Who Should Be on the 49ers' Short List in Round 1 of 2014 NFL Draft?
The NFL Draft is just days away, meaning that teams will be in the process of finalizing their plans to try and fill the holes in their respective rosters.
And the San Francisco 49ers are undoubtedly one of the most intriguing teams heading into the draft.
San Francisco is slated to select at No. 30 in the first round and has a further five picks in the top 100, with two in the second round and three in the third round.
With 11 selections in total and very few deficiencies on their roster, the 49ers are widely expected to use the ammunition they have to trade up to a better spot in the first round and add a premier talent at wide receiver or cornerback, which are considered to be their two biggest needs.
But which players should the 49ers be targeting as they look to find the missing pieces that could lead them towards a coveted sixth Super Bowl title?
General manager Trent Baalke is likely to have a good idea by this point and should be putting the finishing touches to the 49ers draft board.
No one outside of the San Francisco organization knows whom the Niners are targeting in the first round. However, it is always fun to speculate, and here I look at 10 players whom Baalke should have in mind when making that all-important first move.
Drafting a cornerback is pretty much a necessity for the 49ers this year.
The secondary was arguably the weak point of their outstanding defense last season, and the departures of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers have only increased the need to bring in some extra assistance at the corner spot.
Luckily for San Francisco the 2014 draft is deep at the position, with Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller a prospect that deserves to be towards the top of of its draft board.
Injuries have raised doubts over Fuller, yet there can be no question that he is player who has the raw skills to be a success at the highest level.
Fuller missed significant time in 2013 due to a hernia surgery, but that did not stop him from contributing significantly during his time with the Hokies, recording 32 passes defensed and six interceptions.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh was in attendance at the Virginia Tech pro day back in March, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, and the 49ers must like his aggressive nature and the way he reads the game, as he shows excellent anticipation and coverage instincts.
There are very few weaknesses to Fuller's game, although a lack of elite speed may see him struggle to stay with NFL receivers, but the concerns over his durability could see the 22-year-old fall until later in the first round.
But, despite his injury history, Fuller is a player the 49ers are likely to have a keen eye on, and it would be no surprise if his name is called by the time pick No. 30 comes around.
One of the 49ers main deficiencies is a lack speed at the receiver position.
But San Francisco can remedy this issue in the first round of the draft by selecting Oregon State standout Brandin Cooks.
Cooks was simply terrific during his tenure with the Beavers, winning the Biletnikoff Award following a 2013 season that saw him record over 1,700 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, while also scoring twice in the ground game.
Raw pace is Cooks' main asset, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine and plays just as fast on the field, with his electric acceleration helping him create big plays with yards after the catch. Additionally, Cooks has quick hands and is consistently able to fool defenders with his route-running.
A versatile weapon who can also contribute in the return game, Cooks' pace and ability to make plays both in the air and after the catch will give opposing defenses nightmares, however, his slight 5'10" and 189-pound frame is likely to be of concern to NFL teams.
This should be especially true of a 49ers side that faces the physical Seattle Seahawks defense at least twice a year, but there is no doubt that Cooks has the capability to be a game-changer for a San Francisco team that is eager to give quarterback Colin Kaepernick more options in the passing game.
CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler has Cooks—who grew up 80 miles outside of San Francisco in Stockton, Ca.—going to the 49ers at No. 30, and the 20-year-old would be very difficult for Baalke to pass on should he fall that far down the board.
Marqise Lee may not possess the same speed as Cooks, but the USC receiver is deservedly generating a lot of attention as the draft approaches.
At times a prodigiously productive receiver during his three seasons with the Trojans, Lee plays faster than his 40-yard dash time (4.52) at the combine suggests, consistently creating yards after the catch with his running ability, vision and burst.
Lee is an excellent route-runner who knows how to manipulate coverages, finishing his collegiate career with over 3,600 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns. However, his 2013 season proved to be a heavily disrupted one.
Leg injuries severely affected Lee's final season in Los Angeles, preventing him from replicating the numbers that saw him win the Biletnikoff Award and named a consensus All-American in 2012.
The doubts over his injury history and Lee's occasional tendency to drop easy balls will be concerns for NFL teams seeking to add a dynamic receiver to their roster.
