The San Francisco 49ers have been heavily rumored to be interested in a couple of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2014 NFL draft. Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr are both intriguing NFL prospects who would bring much needed diversity to the 49ers passing attack. Both prospects, while very tempting, are most likely too cost prohibitive for the Niners to trade up for, as both are expected to be top 10-15 picks. Trent Baalke loves hoarding draft picks and giving up several picks in the first three rounds to get near or into the top ten would be very out of character for the Niners GM. The wide receiver position in its current state is in good hands. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are one of the better duos in the NFL and Quinton Patton is a promising youngster that has showed initial sings of developing into a solid player in the league. There is little reason to invest an obscene amount of draft capital to trade up to the upper reaches of this draft for a wide receiver. With Crabtree set to be a free agent at the end of this season and likely to command top dollar, wide receiver is definitely a need. This need can be filled later in the draft, which as you might have heard, is ridiculously deep in the wide out department.
Coming into the 2013 draft the 49ers had one glaring need and that was at the Free Safety position. They had filled most of their off season wishes through trades or free agency. Penciled in as the starter In late April was Craig Dahl and I’m not sure anyone believed he would be the starter come early September. Trent Baalke quickly took care of the Free Safety issue when he traded up to the mid first round to aquire Eric Reid. Much like last year the 2014 team has one clear need going into Thursday’s draft and that is at the cornerback position. The current starters on the depth chart are Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. Brock has played well in his short time as a starter, but only has seven career starts under his belt. On the other side is Culliver, who has mostly played well when given the oppurtunity. That being said, he has never started an NFL game, missed all of last year with a torn ACL and has had two instances of high profile idiotic behavior Culliver is a fairly large question mark. It makes sense for the team to utilize its first pick to select a corner who, much like Reid last year at Safety, can come in and contribute immediately.
Here are a few different scenarios where the 49ers can get the cornerback they need in the first round and also fill their need for a wide receiver. This is a loose interpretation of how the draft may play out. Being that the 49ers will almost surely move up and move back several times in this draft, these won’t be pick specific.
Mid First Round Justin Gilbert CB Oklahoma St
There have been recent mock drafts and such that point to Gilbert falling in the first round to the mid teens and maybe even into the 20’s. A deal similar to last seasons trade up for Reid would get the team up to this position in the first round. Gilbert is the drafts most athletically gifted corner. He ran the fastest 40 time at the combine and has the ideal height and arm length. He is considered to be a raw, undeveloped player who is soft against the run. However, the 49ers have an exceptional defensive backs coach in Ed Donatell. All of Gilbert’s weaknesses are coachable and Donatell can get the most out of a player with these dominant athletic traits. Gilbert can step in from day one and play the nickel slot position, covering hyper quick players such as Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin with his 4.37 speed. He will benefit from having one of the better pass rushes in the league and constant help over the top from Reid and newly acquired veteran Antoine Bethea. In addition to having a massive upside at corner, Gilbert is also considered one of the better return men in this draft. This would be especially huge if the team decides to trade current KR/PR LaMichael James, which has been heavily rumored. Here is where the Niners could potentially find their own version of Patrick Peterson in Gilbert. Under Donatell’s tutelage and playing in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s dominating defensive scheme, Gilbert can refine his game and eventually take it to the outside corner position, where he can utilize his speed and length to become a shutdown corner and a true first round value pick.
And if the draft goes in a different direction with Gilbert going in the top 10-12 picks, here are two corners to choose from that should be available toward the end of the first round.
Jason Verrett CB TCU
Verrett is largely considered the most talented cornerback in the draft with only one issue holding him back from being the first corner off the board, his height. Standing 5′ 9″ and a half Verrett does not meet the height requirement of the type of big corner that has become trendy in the NFL. Trent Baalke is also partial to bigger corners but might make an exception for a player as talented as Verrett. He has the skill set and speed to be an outstanding player in the NFL. The 49ers did just fine over the last three seasons under Fangio with Terrell Brown playing one side of the field and Verrett is just a half inch shorter than Brown. He has the quickness to cover the slot and the instincts and talent to eventually move outside. He is a fierce competitor and tremendously hard worker who would fit right into the 49ers defense.
Kyle Fuller CB Virgina Tech
If Verrett has the potential to be Terrell Brown 2.0, than Fuller has a future as the new and improved Carlos Rogers. He is NFL ready right out of the box, a plug and play corner with the athletic ability to cover the slot or line up on the outside. He is the safest pick when compared to Gilbert and Verrett. He is the ideal combo of size, skill, physicality and speed with maybe a little less upside than the other two. His stock is rising and a trade up to the early 20’s could be necessary .
