Recuperating from a Super Bowl loss to conclude the 2012 season, the San Francisco 49ers are in full-fledged offseason mode right now. With the NFL Combine approaching, the 49ers are knee deep in evaluations; from their own roster, to free agents, to rookie prospects.
The Niners have had a number of exceptional drafts in the past few years, and they will be looking to solidify some positions of need once again. Given how this year ended for San Francisco, they are expected to build on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the secondary.
Dan Kadar of Mocking The Draft had a chance to sit in on a conference call with ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Kadar was kind enough to share by tweeting bits of the conversation, some of which I have assembled below. For this piece, I collected Kiper's notes on the available defensive backs in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Like the wide receiver and defensive line positions in this draft, it is a deep class and there is no clear cut No. 1 prospect. When it comes to the cornerback and safety positions, there are favorites right now, but it could go any way come April.
Dee Milliner, CB - Alabama:
NFLDraftScout.com has Milliner as the highest rated cornerback in this year's draft class. Milliner was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in his final season with the Tide. The 6'1", 198 pound Milliner is an imposing corner who loves football and it shows in his aggressive style of play.
San Francisco could benefit tremendously from adding a player like this, but they would be required to trade up.
Kiper on Milliner: He's not Pat Peterson or Deion Sanders. He didn't start until this year. Elite? No. No. 1 pick? No.— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
This doesn't mean he won't go in the top-10 or top-15. He is a very talented cornerback and for my money, the 49ers would have to trade with Carolina (14) to get past Cincinnati (21) and New Orleans (15) to get him. But honestly, he might not get past Miami who holds the 12th overall pick in the draft.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler broke down Milliner's abilities:
STRENGTHS: Built well for the position. Plays with excellent coordination and smooth hips, using his arms and hands to knock down throws. Excellent awareness and read/react ability, getting his head turned and uses his eyes well to quickly find the ball.
Attacks the run and is a very good tackler, never backing down. He is a bruising hitter and does a nice job separating ball from receiver with terrific timing. Plays tight bump-and-run and enjoys pressing with little cushion. Closes quickly and baits throws, looking to make a play on each snap.
Smart and disciplined, but not shy about coming off his man to make a play. Physical striker and does a nice job avoiding blocks while keeping his eye on the ball. He processes information quickly and looks comfortable in space.
WEAKNESSES: Lacks elite speed and quick-twitch ability. Plays too aggressive at times and will take himself out of the play, missing some tackles. Has just one full season as a starter. Needs to refine some of his cover technique, most notably his backpedal.
Due to this year's draft being loaded with defensive talent and no clear cut quarterback, anything can happen in the first round. There is a chance that Milliner slips for one reason or another, in which case the Niners could maybe trade up only a few spots to snag him.
Kiper on Milliner: He's more fundamentally sound. He's the kind of guy, because you need CBs, that can go 4, 5, or 6.— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
David Amerson, CB - NC State
Even though he is not the top-ranked player at his position, he is an intriguing prospect that could wow teams at the NFL Combine. He was decorated player with the Wolf Pack, as an All-American who won the Jack Tatum Award in his second year, an honor bestowed upon the nation's top defensive back.
He was also a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
Brugler took the time to break down the strengths and weaknesses of Amerson.
STRENGTHS: Amerson has rare height and length for the position and actually played primarily at safety in high school. He has the size and ballskills for the next level, but scouts are also impressed with his competitive drive to get better, showing vast improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons. And the coaching staff says there is no problem keeping Amerson hungry, as he is one of the top practice players each week. Could prove a fit in a press-based scheme. Highly aggressive defender who intercepted many of his passes reading the eyes of quarterbacks and jumping short routes.
WEAKNESSES: Concerns about his fluidity and straight-line speed. Typically lined up in off-man and zone coverage in college, but his lack of elite speed would make that a difficult fit in the NFL. Aggression makes him vulnerable to double-moves. Amerson was beaten soundly in several-highly anticipated matchups in 2012, which contributed to losses to Tennessee and Clemson.
What should draw the 49ers to Amerson is his size and physicality. At 6'2", 194 pounds, he has the stature to lineup against all types of wide receivers. He also has a nose for the football, having racked up 17 interceptions in his final two years at NC State.
He has monster potential, yet CBS Sports has him projected as a third rounder. Kiper suggested that Amerson could make the change to safety, which could be a bargain for the Niners. They would not have to use their first round pick on a safety. Instead, they could wait till the third or fourth to select Amerson, whom they could transition if that's where they feel he would be best suited.
Kiper on CB to S types, mentions David Amerson, depending on how he tests out. Micah Hyde from Iowa, Hawthorne from Illinois— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
Between contracts and performance, there are factors that may affect this 49ers safety duo in the offseason. "Lumber Co.," made of Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner may be split up after only two seasons together. In a short period of time, they formed quite a complementary and effective tandem. Together, they helped shore up a long-plagued position in San Francisco.
However, this team is looking to upgrade at the position, while also saving themselves from a crippling hit to the cap. The 49ers may look to the draft for either Goldson or Whitner's successor, and might acquire someone as early as Round 1.
Kiper on safeties: Elam is a guy I like (me too). He's deserving of being in late 1st discussion and will be there for NE. Vaccaro won't.— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
Kiper refers to Vaccaro as an enforcer that can cover. "I think Elam deserves to be in the top 25 as far as grade."— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
The Patriots select at No. 29, which is two spots before the 49ers who pick at No. 31. Kiper suggests Florida safety Matt Elam will be available at the end of the first round, but Texas' Kenny Vaccaro should be off the board by then. These are the top two safeties in this year's draft class, with Vaccaro ranked first according to NFLDraftScout.com.
Elam is another top-tier prospect that should be gone by the late first, early second round. This is right around where the 49ers will be picking, and Trent Baalke might pull the trigger on Elam if he falls right into their lap. He is a hard-hitting safety that can provide a presence against the run, and wouldn't be a liability in coverage.
After taking a look at his film, it's clear to see that he already plays like a 49er.
Kiper: You may only have one first round safety, but you may have three or four go in the second round.— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
Tyrann Mathieu, CB - LSU
There are a number of reasons to connect Mathieu to the 49ers:
- Possesses that SEC toughness, and schematically, he fits this defense as a nickel corner and return specialist
- He is bound to drop -- maybe out of the draft completely. If he is available, the 49ers have the locker room and coaches to resurrect his career
- From the beginning of the fifth round to the end of the seventh, the 49ers have 8 draft selections available
- He won't be under extreme pressure to perform or lead with this defense
Mathieu is an interesting prospect because the 49ers need defensive backs and they have a lot of mid-to-late round picks. And having cut Jason Slowey (6th rounder), they have shown they aren't afraid to spend late round picks to find out what guys are made of. If nothing else, the 49ers should give Mathieu a tryout.
Kiper projects Tyrann Mathieu to the third day of the draft.— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) February 13, 2013
Kiper believes he will be a Day 3 pick, which puts him in serious play for the 49ers who have plenty of draft ammunition in the later rounds. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the Niners are expected to have 8 draft picks from rounds 5-7.
If the chips end up falling this way, Mathieu will be the best player available and be able to fill a need. During his time at LSU, Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman Finalist, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Chuck Bednarik Award winner, Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP and the SEC Championship Game MVP.
He is an impact player looking for a second chance (maybe a third or fourth), but the 49ers have been a haven for players like him before. Whether it was NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Alex Boone or Perrish Cox, San Francisco has been willing to work with players and look past what evaluators deem as "character defects."