San Francisco 49ers 2014 NFL Draft Fact or Fiction
Rumors and half-truths have been buzzing around the San Francisco 49ers since the 2014 offseason began, particularly in regards to the upcoming NFL draft, which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years.
Everybody has a theory. Everybody has an agenda. But it really takes a keen eye and some research to decipher what is truly going on at 4949 Centennial in Santa Clara.
By glossing over the articles and current team situation—as well as the transactions made since the beginning of this league year—we will nail down a “fact or fiction” list relevant to the 49ers’ fourth draft under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The 49ers Have to Draft a Cornerback in Round 1
Cornerback was already a top need for the 49ers heading into the 2014 NFL draft. But now, with the recent arrest of Chris Culliver, there is the idea that the incident will drastically alter the team’s draft strategy, forcing it to take a cornerback in Round 1 if it wasn’t already planning to do so.
It’s an interesting thought, but Culliver’s situation doesn’t affect the team’s big board. The team has set grades for certain players and will not change them up because of an unrelated incident. Culliver's legal issue does not correlate to the perceived talent of the incoming draft class.
There’s also the fact that the NFL and 49ers will not act until the long legal scenario has played out. The expectation is that Culliver will play in 2014, as Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke told me, and that thought was seconded by David Fucillo of Niners Nation (who has an extensive legal background).
Moreover, in this draft class, the top-two cornerbacks are Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard—both of whom are expected to go within the top 15 or 20 selections in the upcoming draft. And frankly, for being the top-two guys, Gilbert and Dennard haven’t created a ton of separation between themselves and the rest of the cornerback class.
Why trade up that high for players that aren’t rare or special?
Not to mention, as strict boundary corners that play press coverage, Dennard and Gilbert also aren’t the types of corners the 49ers are looking for.
The 49ers have Culliver and Tramaine Brock, who project as the starters and will play outside the numbers this year. Furthermore, San Francisco lost Carlos Rogers, who was the primary slot corner, which left a gaping hole. The 49ers need to focus their attention toward finding a defensive back than can cover inside.
That being said, there are plenty of options that will be available after Round 1, like Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Jaylen Watkins. If the Niners stand pat at No. 30, Kyle Fuller or Jason Verrett could be had as well. But again, the 49ers don’t have to pull the trigger on a cornerback super early.
The 49ers Won’t Trade Up for Mike Evans
There is the belief out there that just because the 49ers have the draft ammunition, they’ll go out of their way to make a big splash. Many have even suggested they may go after one of the top-two wide receivers—likely Mike Evans, the big height/weight/speed receiver out of Texas A&M.
This seems false on two counts: 1) They don’t have to auction off a ton of picks just because they have them and 2) Who says size is what they’re looking to add on offense?
In fact, Bleacher Report’s own draft guru and X’s and O’s expert Matt Miller disagrees with the size argument, reinforcing San Francisco’s need for speed as a way to “complete the offense.” It seems like the one thing they don’t have.
“I think you need a receiver who has that deep speed, can stretch a defense and finally let [Colin] Kaepernick show off his big arm,” Miller told Taylor Price of 49ers.com. He then went on to name two burners in Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. as possible options for the 49ers in Round 1.
These are two ideal selections.
And while Cooks and Beckham may still necessitate the need to trade up—based on recent mocks and projections—the 49ers would not have to move up nearly as high for them, as opposed to how far they would have to move up if they were targeting Evans. This means the team can acquire a solid player to round out the offense without spending as much capital.
Moreover, betting the house on Mike Evans also does not coincide with San Francisco’s universal team-building philosophy, as general manager Trent Baalke stated, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
I do believe you’re never one player away because too much can happen. You could acquire that player and the very next day that player gets injured and he’s done for the year. And then you’re back to square one and you have to tell yourself, ‘Well, we’re still one player away.’ I don’t buy that philosophy.
They’re not opposed to trading up, but there is definitely a cut-off point where the 49ers have to wonder whether they’re getting good value. Coming up from No. 30 to break the top 15 may be too high a cost for one player, especially considering this team’s needs and organizational philosophy.
Receiver Isn’t a Priority with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin & Quinton Patton
There is the argument out there that the 49ers don’t need to prioritize the wide receiver position early in the draft because they already have three capable ones and rarely field more than two at a time. This is true to an extent (San Francisco does love its “11” personnel).
But it doesn’t mean they aren’t looking to evolve.
Moreover, each of the team’s current receivers has questions, whether it is their contract status, age or durability. The 49ers coaches also saw firsthand what it was like to lose one of their top options, as it was crippling when Michael Crabtree played in just five games last season due to an Achilles injury. The Niners have got to add another high-caliber player to the rotation, right now and for the long term.
Fortunately, this class is flush with intriguing options, and the 49ers don’t have many other pressing needs to address.
So, it behooves them to become a more prolific scoring offense and to add a security blanket at the wide receiver position. Adding some diversity in the form of speed or size would also be a huge plus, and it is why they should target a player at the wide receiver position early on. That way, they can have their pick of the litter.
The 49ers Will Have Players on the Trade Block
The 49ers have so many draft selections and not much room to add players, so it’s only appropriate that they reassess the players they do have. This includes a recap of each player's most recent performance, his place within the system and most importantly, his 2014-15 cap figure.
San Francisco will have an opportunity to trim some fat from the roster and possibly cut bait with some of the bigger contracts on the books. This would allow for cap room for quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s impending deal and possibly one in the near future for wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
And they won’t feel bad about it; it’s business. Remember, the 49ers have been one of the most active teams on the trading block, having auctioned linebackers Cam Johnson and even Parys Haralson to other teams last offseason. Quarterback Alex Smith headlined the block, being sold to the Kansas City Chiefs before the draft.
If there’s no room in the lineup and the team feels it can get good value back, they’ll pull the trigger on another deal this spring.
Players to consider this year would be running back LaMichael James and defensive end Ray McDonald. Despite McDonald being a three-year starter and general manager Trent Baalke saying James is here to stay, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team was listening to offers for either player.
Obviously, James hasn’t been able to crack the roster, and now with Marcus Lattimore entering the picture, his chances appear even slimmer. Then there’s McDonald, who is entering the apex of his deal, making $10 million over the next two years. He also has Tank Carradine coming up behind him, which could make McDonald expendable at some point.
If the 49ers are bold enough, there could be some serious wheeling and dealing on draft day.
San Francisco Doesn’t Need a Top-Flight Center
The extension of interior offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore and the dead silence around Jonathan Goodwin told us all we need to know about the 49ers’ intentions at the center position. It seems this team is confident in where Kilgore is at and will enter training camp with him as the frontrunner for the job.
Prior to the offseason, there was speculation that the 49ers might be after one of the top centers like Travis Swanson of Arkansas or Marcus Martin of USC. But now, the front office may want to turn its attention to the guard position rather than the center spot, which is no longer a priority.
The 49ers may take a player to backup Kilgore—perhaps a late-rounder like Oklahoma’s Gabe Ikard or Utah State’s Tyler Larsen.
Again, like we saw them do at the safety position, the 49ers provided themselves with incredible draft flexibility by making under-the-radar signings during the free-agent period. By settling two of their biggest needs, it really allows them to do whatever they want over the three-day draft period in May.
This Team Must Draft a Safety High
Many are still wondering whether or not the 49ers are going to draft one of the top-rated safeties like Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward or Washington State’s Deone Bucannon. But the fact is that signing veteran Antoine Bethea afforded them the luxury of ignoring the safety position.
Why not take advantage of this flexibility and go for the best player available instead?
Bethea, a two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, signed a multi-year deal to pair up with young star Eric Reid. In all likelihood, these two are going to be together for 2014 and perhaps 2015. The Niners don’t have to take a safety early that is going to be nothing more than a benchwarmer.
They can even pass on the safety position altogether, with C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl returning as the team's backups.
That is the beauty of the Bethea signing and why the 49ers were so eager to get a deal done early in free agency. San Francisco can now enter the draft completely stress-free, knowing it has free reign to take the best players, regardless of position, in the early rounds because it has a starting roster locked in.
Fan Q&A: Fact or Fiction
@DeSimone80 Will the 49ers trade up in the first round again this year?— Kyle Madson (@MadSports8) April 9, 2014
The 49ers need impact players, particularly at two key positions (wide receiver and cornerback). If they're in love with a certain player, they can go get their man, no questions asked. And it won't affect their draft strategy or their ability to move around in the later rounds.
Moving from No. 31 to No. 18 last year only cost the 49ers a third-round pick, and they got their safety of the future in LSU's Eric Reid. They also traded up twice more within the top 100, acquired their "gold-helmet" prospects and still over-drafted a few players.
It's hard to see San Francisco not trading up on Day 1.
@DeSimone80 Fact or fiction that at least 2 rookies will make a huge impact in their rookie year.— Alex (@SavageSanchez) April 9, 2014
Usually, this would be a "no" since the roster is so loaded—and some might peg this as "fiction"—but the 49ers are still looking for help. And again, those impact rookies might come at wide receiver and cornerback—either in the form of a burner or size pass-catcher, or in the form of a route-jumping defensive back that can play the nickel position.
@DeSimone80 Do the 49ers need to draft a legitimate backup QB? Gabbert isn't really the answer, right? RIGHT?!— David Kenyon (@Kenyon19_BR) April 9, 2014
San Francisco has dabbled in rookie backups, but the coaches just don't appear comfortable going that route. They had a rookie backup last year in South Florida's B.J. Daniels, who played as well as anyone could've expected in the preseason, but it didn't stop the 49ers from cutting him loose and going with an inept backup quarterback in Colt McCoy.
McCoy came in with a poor track record, looked terrible in all of his exhibition reps and was still anointed the No. 2 quarterback. This season, Blaine Gabbert will be second-string behind Colin Kaepernick by default, simply because he's seen live action. Experience matters to the 49ers over everything—not to mention that Harbaugh, the quarterback whisperer, believes he can correct some of Gabbert's faults.
The 49ers may draft a quarterback, but if they do, that player will be the No. 3 guy in 2014.
@DeSimone80 any potential "redshirt" candidates you especially like this year- A Colvin, B Thomas, etc- and at what rounds?— Greg (@GWSigg) April 9, 2014
The 49ers will be looking to acquire strong depth and players that can contribute immediately, but they'll also be thinking ahead. Like they did with South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Florida State defensive end Tank Carradine and Alabama defensive tackle Quinton Dial in 2013, general manager Trent Baalke may intentionally draft injured players this year with the intention of red-shirting them.
The Niners don't have room in the starting lineup and have been so overloaded that their practice squad and inactives on game day have become quite the talented bunch.
Like you mention, Clemson guard Brandon Thomas and Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin may be on their radar this year. It would not be the least bit surprising to see them draft one or both on Day 3 of the NFL draft. These are talented players that will likely be able to be had at great value, and they come at positions of need for San Francisco.