Out of these three corners, Kyle Fuller would be the most likely choice here. He is more along the lines of a corner Trent Baalke and the organization is typically drawn to in terms of his physical traits and his style of play. Add that to the fact he would most likely require only a modest trade up and Fuller makes too much sense.
If the Niners go corner in the first round, then logically they would go with a wide receiver with their first pick in the second round. That pick may be around 56 or a bit higher if they feel the need to trade up.
Cody Latimer WR Indiana
Latimer has the size, speed and hands combination to be a potential number one receiver in the NFL. He has shot up draft boards over the last month to the point where he might require a trade up to the earlier portion of the second round, which of course the Niners are well equipped to do and have done in the past when they like a player. A year of studying behind Anquan Boldin would help Latimer’s development tremendously. As far as the potential second rounders go, he has the highest floor while still having a good amount of upside. This is in contrast to players such as Jordan Matthews, who is considered by many to be a solid but not spectacular player whose ceiling is as a decent number two receiver. Another receiver who may be around in the second round is Donte Moncrief, who definitely has the size and speed to be a successful NFL wide out, but there are too any questions surrounding his hands and route running abilities. Latimer is the solid pick here as a sure handed and somewhat explosive play maker.
Late second round pick:
Deone Bucannon Safety Washington St
Draft boards have Bucannon all over the place, anywhere from the first to the third round. A good value in the late second round, Bucannon’s game is similar to Donte Whitner and Antoine Bethea with Bucannon being a taller and faster version of those two. He is an ultra physical tone setter who has coverage limitations. He can sit behind Bethea and learn from the consummate professional. Bethea is signed for four years but might be only sticking around for two as he would be would be owed $6.25 million in the third year and $7 million in the fourth year of his contract. He would also be approaching his mid 30’s by that time. Bucannon can be an excellent special teams player in the mean time while developing into a punishing, starting caliber Strong Safety.
When it comes to the third round Baalke could very well have used two of the three picks the 49ers have in the round to trade up in the first round or to trade back for future picks. We do know one place they will definitely be picking, number 100:
Christian Jones OLB Florida St
Several writers have the 49ers taking a pass rusher earlier in the draft, even as high as their second pick. Ahmad Brooks is firmly entrenched on one side of the defense and despite what many seem to think, Aldon Smith is not going anywhere. Combine that with the fact the team spent a third round pick on Corey Lemonier in last years draft, I think the Niners wait until their fourth pick to select a pass rusher. Jones is in the same mold as the three OLB’s the team has drafted in the last three years. Jones comes in at 6′ 3″ 240 pounds which measures up very closely to Smith, Lemonier and Darius Fleming. As the cliche goes, you can never have too many pass rushers.
Brandon Thomas OG Clemson
Later in the draft the team will probably look to the future and try and replace Mike Iupati, who is a free agent after the 2014 season and like Crabtree, expected to command top dollar. This coincides with the 49ers being connected with every injured player who they can “redshirt” for the 2014 season. Thomas would be a perfect third day pick who could sit back and learn from the teams offensive line coach Mike Solari while recovering from his ACL tear. Come October 1 when he is expected to be healthy enough to play, he can get a few months of practices under his belt as Iupati’s understudy. Next offseason he can step right in for the possibly departed Iupati and challenge Joe Looney for the Left Guard position while still having four years left on his rookie deal.
The last minute talk leading up to draft day from those most connected with the 49ers such as Matt Maiocco is that the team is looking to trade up for a WR and that they don’t like any of the cornerbacks expected to go in the first round. I’m not sure any of this is a smoke screen, but the draft detailed above is just one way the team might be able address it’s two most glaring needs with it’s first two picks. Gilbert and Verrett might not be the prototypical 49ers corners, but both players can step in and help immediately while displaying a large enough upside that warrants a first round pick. The 49ers have the luxury of sporting a roster with very few holes and can draft toward the future. Signing Colin Kaepernick and some combination of Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati is going to eat up a huge amount of cap space. Being able to let certain players walk when their monetary demands become too high will be a real option as the 49ers can draft their replacements now and in the near future as they continue to stock pile draft picks. Having six picks in the first three rounds will mean drafting several high quality replacements for the future in the 2014 draft and trading for picks next year to assure the 49ers will be able to dominate the 2015 draft as well. The Patriots have maintained the philosophy of stockpiling draft picks while letting pricey vets go for the last decade plus and have been a powerhouse in the league the entire time. Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh are building a sustainable foundation on the shoulders of giants.
Photo Courtesy of AP