But, in spite of those issues, Lee—who is slated to be selected in the latter stages of the first round—is someone whom the 49ers should definitely have in mind when they come to make their opening selection.
With Aldon Smith potentially facing a suspension as a result of his various off-the-field indiscretions, the 49ers could well be looking to add a pass-rusher in the draft.
Yes, the Niners have holes to fill at cornerback and receiver, but with Smith having recorded 42 sacks in three seasons in San Francisco, finding a replacement for him might be viewed as a bigger priority.
San Francisco may not need to trade up in order to find someone to fill in for Smith, as Ohio State's Ryan Shazier has been predicted by many experts to fall to the latter part of the first round.
NFL.com's Charles Davis has the 49ers taking Shazier with pick No. 30, and if that scenario was to play out then San Francisco would be getting a player who projects as an excellent edge-rusher in a 3-4 system.
Shazier has almost all the tools needed to become a quality pass-rusher in the pro game, after using his athletic ability, explosive first step and acceleration to put up excellent numbers with the Buckeyes. Relentless in pursuit, Shazier recorded 23.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in his final year with Ohio State, which ended with him being named as a first-team All-American.
There are some downsides to Shazier's game, he is a lean athlete at 6'1" and 237 pounds who has a tendency to be overaggressive and occasionally get bottled up at the line of scrimmage.
However, Shazier, who has the versatility to play as an inside backer, has enough upside to warrant serious consideration as a first-round pick for the 49ers.
TCU's Jason Verrett heads into the draft as the best fit for the 49ers' defense at the cornerback position.
The exits of Brown and Rogers have left San Francisco with a hole at nickel corner, however, the 49ers could easily plug that gap by taking Verrett with their first pick.
An undersized corner who could struggle against the bigger receivers in the NFL, Verrett possesses all the attributes to be deployed at the nickel spot, displaying good speed and footwork to mirror receivers in space.
Verrett also has the anticipation and ball skills to consistently make plays on the ball. He totaled 41 passes defensed and nine interceptions in three seasons with TCU.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Verrett, named the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, has attracted in the interest of the 49ers, whose director of college scouting was present at his pro day, per SB Nation.
There could be slight durability concerns surrounding Verrett, who should be ready for training camp despite NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reporting that he is to undergo surgery on a torn labrum he suffered back in September.
The surgery should ensure that Verrett is 100 percent ahead of the new season, making him an attractive prospect to the 49ers as they aim to solidify the back end of their defense.
Odell Beckham Jr.
If reports are to be believed, then the 49ers have a significant interest in LSU wideout Odell Beckham Jr.
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Niners are keen on bringing Beckham to the Bay Area, although they would likely need to trade up in order to snag the Tigers star.
Indeed, CBSSports.com's Will Brinson has Beckham going to the Baltimore Ravers at No. 17 overall, while NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah taps him to be selected by the New York Jets with the 18th overall pick.
However, the 49ers have more than enough choices to able to move up to the middle of the first round, with Branch citing the Baltimore Ravens as a potential trading partners for San Francisco.
And, considering the superb attributes that Beckham possesses, that would be a smart move for Baalke and the Niners to make.
Despite lacking ideal size and speed, Beckham was extremely productive during his three-year spell with LSU, exploding for 1,117 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.
What stands out about Beckham is his excellent hands and ability make yards after the catch. He was consistently able to make haul in difficult passes in his time with LSU and regularly demonstrated the ability to turn short passes into big plays.
A polished route-runner whose intelligence on the field belies his youth, Beckham would fit in well with a group of 49ers receivers that already boasts two players, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, who are proficient in gaining yards after the catch.
San Francisco has a clear need on the defensive side of the ball at the cornerback spot, however, Beckham is a receiver who will be able to come in and contribute right away, and that may be too much for the 49ers to pass up.
Arguably the most complete corner in the draft, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard has the ability to immediately become an important piece of the San Francisco defense.
With his extremely aggressive style of play, Dennard could prove to be the 49ers' answer to the in-your-face defensive backs who made the Seattle Seahawks' 2013 season such a success.
Adept in both press and man-to-man to coverage, Dennard is an incredibly fluid athlete with good acceleration and impressive ball skills, which he used to record 26 passes defensed and 10 interceptions in four seasons with the Spartans.
