San Francisco 49ers: 6 Bold Predictions for 2014 NFL Draft Class
The team capitalized on wildly absurd value to the point of landing significant prospects multiple rounds lower than what their original projections dictated.
49ers General Manager Trent Baalke grabbed USC's Marcus Martin—a first-round quality center—at pick No. 70 in Round 3. He also stole South Carolina's Bruce Ellington, one of the top slot wideouts in this class, all the way at No. 106 in the fourth round.
When a team sacrifices next season's first- and fourth-round picks for one wide receiver (see: the Buffalo Bills and Sammy Watkins), Baalke's draft-day accomplishments are the stuff of unadulterated genius by comparison.
The 49ers roster is indeed now flush with talent for the foreseeable future.
But what about the on-field production from these esteemed draftees? What kind of big-time, concrete numbers can they attain on the gridiron beyond their preseason hype?
Here are six bold predictions for the 49ers' 2014 draft class.
Note: This slideshow will align each prediction with a draft pick in the reverse order of the draft from Round 7 to Round 1.
Let's clarify a few things before we get into the meat of these predictions.
To begin with, San Francisco’s final four selections will not see the field in 2014.
Cornerback Keith Reaser (Round 5, No. 170) sustained a season-ending knee injury in 2013 and the 49ers "will put [him] on the PUP list" per NFL Network’s Mike Mayock via 49ers.com. Fellow corner Kenneth Acker (Round 6, No. 180) will serve as depth-chart—if not practice-squad—filler this year.
Defensive end Kaleb Ramsey (Round 7, No. 243) "faces steep competition on a deep 49ers line," according to CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco via 49ers.com. Like Acker, fullback Trey Millard (Round 7, No. 245) is another redshirt candidate due to a torn ACL he suffered in October of 2013, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee via 49ers.com.
The same goes for offensive lineman Brandon Thomas (Round 3, No. 100), who tore his ACL in April during predraft workouts.
Additionally, fourth-round defensive back Dontae Johnson (pick No. 129) "is a project" who "could be a starter down the road if he realizes his potential allowed by his physical gifts," according to The Sports Xchange via CBSSports.com.
But 'Niners fans shouldn't expect any production on the field from Johnson this season.
Aaron Lynch Will Record a Sack, Register 80-Plus Snaps
Having eliminated those five other draftees from the discussion, we now turn to defensive-end-slash-outside-linebacker Aaron Lynch.
The fifth-rounder (No. 150 overall) out of South Florida epitomizes the high-risk, high-reward rookie who defies reasonable projection.
On one hand, he is a troubled prospect with issues relating to "mental makeup, football character, true commitment to the game, self-discipline and maturity," according to scouts at ESPN Insider (subscription required). The Notre Dame transfer received the lowest grade possible in overall intangibles.
At the same time, he is a 6'5", 269-pound, 4.69-running athletic freak who "appeared unstoppable at times" and "has everything you look for in an NFL end, in terms of physical gifts," per Derek Stephens of CBS Sports. And as Baalke put it (via 49ers.com), "He’s got the keys to the car now, and it’s up to him to drive it."
Lynch could rack up stats similar to his 2013 numbers at USF, could earn a spot on the practice squad as a developmental project or could find himself cut from the team altogether.
What will it be?
Since it’s only the middle of May—and nearly four months until the start of the regular season—I would go with something akin to the former, as linebacker Aldon Smith’s ongoing legal troubles could open a door for Lynch as a situational edge-rusher.
The folks at Rotoworld "would be surprised if [Smith] weren’t suspended at least six games in 2014." Even if the suspension is less severe (say, four games), with veteran Dan Skuta inserted as the starter and second-year man Corey Lemonier the primary backup, Lynch has a shot at logging field time and legitimate stats this season.
My prediction is that he will record a sack and a couple of tackles for losses in run defense during Smith’s absence. He will then earn some additional playing time late in the season after his first-half performance.
Then again, Lynch could violate team rules, fall from the organization’s good graces and lose his roster spot within a week of this article’s publish date.
As they say: We’ll see.
Bruce Ellington Will Lead Team in Receptions and TDs of 20-Plus Yards
Projecting statistical totals by 49ers wide receivers is about as reliable as forecasting the weather for September by measuring polar ice caps.
Notable injuries notwithstanding, who could have predicted that Anquan Boldin would account for 88 percent of touchdowns caught by a wideout, fullback Bruce Miller being the team’s fourth-leading receiver and Mario Manningham totaling 85 yards in 2013?
Please go ahead and collect your reward check for a billion dollars if you did.
As such, knowing what fourth-round slot weapon Bruce Ellington will do on the field is all but impossible. Last year’s rookie receiver Quinton Patton, for instance, produced a grand total of three catches (injury or not).
Ellington must not only beat out Patton and Stevie Johnson for the No. 3 role behind Boldin and Michael Crabtree, he must also implore the 49ers coaching staff to implement "three-wide-receiver sets, where he can use his quickness to separate from defenders," per ESPN Insider (subscription required).
Anyone familiar with this team in recent years understands how seldom Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman utilizes those formations. To wit, The Bee’s Matt Barrows reveals that Roman has trotted out three receivers just 21.8 percent of the time, including the postseason, since 2011 (via Pro Football Focus).
That’s over 30 percent below the league average, as Barrows so notes.
But in the spirit of mid-May prognostications, I will say Ellington will lead San Francisco with receptions and touchdowns of 20-plus yards.
The quick, shifty wideout—"who puts defenders on their heels" and can "out-jump taller, bigger defenders," according to Rob Rang of CBS Sports—will materialize into the 49ers' sought-after deep threat.
He will turn in the big play on both designed play calls and downfield scramble drills when Colin Kaepernick rolls out of the pocket.
Crabtree and Patton will work the sidelines, Boldin and Johnson will take care of business underneath and Ellington will transform routes from all over the field into 20-yard-plus catches and scores.
The 49ers will remain a run-oriented squad. But again, why not?
Chris Borland Will Notch 2nd-Most Tackles in 1st Half of Season
CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco reports that All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman will most likely start his 2014 campaign on the PUP list as he continues rehabbing his injured knee, which would shelf the team's defensive MVP for at least six weeks.
But since the team's bye comes in Week 8, it is conceivable that team trainers and head coach Jim Harbaugh will keep him stashed until Week 9 against the St. Louis Rams.
The presence of two other linebackers supports this time frame.
My prediction is that seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis will reclaim his role as the defensive leader and No. 1 tackler in Bowman's absence. Meanwhile, third-round draftee (pick No. 77) Chris Borland will step into the void left by Willis, amassing the second-most tackles, two forced fumbles and two sacks.
Borland, the underrated, undervalued and underappreciated 5'11" inside linebacker from Wisconsin seems to greatly enjoy defying expectations.
He rose above his small stature, T-Rex arms and deficient speed in college by collecting over 100 tackles for three straight years, earning the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013 and finishing his career as the conference’s all-time leader in forced fumbles (14).
He’s everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint. He loves the game. He’s a smart player. He’s an extremely instinctive football player. He’s overcome that lack of arm length (29 1/4 inches). He’s overcome that lack of speed (4.83 seconds in the 40-yard dash) that’s being talked about. He’s just a baller.
For Borland—who studied "Bowman and Patrick Willis extensively during his time at Wisconsin"—it’s only a matter of time until he balls his way into the starting lineup and into 49ers rookie lore.
Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody: You’ve been warned.
Marcus Martin Will Not Start a Single Game in 2014
Offensive linemen generally don’t show up in the box score on a weekly basis.
So outside of the even-less-plausible occurrence of a lineman winning Rookie of the Year, any prediction of that nature would have to entail playing time.
And Marcus Martin, despite being the 49ers' lofty third-round pick at No. 100 overall, will not start a single game in 2014.
The player Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN Insider (subscription required) says "could be the starting center this season" will actually fill a role left by the man who will become the starter.
Having trouble following?
San Francisco drafted young prospect Daniel Kilgore in the fifth round (No. 163 overall) back in 2011's draft. The 6'3", 308-pounder hailed from former FCS powerhouse (now Division I FBS) Appalachian State.
After appearing in just one game during his rookie campaign, Kilgore has seen action in all 32 games since 2012. He has performed backup duties and contributed in jumbo packages at center and both guard positions for a total of 169 snaps per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The 49ers rewarded the reserve lineman—who also played in all three postseason contests in 2013—with a three-year contract extension in late February.
Baalke noted at the time that "this move [was] another example of [the 49ers'] philosophy to extend the contracts of [their] own young players." San Francisco followed a similar path with undrafted free agent Alex Boone, who signed a four-year deal and is now the starting right guard.
Here’s what the folks at Rotoworld offered regarding Kilgore’s extension:
A 2011 fifth-rounder, Kilgore had been considered the most likely candidate to take over for free agent Jonathan Goodwin. This [contract] sets it in stone…The 49ers need a backup plan, perhaps in the form of a draft pick.
