As we navigate the seemingly boundless doldrums of the NFL offseason, waiting anxiously for something - Combine, Draft, OTA's - anything, to tide us over until September, there is growing speculation among the 49er Faithful about what the team will do with its almost-late-enough first round pick in April's Draft. Picking this year at number 30 presents a challenge not seen by Niners fans or front office since Frank Gore was warming a bench somewhere in Florida; the classic economic dillema: how to extract maximum utility under conditions of relative scarcity (don't worry, this post does not contain any math).
Not since shortly after the turn of the century have the 49ers been faced with a Draft in which they did not have at least a reasonable shot at the crème-de-la-crème of college prospects. And yet, as Baalke has recently demonstrated, those later-round prospects can be every bit as important and productive as the players we've been hearing about for months on ESPN. The following is an analysis, by position, of some of the prospects whose names have been associated with the 49ers heading into the Combine, and some thoughts on those players' qualifications and chances of landing in San Francisco this Spring.
With names like Michael Floyd and Dre Kirkpatrick being thrown around rather freely in some of the blogs, it should be noted that while both of the above-referenced players will be discussed at length below, the 49ers, unlike the Lions, Giants, Vikings and Cincinnati ("no crackheads yet, but we're working on it") Bengals, do not have a history of drafting or signing players with off-field issues. Additionally, there are two players - including 2011 rookie demolitions specialist Aldon Smith - with recent and/or pending off-field (legal) complications already on the roster (and so the comparisons of Smith to Charles Haley continue).
Please note that prospects are listed in the order I have them ranked on my current (and very preliminary) big board, and not by how much, or how little, attention I think the 49ers will give them in Indianapolis. However, prospects whom I believe the 49ers will have very little or no interest in and/or chance to acquire are omitted regardless of position or rank, simply because they are irrelevant here. This post will be updated at least once - a few days before the Combine, and at that time will incorporate some additions respecting comments made by readers, as some may, for example, suggest analysis of players I have not included here. Readers of my mock draft (v.1.0) will see some familiar commentary and wording, as I find that borrowing heavily from myself significantly reduces labor costs.
Due to public outcry, I have added several players requested by readers, mainly kailuakid9er, manraj7, and 49erFanSince1950, whom they felt should be included. There are new players in each group, and I've also added a section for running backs at the end. I wasn't able to get in all of your requests, especially the defensive line prospects, in part due to time constraints (the Combine is already on!!) and partly because there were a couple of players suggested that I didn't think would be on the team's radar at present. Thanks especially to kailuakid9er for his many insights both on draft prospects and on snowboarding. And I hope you all like the update.Wide Receiver
It is no secret that the 49ers need all the help they can get at the wide receiver position; the one team that would have traded wide outs with the 49ers last year was the Bears, and rumor has it the Bears use automated crash test dummies at the wide receiver position instead of humans, presumably to cut down on their insurance bills. The only 49ers receivers currently under contract for 2012 are Michael Crabtree and the much-maligned Kyle Williams (a number two and a good slot receiver at best), and while the always-reliable Josh Morgan will almost certainly be re-signed, he is a solid possession receiver but by no means a primary target, and is coming off major ankle surgery.
It is likely that, even ruling out top-6 lock Justin Blackmon, at least one or two of the "elite" wide receiver prospects (Floyd, Jeffery, Randle, Sanu, Wright - listed here alphabetically to avoid the appearance of favoritism) will be available when San Francisco picks at the end of the first round. The question is which, if any of them, would be to both Baalke's and Harbaugh's liking that early in the draft. Also, contrary to popular fantasy, the 49ers are not likely to pursue a big-name wide receiver in free agency, both because of Baalke's proclivity for signing his own players first and building through the draft and because the failed Braylon Edwards experiment is still fresh in everyone's minds down in Santa Clara.
This means that, whether or not they pick a receiver in the first round, the 49ers will almost certainly address the position at least three times before spring OTA's - including at least twice in the draft - likely beginning early on day two. I'll go on record here and say that I don't believe Baalke will pick a receiver in the first round, for the following reasons: 1) there are no guaranteed home-run hitters at the wide receiver position in this draft, as there were last year in A. J. Green and Julio Jones; 2) this draft is very deep in potential starters, and 3) I believe Baalke still has a bad taste in his mouth from the Crabtree affair in 2009 - Baalke didn't want to pick Crabtree in the first place, and, although Crabtree did finally shut his trap, buckle down and step up in 2011, his overall impact has been disappointing, to say the least.
Lastly, it is possible that, with the Raiders cleaning house, short on corners and draft picks, and stacked at the wide receiver position, and with the 49ers already dangling Shawntae Spencer as trade bait, an arrangement involving Spencer and the big, fast and recently underutilized Louis Murphy might be a possibility. And after you've finished cringing at the thought of acquiring a Raiders wide out, please note that Murphy is 6'2"+, 203 lbs, has better-than-average hands, and clocked a 4.24 40 at the 2009 Combine (his 3-run average was 4.32). With some decent coaching - which the 49ers now have with some to spare - he could become a very good receiver/return man, and he is as good a bet as any third-day draft prospect to at least make the 53-man roster and contribute.
Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers
Sanu stayed healthy all season and had an excellent campaign. He has ideal size and speed, and he runs crisp routes – which goes a long way in the NFL. What separates Sanu from the rest of the pack is his uncanny concentration and soft hands – he routinely makes the difficult catch look easy, and occasionally pulls in the spectacular highlight reel grab. What Sanu must do to improve his stock is simple: run fast, jump high. He looks fairly fast and athletic on film, but the stopwatch is what will decide his ultimate draft fate. It is unlikely Sanu will be available when the 49ers pick at 30 unless he fails to impress in his drills, and if that were the case, they might not have an interest anyway. But stay tuned - it will be intriguing to see who is and who is not watching when Sanu takes the stage, as the rival Cardinals and Seahawks - and probably the Rams - should also be evaluating him carefully. For the record, Sanu is not one of my personal favorites to come to San Francisco - on film, he reminds me a lot of Josh Morgan, and the 49ers already have one of those.
Michael Floyd, Notre Dame
From a talent standpoint, Floyd is as sure a bet to become an elite NFL receiver as anyone in this draft – he’s got size, speed, excellent hands and body control, and his production in college was extraordinary. The only real questions are off-field ones. Floyd has had several issues, including a DUI arrest, which will give a lot of NFL teams second thoughts. Other teams, however, will be thinking "Randy Moss" all the way. Will the 49ers throw the dice and hope Vernon Davis and Josh Morgan can do for Floyd what Cris Carter did for Moss in 1998? I know a lot of 49ers fans who hope so. And if he runs over a traffic cop, so what? She probably had it coming. I can see the stupid commercials now: "…Mmikey’s rrrocket will be rrready to rrace!" Like Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, the physical drills will take a back seat to the interview process for Floyd. What he must do is convince teams he's learned his lesson, and will be a good teammate, a hard worker, and a model citizen from this point forward. Unfortunately, if Floyd pulls that off, the 49ers probably won't have a shot (though, as I mentioned in the introduction, I'm not convinced they're interested anyway).
Rueben Randle, LSU
Randle was an underrated producer for LSU last year. He’s got the prototypical size-speed ratio that teams (particularly teams that run the WCO) look for, and he’s an excellent route-runner with sure hands and some big-play ability. What speed he lacks, he makes up for with toughness and concentration, and he makes an excellent target in clutch situations and in the red zone. Unless he times much faster than he looks, it's possible the 49ers will have a shot at him – but if he performs well in Indianapolis, particularly in the 40, it’s likely he’ll secure a spot in the top 25. And if he doesn't time well, will the 49ers have any interest? Possibly; they've already got world-class speed in tight end Vernon Davis, and Randle's combination of size, strength and physicality is something they sorely missed in the passing game last year, especially after Josh Morgan went down with that brutal ankle injury.
Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech
Hill is an interesting prospect, and the first one on this list whom I believe the 49ers will have a realistic chance of acquiring. He has excellent size at 6'4" and change and over 200 pounds, and he looks fast and fluid on film. I was sternly reminded of Hill's qualifications and impressive 2011 per-catch average by fellow member 49erFanSince1950 in his assessment of my mock draft, so I will reproduce some of that information here for the purpose of analysis. Hill only caught 28 balls in 2011, but he had 820 yards and five touchdowns - a 29.3 yard average (bear in mind, too, that he played at Georgia Tech, where even Calvin Johnson got underutilized). He also is an excellent blocker, a must in Harbaugh's offense. If Hill had stayed in college, he would very likely be a high first-rounder next year. My concerns with Hill, which I believe are shared by the 49ers, among others, are: 1) his production - he was not super productive overall last year, and, with only one year as a full-time starter, the body of work just is not there to evaluate; 2) his maturity - the fact that he came out early instead of taking another year to improve his skills and his stock shows that he's impatient and probably not very realistic in his expectations at the next level; and 3) Hill has been quietly but steadily moving up draft boards since late December, to the point where, if he performs well in Indianapolis, he could easily be a mid-2nd round (or higher) pick. I do not believe Hill is worth the risk in Round 2, and I don't think the 49ers would select him before Round 3. It will be interesting to see how the scouts and coaches evaluate him as the Combine progresses (although we probably won't hear much from the normally tight-lipped Mr. Baalke), as Hill could go anywhere from the late first round to the middle of the fourth in April. I've projected him as a mid-2nd rounder in my current mock (probably a bit too early), which would mean the 49ers almost certainly will not draft him.
Dwight Jones, North Carolina
I projected Jones to the 49ers in the second round of my mock, and here's what I said about him then: "Jones has the size, speed and hands to make plays all over the field. He doesn’t shy away from contact, and uses his big body well to get an edge on smaller cornerbacks. He was extremely – and consistently – productive in college, and is vastly underrated heading into the Combine. The 49ers should just hope he doesn’t time out too well in his drills and force them to trade up to get him."
Excellent analysis. And while it is as true today as it was last week, I don't believe the 49ers will trade up to select Jones - or any other player, for that matter. However, at 6'3", 226, Jones has the size the 49ers are looking for, and his 2011 stats (79 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns) speak for themselves. I expect Baalke, et. al to pay a lot of attention to what Jones does in Indianapolis, and don't be too shocked if you see him in a 49ers uniform this fall.
Brian Quick, Appalachian State
One of only two small-school prospects on this list, Quick was consistently productive over three years in college. His excellent size (6'3.5", 222) makes him a mismatch for smaller defensive backs, and an excellent red zone target. Quick pulled in 71 balls for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, after steadily improving in each of his three years as a starter. He is currently projected to go anywhere from the late second round to the early fifth - depending who you ask - so the 49ers, who would love to find a receiver with Quick's red zone acumen, should be paying close attention to what he does at the Combine, and how his draft status is affected.
Marvin McNutt, Iowa
Trent Baalke spent some quality time scouting in Iowa in late 2011, and I doubt he failed to notice that McNutt somehow managed 16.27 yards-per-catch, pulling in 78 catches for 1269 yards and 12 touchdowns, in a very conservative passing offense run by a quarterback nobody’s ever heard of – even in Iowa City. McNutt is a big, sure-handed receiver with excellent body control and deceptive speed. He runs precise routes, routinely makes big plays downfield, and is not afraid to sacrifice his body to go over the middle and get his yardage the hard way. The only cornerback able to handle McNutt in 2011 was Alfonzo Dennard, and Dennard is a first round prospect. On film, McNutt looks a bit like Terrell Owens, but without the "Look at me! Look at me!" billboard glued to his jersey. Currently projected as a third- to fourth-round prospect, the 6'3", 210 pounder could move up into the late 2nd round with a halfway decent Combine, and if the 49ers are impressed enough with him, they might take him at that point anyway.