Dennard's performances in 2013 helped him win the Jim Thorpe Award for the best defensive back in college football.
Therefore it is no surprise that Dennard is viewed as one of the best cornerback prospects in the 2014 class, with ESPN.com's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay (subscription required) picking Dennard to be selected by the Tennessee Titans, who pick at No. 11, as the first corner off the board.
San Francisco may have to pay a hefty price in order to move up and take Dennard but, while there are plenty of talented corners that are likely to be available later in the draft, trading up for his services must be something they are willing to examine.
Dennard is not the only target whom the 49ers should have their eye on if they choose to pursue a trade to move up and select a cornerback in the first round.
Indeed, there is another outstanding candidate deserving of San Francisco's attention in the first round in the form of Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert.
Gilbert's main strength is his size and speed. He is an outstanding athlete with the ability to react quickly and break on the ball, traits that were evident throughout Gilbert's time with Oklahoma State, during which he recorded 32 passes defensed and 12 interceptions.
In addition to making plays on defense, Gilbert also contributed heavily on special teams for the Cowboys, scoring six return touchdowns during his collegiate career.
That versatility should prove useful to a San Francisco team that has struggled with finding a return man since the departure of Ted Ginn, but the 49ers will likely need to use multiple picks in order to engineer a deal to take Gilbert to the Bay Area.
However, players who can make the impact that Gilbert can make in two facets of the game are difficult to come by, and nobody would blame the Niners for making the jump up to grab this supremely talented playmaker.
If the 49ers are looking for a quality insurance policy or even a potential replacement for Aldon Smith, then UCLA's Anthony Barr could be their best bet, albeit a quite expensive one.
Barr excelled as an edge-rusher during his spell with the Bruins, totaling 23.5 sacks in his final two seasons after the former running-back moved over to the defensive side of the ball.
The reasons behind Barr's gaudy numbers are no mystery, at 6'4" and 250 pounds he has tremendous speed, athletic ability and long arms that he uses to his advantage when taking on offensive linemen.
A three-down backer who has the ability to impact the game in coverage, Barr possesses the potential to contribute straight away in the pro game, although he will need to improve his performance in run defense in order to fulfill his promise in the NFL.
Viewed as a top 10-15 prospect, the 49ers would need to make a considerable move to bring Barr to San Francisco, with Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke and Rob Rang of CBSSports.com among those analysts who have the Indiana native going to the Tennessee Titans at No. 11 overall.
With significant needs at receiver and corner, that price may be too much for the 49ers to pay, especially when there are likely to be a number of impressive pass-rushing prospects available later in the first round and further down in the draft.
Still it would be foolish of San Francisco not to place a player of Barr's impressive talents high on its draft board, and with the 49ers potentially needing to replace one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL, Baalke cannot afford to rule out drafting a player who will instantly improve their defense.
San Francisco's desire to bring in a third playmaker at the receiver spot is hardly a secret, and Texas A&M's Mike Evans deserves to be top of its draft board as the 49ers aim to add another dimension to their passing attack.
Evans is widely regarded as the second-best receiving prospect in the draft behind Clemson star Sammy Watkins. However, barring an unexpected slide, Watkins will most likely be outside of the 49ers' reach.
But it stands to reason that San Francisco could make a play for Evans, who—per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—met with the Niners at his pro day last month.
Evans is slated by most analysts to be selected just outside the top five. On the other hand, CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler has him going to the Detroit Lions at No. 10, while Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar sees Evans' name being called two picks later by the New York Giants.
With the number of picks at their disposal, it is not inconceivable that the 49ers will be able to move up that far to secure the services of a player who has the ability to develop into a big-play receiver.
Drawing comparisons with Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Vincent Jackson, Evans is an athlete with outstanding size that enables him to box out defenders and make contested grabs, which he did regularly with the Aggies on his way to nearly 2,500 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in his two seasons.
A physical receiver with excellent hands, Evans' 6'5" and 231-pound frame should be enticing to a 49er team that struggled mightily in the red zone last season, and his presence would give them a big target down near the goal line, taking some of the pressure off of Crabtree, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis.
Simply put Evans has all the tools to be an immediate difference-maker in the San Francisco offense and needs to be at the head of Baalke's short list come next Thursday.
Note: All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference