If they choose to address the defensive line, they could go with Arik Armstead, the giant prospect from Oregon. If they want a tight end/wide receiver hybrid, they could go with Michigan’s Devin Funchess. With a little bit of luck, they could end up with West Virginia’s Kevin White.
For my money, however, the best realistic scenario ends up with the 49ers selecting wide receiver DeVante Parker out of Louisville. No other player available in the 49ers’ general range would provide as much of an immediate impact in the first round.
Parker might be the most physically talented receiver in this year’s draft class—a bold statement, but one I stand by. When NFL.com's Mike Huguenin ranked his 14 most freakish athletes in college football before this season, he listed Parker at No. 1:
Parker's high-level athleticism will help him get by. He has been clocked at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and his vertical jump has been measured at 36.5 inches and his broad jump at 10-foot-10. He can squat 455 pounds and bench press 335 pounds; he also can do 17 reps in the bench press at 225 pounds. In addition, he has a wing span of 80 inches, so when you factor in his height and his vertical jump, his "catch radius" is exceptionally large.
So Parker is likely to perform well at the Underwear Olympics that is the NFL combine this weekend. If that were all he could do, then it’d definitely be a buyer-beware situation—remember how someone like Darrius Heyward-Bey shot up draft boards thanks to a combine performance and then never really put it together on game day.
However, Parker is far more than just a workout warrior.
Parker finished his career with 156 receptions for 2,775 yards and 33 touchdowns. In 2014, he averaged 142.5 yards per game, and he didn’t have the luxury of playing a creampuff schedule. Those numbers were put up against the likes of North Carolina State, Florida State, Notre Dame and Georgia—these were legitimate teams.
The eight receptions for 214 yards against Florida State might be the best single-game performance of his career. Parker was essentially the only weapon Louisville had in that game—he was targeted on an absurd 45.7 percent of Louisville's passes, according to Pro Football Focus.
Despite FSU knowing that he was getting the ball on almost every other pass attempt, he still managed to burn the Seminoles again and again.
That’s going up against Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams at cornerback, both of whom are going to be drafted this year. Williams is another potential first-round pick, and Parker was consistently getting the best of him—this was talent against talent, and Parker came out on top.
What impresses me the most about Parker is his hands. NFL.com credits him with just three drops since 2012, which is absolutely insane.
Some of that, of course, is having an accurate passer like Teddy Bridgewater for most of his career, but he was able to produce at a high level last season despite the downgrade to a platoon of Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin at quarterback.
Parker has an 80-inch wingspan, which gives him a very impressive catch radius. Add in his jumping ability, and you have a great target who’s able to high-point the ball, secure it and position himself to come down safely. He’s a vertical threat, tracking the deep ball well and adjusting to make the catch—it doesn’t have to be perfectly on frame for him to make the reception.
I also like Parker’s ability to work when the play breaks down. He shows an ability to work back to the ball, finding holes in the zone and improvising when he feels that his quarterback is in trouble. Considering the relatively porous state of the 49ers’ offensive line in 2014 and Colin Kaepernick’s desire to scramble, this is a good skill to have.
If you’re not sold on Kaepernick’s accuracy, you may be wondering how Parker worked with lesser quarterbacks.
For that, you can watch this game tape against Kentucky.
Kentucky isn’t nearly as good as Florida State, so you’d expect Parker’s numbers to be better, but by this point, Will Gardner was out for the season, leaving Parker working first with Bolin and then Bonnafon after injuries.
You can see how inaccurate Bolin and Bonnafon are—and how Parker is able to make the necessary adjustments to come back and make plays on the ball. The play at 6:08 stands out to me—Parker has to slow down, turn around, come back to the ball, jump, catch it away from his body and come down safely, all while fighting off the defender. It’s an impressive play on a ball that was not very well-thrown.
Of course, if everything about Parker were perfect, then we’d be talking about him going with the first overall pick rather than down at No. 15. There are concerns with Parker.
The most obvious immediate one is his injury history.
Parker missed the first seven games of last season with a broken bone in his foot. Did his broken metatarsal heal properly, and will there be any lasting effect? Remember, Michael Crabtree had the same injury coming out of college and has broken the same foot multiple times in his NFL career. Durability is a real concern for Parker, and he’s going to have to get a clean bill of health in Thursday’s medical examination.
Partially as a result of that broken foot, and partially simply due to the differences between running a 40-yard dash and playing football, Parker doesn’t play with the same speed that he exhibits at places like the combine. He lacks the top-end speed on the football field, and he can be caught from behind at times—you can see that a couple of times in the Florida State tape.
It’s a good thing then that he’s good at making contested catches, because he isn’t going to simply run by guys at the NFL level.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s not a vertical threat, and he is good at separating at key points with body control and sharp cuts. Cornerbacks might run with him every step of the way, but they’re not going to slow him down.
Parker also has a good burst off of the line to get separation early—it just would be nice if that workout speed translated more on the field.
In fact, Parker is more of a jack-of-all trades than someone who’s going to excel at any one aspect of his game.
He doesn’t have the elite top-end speed, but he does have enough speed to be a vertical threat. He doesn’t have the fastest initial burst, but he can use his hands and frame to get away from press coverage and off the line quickly. He’s not going to make many Odell Beckham-esque one-handed highlight-reel plays, but he is going to make tough catches when he can get both hands on the ball.
If you’re looking solely for the next DeSean Jackson to blow past all oncoming cornerbacks, then Parker isn’t the right pick.
What I like about him is his consistent production, despite an injury and a dramatic drop-off in quarterback play. I like his size—he’s 6’3” and 207 pounds, with the frame to add on a bit more weight. I like his long strides, which allow him to get up to speed quickly.
I like his cuts and ability to make defenders miss in open space. I like his ability to make the contested catch and not to drop the easy ones. I like his route-running quite a bit—it might be the most polished of any receiver in this year’s draft class.
Perhaps most significantly, Parker simply has a feel for the position. He knows when to make cuts, when to come back to catch the ball and when to adjust the depth of his routes based on the situation and coverage.
He has savvy and a knowledge of how to use his skills to the best of his ability—you can have all the speed and height in the world, but if you don’t know how to translate that into production on the field, then you’re not going to have much success.
General manager Trent Baalke said at the combine that the 49ers are “looking for guys that can run, get down the field.” If that’s your metric, than Parker has shown, time in and time out, that he can do that. Look at the yards per reception for each of the top receivers in the draft:
|Top 10 Receivers, 2015 NFL Draft|
|Player||Team||Career Y/R||2014 Y/R|
|Devin Smith||Ohio State||20.7||28.2|
|Dorial Green-Beckham||Missouri||14.7||15.0 (in 2013)|
|Jaelen Strong||Arizona State||14.6||14.2|
|Kevin White||West Virginia||13.6||13.3|
Parker finished his college career third in yards per reception among the top receivers in this year’s draft, behind only Sammie Coates and Devin Smith.
Parker has 30 more receptions than Smith and 70 more than Coates did over his career, so he put up his numbers over larger sample sizes. Coates has far, far worse hands than Parker does, dropping 19.1 percent of his passes, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein—Smith doesn’t exactly have great hands either. Parker is going to be more consistent than either, which is why he’s projected to go higher in the draft.
When you couple everything together, Parker is the best-case scenario for the 49ers at the 15th pick in the draft.
There’s no such thing as a must-draft player in the crapshoot that is the NFL draft, but, of all the players with a decent chance of being there when the 49ers go on the clock, Parker has the highest odds of having a long, successful NFL career.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.