Jordan White, Western Michigan
Jordan White was the most productive receiver in college football in 2011, with 140 receptions for 1,911 yards and 17 touchdowns (which is more catches, yards, and touchdowns than all the 49ers' receivers had last season, combined). How many receivers at any level post a 14-yard average on anywhere near that many catches? White didn't play against the best competition at Western Michigan, but he saw extra coverage on almost every play. Currently rated as a fifth or even sixth round prospect by many scouts, he is the most underrated receiver heading into the Combine. But if he times anywhere near as fast in his drills as he looks on film, teams will start paying attention quickly. With halfway decent coaching, White should become a star in the NFL, and from a scout ranking point of view, conjures memories of Mike Wallace in 2009 – especially if he falls to the end of the fourth round, or further. Hopefully Baalke had time to visit Western Michigan on his way back from Iowa, because they don’t need any receivers in Pittsburgh this year. Expect White to move up significantly after the Combine; part of the reason he's so underrated at this point is that a lot of scouts don't know much about him yet because he played at Western Michigan. Even so, he can possibly be had in the late-4th round, where the 49ers should be thrilled to get him.
Marvin Jones, The University of California -- Berkeley
Jones caught 54 passes for 758 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, not bad production except for the fact that he did it as the second option at Cal. If Jones was a legitimate NFL starter, he should have had better production with budding superstar Keenan Allen opposite him, taking the majority of opposing secondaries’ double teams. Nevertheless, at 6’2”, 200 pounds, Jones has prototypical size, decent speed, and the soft hands that say he may develop into a decent receiver at the next level. He can also likely be had in the sixth round, so if the 49ers haven’t picked at least two wide outs at that point, they may have some interest in Jones as a developmental player.
Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
Ahmad Brooks is a free agent, and the 49ers will almost certainly not franchise him, as the franchise tag on outside linebackers is a cap-buster. It is my feeling that unless Brooks offers to stay in San Francisco for less than he would likely command on the open market, the 49ers will let him go; he had a good season, but that's just what Brooks does when his contract is on the line. If he's allowed to walk, acquiring a young pass rusher, preferably one with the versatility to drop back in coverage, will become a priority on par with addressing the wide receiver position, and may be the 49ers' best option with their first round pick. Also, in spite of Justin Smith's outstanding (and still improving!) play at defensive end, he's one of the few players on the team who's on the wrong side of 30. Baalke and Company would surely love to get a young defensive lineman or two - either as insurance or as developmental projects - to play behind Smith in the near future.
Nick Perry, USC
Perry may be the fastest pass rush prospect in this draft. If he times as fast at the Combine as he looks on film, he will not be available to the 49ers at the 30th pick. Hurting Perry's stock is the fact that at 240 pounds, he's too small to play end in a 4-3, so many teams will pass on him in the first round simply because he doesn't fit their scheme. Perry is therefore undoubtedly on the 49ers' radar, and they will likely be one of the teams scrutinizing him in Indianapolis.
Andre Branch, Clemson
I initially had Branch rated much higher than Vinny Curry, as a mid-first round pick, and so I didn’t bother to put him on the original list. But with Curry moving up quickly, and Branch moving down some scouts’ boards recently, it makes sense to include him here. Also, a couple of readers have mentioned his name in their comments, and we try not to disappoint.
Branch had 77 tackles, 17 tfl, 10.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2011. He seemed to play better against better competition, which bodes well for his prospects as an NFL player. At 6’5”, 260 pounds, he has ideal size to play either 4-3 defensive end (his position in college) or outside linebacker, and he has excellent speed and power to get around the corner and shed blockers. With a strong combine, it’s possible Branch will move back up into the early- to mid-first round, and out of the 49ers’ reach. But he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on at this point.
Zach Brown, North Carolina
Brown is the best 4-3 outside linebacker in this year's draft. He does everything well, rushing the passer and stopping the run with equal proficiency, and he even excels in coverage. Because he is a bit undersized at 6'1", 235 pounds, Brown may drop to the late first or even the early second round. The 49ers, however, have had some success with fast, "undersized" linebackers inside (Willis, Bowman), and may not have a problem drafting Brown if they think he can do the same on the outside. That being the case, if the 49ers are looking for a linebacker who can start right away and do it all, they're likely to be very interested in how Brown performs at the Combine. What Brown must do to solidify his first round status is to show he has strength and power on a par with bigger linebackers, and to make sure that the great speed and phenomenal quickness he shows on film translates to the stopwatch in his drills.
Vinny Curry, Marshall
Curry is an explosive athlete who seems tailor-made to be a rush linebacker in the 3-4. He’s got the size-speed-wingspan combination that Baalke seems to look for, and is coming off his second consecutive dominant season at Marshall. His nonstop motor makes watching him play a lot like like watching… Aldon Smith. Curry has been moving steadily up draft boards since September, and is now in the conversation to be a late first or early second round pick. In order to solidify his status, he must demonstrate that he's as quick and as powerful in person as he looks on film, and even more importantly from the Niners' perspective, that he's got the athleticism and versatility to drop into coverage. He also will need to impress during the interview process by showing he is a mature, serious worker who will show up to an NFL training camp ready to dig in. It will be intriguing to see if the Niners show any interest in Curry (or Brown) at the Combine, as their interest in one or both of these players will speak volumes as to what they plan to do with their first round pick (and, correspondingly, what they plan to do with Ahmad Brooks).
Shea McClellin, Boise State
I haven't heard McClellin's name mentioned at all in conjunction with the Niners, but I'd like to go on record here as saying that if I were Baalke, and I intended to replace Brooks, McClellan is the player I would take in the third round. A poor man's Ronnell Lewis, McClellan is fast, instinctive and versatile enough to do it all, and is as adept at stopping the run as he is at getting after the quarterback. He played defensive end at Boise State, but at 6'3", 250, he projects as a rush linebacker in the NFL, and is athletic enough to do it all. It's probably a long shot, but if McClellan impresses in Indy, it's conceivable he'll find himself wearing red and gold in April.
Mychal Kendricks, The University of California -- Berkeley
Kendricks has had back-to back solid seasons at Cal, although his sack production fell off a bit last year (he had 8.5 in 2010, 3 in 2012.) He’s currently rated a late-fourth rounder, but could move up slightly (or down significantly), depending upon his performance in Indy. If the 49ers want to snag a local kid with solid production and lots of potential, they can likely get Kendricks with their fourth round selection.
Adrian Hamilton, DE Prairie View A&M
It’s entirely possible that, were it not for Hamilton’s outstanding 2011 season, I might have lived the rest of my life never even having heard of Prairie View A&M. The fifth-year senior totaled 81 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 28.5 tackles-for-loss, and 5 forced fumbles last season, and is now very much on the radar for NFL scouts. Because he played for a smaller school, Hamilton will have to shine in Indianapolis to move into second-day consideration, and could be a steal for the 49ers in the mid-to-later rounds if the chips fall right.
Danny Trevathan, Kentucky
A prolific tackle machine last season at outside linebacker, Trevathan recorded (in descending order): 143 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles, five passes broken up, four interceptions, and three sacks for the Wildcats in 2011. All of that, and he's generally projected as a late second day pick. Trevathan is one player the 49ers will certainly watch closely in Indy, and they may find themselves elbow-to-elbow with scouts, coaches, and executives from about 31 other teams while they do. At present, the underrated Trevathan is projected as a late fourth or even a fifth round pick by most scouts, but he has the chance to move up if he performs well in Indy.
Mike Daniels, Iowa
Daniels, who should be available in round five or later, is an underrated playmaker who could develop into a starter. He played tackle in Iowa's 4-3, but is undersized for that position at the pro level, and would be an excellent candidate to convert to defensive end in the 3-4. Daniels is an ideal prospect to be groomed as a backup for Justin Smith, and might even eventually be able to replace him. Expect the 49ers to be paying very close attention when Daniels is put through his paces in Indianapolis.
Staley's in his prime, Alex Boone is sober and in shape, Anthony Davis is still developing, and the 49ers won't need to start looking for anyone's eventual replacement for several years. Nevertheless, Baalke and company will be looking very closely at offensive linemen, particularly those of the late-round variety, at this year's Combine. Former first-rounder Davis is a solid run-blocker, but has been inconsistent (putting it mildly) in pass protection. Though he is young and still developing, the 49ers are likely to want to bring in someone who, along with the new and improved Boone, can push Davis in training camp and possibly for playing time during the season. It's also conceivable (but hopefully unlikely) they'll let Adam Snyder go in free agency, possibly move Davis inside, and draft a player they think can start immediately to play next to him. But bear in mind that the West Coast Offense, which generally takes a couple of years to install thoroughly, has often been run successfully - including in San Francisco - with a patchwork of solid young players and veteran role players up front. In fact, during the 1990's, a friend of mine used to frequently refer to San Francisco as, "the place where old offensive linemen go to die." Cowboys fan. Jackass. Sorry, where was I? Oh, right. While I believe that both Harbaugh and Baalke see the offensive line as significantly more important than that, I also think it's unlikely they will spend any high-round draft picks addressing it so soon after the 49ers used two first rounders to acquire Davis and Mike Iupati.
Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State
If the Niners are looking to pick up a versatile guard in the second round, this is probably their guy. Osemele is a devastating run-blocker, and also has the nimble feet to pass protect. Of the Offensive line prospects listed here, Osemele is the only one likely able to start right away in the NFL, and he is versatile enough to play either guard or tackle. NFL teams will be particularly interested in how well he moves in his drills at the Combine, as his strength and power are not really question marks.
Nate Potter, Boise State
Potter is one of the better tackle prospects likely to last much beyond the first round in April, partly because of his ability to play on either side of the line. He lined up primarily left tackle in college, and provided very solid blind side protection for the prodigious Kellen Moore. The 49ers will be particularly interested in how well Potter performs in his strength drills, as there are some questions about his ability to power run block. However his overall technique is excellent, and with some development, he could become a very serviceable backup, and maybe even provide some push for Anthony Davis.
Matt Reynolds, BYU
Reynolds had an excellent senior campaign, and was solid in run blocking and often dominated in pass protection. Reynolds has quick feet and excellent flexibility, and, with some solid coaching and conditioning can potentially start right away on many NFL teams. He probably won’t last much past the second round, but if the 49ers are interested in going offensive line with their second pick, Reynolds could be their guy.
Michael Brewster, Ohio State
A center at Ohio State, Brewster had some issues in several games with snapping the ball in 2011. When faced with NFL-caliber defensive tackles, he seemed to focus too much on setting up his blocks, and that caused him to lose track of the football on occasion. Therefore, he may be better suited to play guard in the NFL. Brewster has decent size at 6’5”, 300 pounds, and his technique is solid, when he’s focused. If the 49ers think he can convert to the guard position, they may take a chance on Brewster in the third round.
Tony Bergstrom, Utah
At 6’5”, 315, Bergstrom has prototypical size to play either inside at guard or outside at tackle. He is a smart, tough player with good natural footwork and lateral movement. The knock on Bergstrom is that he needs to improve his strength to start at the pro level, as he is susceptible to the bull rush, and at times has trouble moving the pile in run blocking. Bergstrom’s late third/early fourth round grade is unlikely to change much, so if the 49ers want a project with plenty of upside, Bergstrom may be their guy.
The 49ers' only other possible priority - as I see it - is the defensive backfield, which produced a couple of pro bowlers, but also has some question marks, starting with the fact that both of the aforementioned pro bowlers, Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rodgers, will be free agents in March. I fully expect both players to be with the team this season; the 49ers will likely re-sign Rodgers and franchise Goldson, but even assuming that happens, with Donte Whitner only signed through 2013 and Shawntae Spencer currently being shown the door, depth is somewhat of a concern. However, this draft does not have an exceptionally deep class of quality defensive backs, and is particularly dearth at corner, so unless some miracle lands Dre Kirkpatrick in their lap at 30 - a very slight possibility now that Kirkpatrick has hurt his draft stock by joining fellow defensive back Janoris Jenkins in the cannabis club, the 49ers are not likely to draft a DB before round three. That said, a few early-round options, namely Kirkpatrick, Stephon Gilmore, and possible third-rounder Trumaine Johnson, should be examined briefly here (I do not believe Chase Minnifield or smurfs Jenkins and Alfonzo Dennard to be under consideration at present).
Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
Most scouts have Kirkpatrick ranked as the 2nd or 3rd best corner in this draft (depending, no doubt, upon how they feel about marijuana possession). In any event, unlike Michael Floyd, Kirkpatrick does not have a lengthy history of off-field issues, and unlike fellow secondary standout and former marijuana possessor Janoris Jenkins, he has ideal size (6'3", 190). He also has excellent speed, ball skills, and rare leaping ability that allows him to win jump balls with almost any receiver smaller than an NBA power forward. Kirkpatrick is a violent hitter who will not shy away from contact. He has solid technique and better-than average instincts, and with a little experience and good coaching, should become a shutdown corner in the NFL. Kirkpatrick's performance in his drills will be important, but what teams - especially teams like the 49ers, who would probably have to trade up to get him - will be most focused on is the interview process; is he humbled by his mistake? Does he seem genuinely sorry? Is he a "primadona" type, or does he seem like a coachable kid? These are the questions Kirkpatrick must now answer, and answer convincingly, in order to climb back into the top 15.
Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
Gilmore struggled with inconsistency in man coverage in 2011, and may be limited in his versatility at the NFL level. However, his ideal size (6'1", 195), makes him an attractive prospect for teams willing to try to develop his skills or use him purely as a zone defender. If Gilmore demonstrates good speed and athleticism at the Combine, he may solidify his status as a mid-second rounder. It is unlikely the 49ers will have any interest at that point in the draft, but Gilmore is nonetheless worth keeping an eye on.
Trumaine Johnson, Montana
At 6'2", 200, Johnson is a 'tweener, who could play either corner or safety at the next level. His excellent size will enable him to match up with the big receivers that dominate the NFL, and he is a ball-hawk with excellent instincts and hands. Johnson is a poor man's Patrick Peterson, and could start right away at multiple positions for many NFL teams. Given the 49ers' defensive backfield uncertainty, it is possible they will take an interest in Johnson as a stop-gap starter and developmental prospect, as they did last year with talented third rounder Chris Culliver. Johnson will have to show speed and flexibility in his drills as well as ace the interview process at the Combine in order to secure his late second round - early third round ranking, as off-field issues involving a fight with police officers last October have significantly hurt his draft status.
Donnie Fletcher, Boston College
Fletcher has prototypical size (6’ 0”, 200 pounds) and speed, and is coming off consecutive strong seasons at BC. In 2011 he amassed 35 tackles, 2 interceptions and 5 passes broken up, and currently projects as a late- third rounder. If the 49ers are looking to double up with another mid-round corner this year as insurance in case Rodgers leaves town, Fletcher may be an option at the end of round three.
Janzen Jackson, McNeese State
Like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Jackson, was dismissed from his original school, Tennessee, for drug-related issues in 2010. Also like Jenkins, he had to finish his collegiate career at a small school. But unlike Jenkins, Jackson did not dominate the relatively weak competition while at McNeese State, and is currently projected as a late second day (or later) pick. Jackson has speed, but at 5’ 11”, 190 pounds, is a nit undersized for the safety position. Nevertheless, he has upside, and may be worth a gamble with a fifth rounder.
George Iloka, Boise State
A number of readers have suggested that Iloka be included on this list. Personally, I don’t like Iloka, and I don’t think the 49ers do either. Here’s why: after a very promising freshman season, Iloka’s production has trailed off every year. In 2011, he had 58 tackles, 1 pass broken up, and no interceptions. Iloka has great athleticism and excellent speed, and his size (6’4”, 220 ponds) is ideal for an NFL safety. But he just doesn’t seem to have the hands or the instincts to play the position at a high level. For those of you who don’t see where this is going, I’ll spell it out: T-A-Y-L-O-R M-A-Y-S. Iloka is currently rated a second rounder on many scouts’ boards (like Mays in 2010), and I just can’t imagine why the 49ers would pick him in April after unceremoniously dumping Mays less than a year earlier. Stay tuned – it will be interesting to find out what the experts say when Iloka is put through his paces in Indianapolis.
Sean Spence, Miami
Spence is an interesting prospect. He played outside linebacker at Miami, but at 5’ 11”, 230 pounds, projects pretty solidly at safety in the NFL. As a linebacker in 2011, Spence recorded 106 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, one pass deflected and one forced fumble. Spence has a nonstop motor, excellent awareness, and a mean streak, but needs to show NFL teams he has the hands and fluidity to convert smoothly to safety at the next level. Currently projected anywhere from the mid second round to the early fifth by scouts, Spence’s stock could really move at the combine.
A number of you have suggested, in light of Gore's advancing years and the 49ers' lack of an every-down backup, that I include a section on running backs. Good idea. Here's a few; I left out the pint-sized players on the grounds that the Niners already have a smaller, third-down back in Kendall Hunter. I also left out the probable second-rounders because, while the position is important, I felt that the team has other, more pressing needs to address in the earlier rounds.
Bernard Pierce, Temple
Pierce possesses the size-speed ratio to be a very good NFL back, if he can avoid the injury bug that plagued him in 2011. In spite of being slowed for much of the second half of the season, He still managed a 5.6 yards per carry average, rushing for 1,481 yards and a whopping 27 touchdowns. Pierce has the power to pound the ball up the middle, and is an excellent goal line runner – something the 49ers can definitely use. He is currently projected as a mid-fourth round pick, and that is unlikely to change much, unless he runs sub-4.6 in the 40.
Robert Turbin, Utah State
Turbin’s Gore-like size (5’9”, 215 pounds) and running style will be attractive to the 49ers, should they be looking for a more durable and versatile backup than Kendall Hunter. With Gore fast approaching 30, maybe they should be. They will also like the fact that Turbin can likely be had in the fourth round, or later, meaning that if he doesn’t pan out, nobody has to lose their job over it. Turbin had 1,517 yards and 19 touchdowns on 249 carries in 2011 (a very respectable 6.1-yard average) and also caught 17-171-4 (10.1). Turbin has good balance and vision, hits the hole fast, and is hard to catch in the open field. If he can get his 40-time under 4.6, he should solidify his late-fourth round grade.
Daniel Herron, Ohio State
Herron has a lot of upside for a running back with a round five grade. He was on his way to elite status after the 2010 season, when he got caught up in the OSU scandal and was suspended for the first six games of 2011. He nevertheless managed 678 yards and three TDs last season, and, because of his abbreviated senior campaign, will likely be available early on day 3. Herron has decent size (5’9”, 210 pounds), and if he runs well at the Combine, could be a late-round sleeper for the Niners.