardson appears to have caught the attention of the 49ers, who—per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee—visited with San Francisco last week.
Richardson's lean physique may be of concern to the 49ers, while the ACL injury that forced him to miss all of the 2012 campaign could also hurt the California native's stock come draft day.
But there can be no mistaking Richardson's potential as a serious offensive threat in the NFL with his quickness.
He would represent excellent value for the 49ers, if they can grab him in the second or third round.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbuagh, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, has openly expressed a desire to find a third playmaking receiver in the draft who can give 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick another option to go to.
USC star Marqise Lee has all the tools to be that guy.
Undoubtedly one of the best receivers in college football, Lee caught the eye with his speed and ability to make yards after the catch, using those talents to end his career with the Trojans with over 3,600 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns.
Lee was also used as a return man during his time with USC and could provide a spark on special teams as a returner for the 49ers.
There are faster receivers in the draft, but Lee is a player with tremendous game speed, which plagued Pac-12 defenses over the last three years.
With strong hands and developing route-running skills, Lee has the potential to develop into one of the top receivers in the NFL, however, he will need to work on his consistency in catching the ball if he is to fully achieve his potential.
According to Rotoworld's Greg Peshek, Lee dropped 12.3 percent of catchable balls thrown in his direction during his college career, and will certainly need to improve in that area if he is to become a success in the pro game.
Additionally, Lee's 2013 season was hampered by injuries that saw his production drop and forced him to miss some time in his final season in Los Angeles.
Despite those issues, Lee is still viewed by many as a mid-late first-round pick, with NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah tapping him to go to the New Orleans Saints at No. 27 and CBSSports.com's Will Brinson predicting the 22-year-old to fall to San Francisco at No. 30.
Should the second scenario play out then the 49ers will be getting an explosive playmaker who can come in and contribute for a very reasonable price.
With a sudden lack of depth at cornerback and plenty of ammunition to remedy that situation, it would come as little surprise if the 49ers traded up to a better spot in the first round to secure one of the top prospects at the position.
However, general manager Trent Baalke may not need to execute a maneuver in order to find a genuine potential starting corner.
That is because a questionable injury history and durability concerns could mean that Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller falls right into their lap.
A raw talent with excellent instincts and read-and-react quickness, Fuller is a player who uses his magnificent vision to his advantage and attacks the ball consistently, a trait which he displayed throughout his four-year career with the Hokies.
Fuller finished his spell with Virginia Tech with 32 passes defensed and six interceptions, although there are areas of his game where he could still stand to improve.
A lack of elite speed occasionally sees Fuller overcompensate by being too aggressive and overpursuing in coverage. Furthermore, Fuller has struggled when turning to run with receivers, however, that is not the reason why he is a viewed as a late-first to second-round pick.
Instead it is the fact that Fuller missed 11 games in his collegiate career because of injury that could knock him further down the draft boards of prospective NFL suitors.
Yet the 49ers have a recent history selecting players with an injury background, taking Carradine and running back Marcus Lattimore in 2013, despite each player coming off respective ACL tears.
Harbaugh was in attendance for Fuller's pro day, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, and will have witnessed a player whose abilities could be a perfect fit for the 49ers at the No. 30 spot.