My first two installments of this series looked at players currently on the 49ers roster and how they translate to the WCO. We had a nice amount of conversation Wednesday in regards to Alex Smith, and whether or not he fits the WCO.
Today, I will turn my focus to the draft, and how some players may fit into Jim Harbaugh's new offensive style. Below I will look at the skill position players that I believe would fit best into the new system. There will be no rhym or reason to my madness as I will focus on players all over the draft board. The reason that I decided to do this is because that the specific scheme the 49ers will run in 2011 eliminates some top prospects. For example, the 49ers will most likely look at the RB position, however, Mark Ingram doesn't seem like a great fit and the 49ers have no reason to draft a RB in the first round. Consequently, San Francisco is looking for a quarterback but the likes of Cameron Newton and Ryan Mallett do not seem to be great fits.
As I have indicated in previous segments, it is possible to find mid-late round steals that fit well into the WCO. In my opinion even more so than in any other offensive system in the NFL. Reason being is the fact that few teams run the WCO, and some players fit better into that scheme than into others. The 49ers have a heralded history of finding such players over the course of the last 30 seasons.
1979: QB- Joe Montana 3rd Round
1979: WR- Dwight Clark 10th Round
1983: RB- Roger Craig 2nd Round
1986: WR- John Taylor 3rd Round
1986: FB- Tom Rathman 3rd Round
1985 Brent Jones Picked up off waivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers
1991: RB- Ricky Watters 2nd Round
All of the players listed above were passed up by other teams on multiple occasions, and if it wasn't for the majority of them San Francisco would not have won all the Super Bowls that they did. Accordingly, some of the players would not have been great fit in other style offenses. San Francisco probably got lucky with some of these players dropping to them in the specific rounds in which they were drafted; but the strategy worked out perfect.
Below I am going to take a look at a few players from each skill position that I believe best fits what the 49ers are attempting to do on offense. Please keep in mind that I am not saying that these are the best overall players at each position; rather, they are the ones that I believe specifically fit the 49ers system. For example, I am not coming to the conclusion that Greg McElroy will be a better professional quarterback than Colin Kaepernick. However, I am saying that McElroy fits the 49ers better. CBS Sportsline has one of the most in-depth ranking systems that I can find on that net. Accordingly, you will find where they rank each player in parenthesis following their names.
Blaine Gabbert, Missouri(10): Gabbert has great accuracy in the intermediate routes (7-12 yards). He doesn't have the greatest arm, but that isn't really a pre-requisite for the WCO. However, obviously it wouldn't hurt. I really like Gabbert's pocket presence and ability to put the ball on the numbers. I do have my worries about him coming out of a college type spread offense that only runs a one read system. That said, I have seen enough of him to believe that he could work on that at the next level. However, spending a top 10 pick on a project that will not start immediately is a risky proposition. As much as I do like Gabbert and the prospect of him fitting into the WCO, I hope that the 49ers take a pass on him; although it wouldn't be the end of the world if they did draft him depending on how the draft plays out before the 7th pick.
Jake Locker, Washington(23): I think that CBS Sportline has Locker a bit too high at this point. Many other news outlets have him projected as a 2nd round pick; a top 30 pick would be too high for Locker at this point. I do believe, however, that if the 49ers had an opportunity to pick up Locker in the 2nd round (unlikely) they would seriously have to consider drafting him. Locker fits great into the WCO, he has the athleticism to get outside the tackles on roll-outs, has good accuracy on the passes needed in this style offense, and is a gutsy performer. If you were to compare any player in the draft to Steve Young, it would be Locker. We have to understand that Locker did not have much talent around him at Washington, and this had to affect his stats. If the 49ers are to draft a QB in the early rounds this season, I believe that Locker should be the man.
Andy Dalton, Texas Christian(61): He may be the most pro-ready QB in the entire draft, yes the entire draft. One problem I see with Dalton is his inexperience in terms of reading defenses, running the spread offense at Texas Christian, he didn't have to read certain defensive schemes that he will have to read running the WCO. The spread offense relies on getting the ball to play-makers on the outside and in the open field. Running the WCO will require Dalton to read umbrella coverages, two deep zones, and multi-faceted blitzes. That said, Dalton seems like an intelligent between the hashes individual that could pick up on the reads rather quickly. I absolutely love the touch he puts on the ball, and his accuracy that is needed in running the 49ers scheme. If the 49ers have an opportunity to pick up Dalton in the 3rd round, I believe it would be a nice fit.