Said plan has since materialized in the form of one Marcus Martin.
Much like how Boone appeared in one game as a rookie in 2010, followed by 16 games as a multiposition reserve in 2011 and culminating with 32 starts since 2012, Kilgore will do the same. Martin, to that end, will serve as the primary backup at all three spots along the interior.
This prediction might not qualify as the boldest of bold. But when the "No. 1 center" in the eyes of draft guru Mike Mayock doesn't start in Year 1, I deem that bold enough.
Carlos Hyde Will Start 2 Games, Lead Team in Rushing TDs
If this prediction serves as motivation for the 49ers all-time leading rusher, then it will result in a win-win situation for all parties involved.
Either way, it surely qualifies as bold in every sense of the word.
After initially trading down, Baalke moved back up and drafted Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde at No. 57 overall in Round 2. Notable outlets CBS Sports, ESPN Insider (subscription required) and the National Football Post rated him as the top back in this year's class.
That San Francisco landed the 33rd-ranked player 24 spots later speaks to a value pick of the most outrageous proportions.
The 49ers' depth chart already featured the likes of LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and of course Frank Gore.
While James will function solely as a return man and Hunter will serve out the last year of his contract, what about the other two?
Lattimore, a 2013 fourth-round pick, redshirted his rookie campaign after tearing his ACL, PCL and MCL in a gruesome injury back in October of 2012. Still, he sat in anticipation of logging extensive time on the gridiron this season behind Gore.
Sadly, Lattimore has since conceded that he isn’t 100 percent—mentally or physically—and "that he still lacks the first-step burst, the explosiveness through the hole," according to Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News.
He likely won’t see much action in 2014.
All that being said, with or without those aforementioned players, Gore considers himself the unquestioned No. 1—and deservedly so.
He received 55 percent of the team’s carries last year (276 of 505). At age 30, he produced over 1,100 rushing yards and nine touchdowns—the second-most of his illustrious multiple-Pro Bowl career.
And despite being a year past the threshold that marks the demise for NFL running backs, Gore will still hold himself to the highest of expectations. No rookie will remove him from power—so to speak—or diminish his role.
So, how is Hyde supposed to manage two starts and the most rushing scores on the team?
1. The 5'11", 230-pounder possesses "the size to handle a heavy workload in the 49ers' run-heavy offense."
2. He will see ample playing time because he has the blocking skills to "help keep Colin Kaepernick upright in pass protection."
3. Hyde is also an "extremely powerful short-yardage/goal-line runner" per Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com.
4. He racked up 31 scores on the ground over his last two collegiate seasons.
5. Harbaugh will sit Gore at some point in the season to preserve him for the playoffs.
If nothing else, I hope this prediction somehow pushes the franchise all-timer to even greater heights in 2014. And hopefully, the red-and-gold faithful agree.
But for the time being, does anyone have the number for Witness Protection?
Jimmie Ward Will Lead Team in INT, Register a GW Pick-Six in Week 2
Last year, San Francisco selected a safety in the first round at No. 18 overall.
Former SEC standout Eric Reid then totaled the second-most interceptions on the 49ers, including two in the first two weeks.
Baalke drafted another secondary asset in Round 1 of this year’s draft (No. 30 overall).
And this time, said defensive back will lead the team in interceptions, including a game-winning pick-six against the Chicago Bears in Week 2.
Jimmie Ward is a 5’10’’, 193-pound versatile defender out of Northern Illinois. He worked the slot, outside and deep center field in both man and zone coverage in college, per ESPN Insider (subscription required).
Those scouts note that he has “good overall ball skills” and can “pluck away from his frame.” Having “above-average instincts,” “strong hand-eye coordination” and “good body control” further aid his ball-hawking prowess.
Ward amassed 11 career interceptions, including an NCAA second-leading seven picks in 2013. His pick-six versus Purdue showed that he’s plenty “dangerous with [the] ball in his hands.”
Will all that translate to takeaway-happy production in the NFL?
In a word: yes.
The ubiquity of dynamic slot receivers and his impending role as a nickel “slot defender in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s heavy Cover 2 scheme” will both lend themselves to Ward leading the 49ers in interceptions this year.
And since the pick-master Jay Cutler and the Bears come to town in Week 2, Ward will leap into the rookie annals via a game-ending interception and touchdown paydirt.
Way to be bold, ‘rook.
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