Greg McElroy, Alabama(169): Not the most flashy quarterback in the draft, that distinction goes to Cameron Newton. However, flashiness doesn't always equal success; see Jeff George and Ryan Leaf. What McElroy does have that other quarterbacks in the draft don't have is the intangibles to step right in and be a successful pro style signal caller. His learning curve will not be as great as others that will be drafted much higher, and McElroy does indeed fit the WCO nicely. You are not going to see him throw 60 yard bombs on a rope, or drill in a 20 yard pass like Tony Romo. But, what you will see is intelligence, a strong understanding of the game, a broad range of accuracy, and passion for the game. Look, McElroy will not be drafted higher than the 5th round, and the 49ers would be well suited to take a flyer on him in the later rounds.
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State(59): Hunter finished the 2010 season with over 1,500 yards rushing for the Cowboys. He didn't have a great college career on the receiving end, but that seems to be more indicative of the type of offense Oklahoma State ran than anything else. A good NFL comparison to Hunter would be Darren Sproles of the San Diego Chargers. Hunter is only 5 foot, 8 inches and weighs less than 200 pounds, so questions to his durability are sure to come up as we get closer to the draft. That said, I really like the way he runs downhill and has the ability to break the big play. From what I have seen and read about Hunter is that he does have the ability to catch the ball out of the back-field. The one major concern I would have with him is his ability in pass protection.
Daniel Thomas, Kansas State(72): Much bigger of a back than Kendall Hunter, and more of your prototypical WCO running back. This is what I mean by rankings not meaning everything in regards to who the 49ers should look at to fit their scheme. Daniel Thomas at 228 pounds is more than capable of shouldering the load in the future. Additionally, his 52 receptions in two seasons with the Wildcats is another plus. However, as is the case with most running backs coming out of college, blocking is an issue. Carson Coffman, Kansas State's starting QB, was sacked a total of 24 times; and had a lot of pressure put on him in multiple games. I saw Thomas pull an Anthony Dixon more times than once during the season in whiffing on incoming pass rushers. That said, he does have the athletic ability to improve on that facet of his game.
Shane Vereen, California(92): It is pretty clear where I stand on Shane Vereen and how he fits into the 49er system. I honestly believe that he will end up turning into an every down all-pro type running back in the NFL. Adding to this is the fact that he fits perfectly into the WCO. Vereen has 65 career receptions in three seasons with the Golden Bears, this with a quarterback, Kevin Riley, who was extremely inaccurate in the short passing game. Additionally, I saw Vereen break many short screens into large gains. One of the major things that I like about Vereen is his outstanding ability in pass protection, something you rarely see in a running back coming out of college; especially as a Junior. Riley was sacked only 13 times in 2010, and that has a lot to do with Vereen's ability. Cal runs an offense that relies heavily on its running backs staying in the back field on passing downs, and Vereen has far exceeded expectations when asked to do so. In terms of rushing, Vereen runs low to the ground, is much stronger than his build would suggest, and can break off the long one. In my opinion it would be a no-brainer if Vereen fell to the 49ers in the 3rd.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State(128): CBS Sportsline has Rodgers much lower than I have him on my big board. In fact, I have Rodgers as a probable 2nd round pick, where they have him going in the 4th. At 5 foot 7 and under 200 pounds, it would seem that Rodgers may be too small to be an every down running back in the NFL, however, I do not see it that way. Surprisingly, Rodgers is extremely tough between the tackles and I have seen him break off the tackles of opposing linebackers; most note-ably Casey Matthews. I do believe, however, that his reception total is a little bit mis-leading. Rodgers was a huge part of the Oregon State offensive attack, they relied heavily on his ability; maybe too much. Sometimes that can mis-represent your stats a little bit. It is kind of like seeing Monta Ellis go for 40 with the Warriors because he put up 25 shots. Rodgers averaged a pedestrian 6.8 yards per reception in 2010, which means that Oregon State was running the screen and throwback plays a lot. That said, he does have soft hands and the ability to receive out of the back field, that shouldn't be taken away from him. If, and it is a big if, Rodgers is available in the 4th round and the 49ers pass up on Vereen in the 3rd; he would be a nice fall-back option.
Derrick Locke, Kentucky(153): Here is my sleeper of the draft, maybe at any position; I really like the way Locke plays. He is what I call "AK-59", in reference to his size and similar rushing style to Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. You have to believe that Locke will end up going much sooner than many NFL Draft sites have him going, but I am seeing a continuing them of under-estimating him. Listen, Locke probably has the best hands of any running back in the draft, has raw natural ability, is great in pass protection; and is an extremely intelligent player. All the things that I look for in a RB. The one major issue is injury problems that hurt him with Kentucky. Locke has had two serious injuries in college, and MCL and ACL injury earlier in his career. It is a risk to draft a player that has a checkered injury history, but it is less of a risk if you select him later in the draft.
A.J. Green, Georgia(7): Some would argue, and I may be inclined to agree, that it would be foolish for the 49ers to spend a top 10 pick on a wide receiver for the second time in three years. However, Green is a special talent that needs to be considered if he falls to #7. He is extremely explosive down the field, and at 6 foot 4, wins most jump ball battles. However, the main reason that I have him on this list is because of his far superior route running skills. Green may be one of the most polished wide receiver to enter the NFL in the last decade. He doesn't allow the ball to eat him up on the intermediate routes, has never shied away from contact and is explosive after the catch. What makes him so much better for the WCO is the fact that he can break off routes, knows how to utilize his body to shed tackles and generates separation early in the route. These are three of the most important things that you want from a WCO wide receiver.
Leonard Hankerson, Miami(44): Actually runs a better 40 time than Green, which really doesn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. It takes him longer to hit full speed that it does Green. He did struggle early in his Hurricane career with drops, but has fixed that problem as of late. I really like what I see of him on the short slant routes and bubble screens. He is an extremely physical receiver in the mold of Terrell Owens, and has the make-up to build more body strength as he matures. Hankerson isn't nearly as polished as Green, but his upside is unlimited; especially when it comes to his ability in the WCO.
Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh(55): Baldwin creates a ton of match-up problems for opposing secondaries. He has elusive speed, but can also create separation early in the routes; which is extremely important in the 49ers new system. What he does is disguise his pattern well, break it off when he needs to, and get the opposing player turned around. This is something that can make him a great threat in the WCO. His blocking is what really has me surprised. Physically you wouldn't expect him to be able to rush defenders off of the ling of scrimmage or create holes 5-10 yards down the field against the front seven of defenses, but he does. I think that having Baldwin opposite Michael Crabtree would work wonders in the running game because both are stout off the ball blockers.
Titus Young, Boise State(71): One word; deceptive. Young doesn't appear to have the greatest athletic ability in the world, but he just gets it done; plain and simple. As CBS Sportline says, he gets off of the line of scrimmage quickly and eats up opposing corners early in his route. This is something we saw a lot from in John Taylor years ago. Deceptive speed, the ability to turn around a defender early in the play, and great route running skills. Honestly, I believe that Young has what it takes to be a #1 wide receiver in the WCO, and the 49ers would be well advised to seriously consider him if available in the 3rd.
Vincent Brown, San Diego State(166): Probably the best fit for the 49ers WCO in the entire draft, well aside from A.J. Green that it. Brown is a perfect fit for what the 49ers are attempting to do. The two best routes that he runs are slants and crossing routes, something that can be extremely effective in this style of offense. He doesn't have the greatest speed in the world, isn't the lankiest receiver; but he has tons of ability. Competition is an issue, as he played down south with San Diego State. But, one thing is for sure; I would absolutely love to see him bring his talents to San Francisco.
Overview: In a perfect world I would love to see the 49ers snatch up Jake Locker, Shane Vereen and Vincent Brown in the 2nd, 3rd and 5th rounds respectively; but, we do not live in a perfect world, it probably will not play out that way. All the players that I have listed above bring something special with them to the WCO, but many of them are limited to actually being successful in a certain system. This leads me to believe that they will find themselves waiting longer for the call than expected. When implementing a new system teams must look at the players in terms of that system, and how they fit. You cannot go into a draft blindly and just draft who you deem to be the "best available player". Instead, you need to go into the draft looking for who you deem to be the best available player for your system.