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49ers Draft Class 2012: Best Case, Worst Case For Year One

When we put together draft grade videos, I generally graded the 49ers in the B range. You can check out some of my thoughts on day one and day two, as well as a bit of a recap in three videos after the jump.

In going with an overall B, I find myself justifying it as follows. The 49ers had various needs entering the draft and they addressed them with their picks. I was surprised by some of the players chosen, but the 49ers clearly had a different big board in place than myself, or really many people.

Draft grades immediately after the conclusion of a draft have little to no value over the long term. We are all reacting in the moment based on certain preconceived notions about the team and the specific players selected. However, draft grades can be assessed in terms of whether we feel like the team actually addressed given needs.

For the 49ers, they took an interesting path. Tim Kawakami put together an interesting breakdown of his conclusions as to why the 49ers picked the way they did. He makes a logical point about the team being particularly pleased with the defense stood heading into 2012. The team brings back the entire starting defense (with the Smith/Haralson flip). They used some mid-to-late picks on depth, but otherwise are holding steady.

Instead, the 49ers recognize their need to add some kind of speed. After day two of the draft, Coach Harbaugh spoke about their speed, but also about how

Jim, now both guys you've taken are 4.3 guys or sub-4.3 guys. How much more can you do offensively when you have these kind of elite guys, one at receiver and one at running back?

"That's to be determined to be honest with you. They definitely have great ability, speed and a lot more to their game than just speed, both of those youngsters that we've added in this draft. They'll get opportunity and they'll have the license to go out and compete and find their role. Whether that's a contributor, starter, how much of a contributor if they are a starter. That will unfold."

When you were playing against him what stood out? Was it the speed. What about him stood out?

"Yes, change of direction, speed, playmaking ability, durability, number of carries, number of yards, number of touchdowns. And there are things that he's going to need to work on in his game.

As TK pointed out, the 49ers felt their offense was structurally sound, but at the same time they knew it needed improvement. The 49ers have added a whole host of weapons that will provide an opportunity for improvement. They added help on the offensive line is well, thus creating extra competition at a variety of positions.

Of course, every draft has its highs and lows. Some people like this draft, some hate it, and some are in the middle. So, why not consider the long term possibilities of where this draft might go. After the jump, I've posted a look at sort of best case and worst case scenarios. The ultimate worst case is they're all cut by the end of training camp, but the odds of that are virtually nonexistent. So I suppose it is a bad case, instead of worst case. Draft grades are most valuable in five or six years, but consider this an attempt to consider what would make this class an A in year one and what would make it an F.

What could turn this draft class into an F?

We won't consider injuries, arrests or anything else like that. A class can very well change from year to year, so obviously this is not some kind of hard and fast breakdown. A class could be an A in year one and develop into a C or D by the time we look back five or six years from now. Additionally, a player could struggle immensely in year one and turn it around later in his career. We're simply looking at year one for the purposes of this post.

A.J. Jenkins: The 49ers are not looking for Jenkins to come in and be a number one receiver in year one like the Jaguars likely would expect from Justin Blackmon. The 49ers added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, so Jenkins has an opportunity to learn over the course of the season.

For this to develop into an F for year one, Jenkins would have to show a variety of issues. For example, he ran a strong 40 at the Combine. He would need to show he does not play nearly as fast as he runs. He would need to struggle holding onto passes. Jerry Rice had struggles holding onto passes early on. Obviously he turned things around, but it is still notable that he had his own share of struggles.

In terms of route running, we would need to see issues of rounding off his routes that do not appear to improve over the course of the season. I don't think there are specific numbers we can point to indicating the pick is a failure in year one, but we might "know it when we see it."

LaMichael James: Although James does bring a measure of speed to the field, this scenario would mean that James' college speed does not translate to the NFL. As has been said by announcers over and over again, "everyone here runs 4.4 40s." That's a bit of an exaggeration, but the point remains: NFL players are fast.

In this scenario, James' size proves to be a significant handicap as he is unable to break enough tackles to make an impact. He is not fast enough to hit corners and he can't break safety or linebacker tackles.

Joe Looney: This is one instance where injury does factor in to the discussion. The worst case really would be Looney's Lisfranc injury not sufficiently healing and he is more or less lost for the year. He will reportedly be cleared to return to football activities in June. That does not mean he is 100% because moving around in football activities will tell the 49ers where the foot really stands.

Darius Fleming: He struggles to get any sort of pass rush developed as he proves that he lacks the moves to be a consistent threat rushing the passer. He is unable to unseat Parys Haralson for the primary backup at OLB and Cam Johnson outperforms him consistently As a result he spends most of his time on special teams, but even there he struggles with taking the right angles on returners.

In reality, if Cam Johnson shows some consistency as a situational pass rusher, it could very well result in Fleming not even making the roster. I think Fleming will likely earn at least a role on special teams, but he could find himself on the wrong side of the roster bubble if Johnson steps up.

Trenton Robinson: He remains a big hitter but struggles in the coverage aspects of the position. He squares up a bit too much and generally cannot provide the kind of coverage the 49ers are looking for from their free safety. He spends the season on special teams and stays firmly behind CJ Spillman on the depth chart.

Jason Slowey: He struggles immensely making the huge step from Western Oregon to the NFL. He ends up on the practice squad where the team works to develop him.

Cam Johnson: Another guy where injuries can be factored into a projection given his sickle cell trait. One potential worst case outcome is that he simply cannot stay on the field enough to provide sufficient value to the 49ers. The other is that his raw skills do not sufficiently convert to the NFL level. I would argue the worst of the worst case scenarios is the team tries to slip him to the practice squad through waivers but another team claims him and he finds success with that team as a pass rusher.

What would constitute an A-type of season?

This is a look at the first year, as opposed to looking back five or six years from now on the class. We could point to downright dominance in year one, but I like to think of this as a more realistic look at year one for the rookies.

A.J. Jenkins: His work with Randy Moss helps him develop into an early deep threat, particularly with his ability to run after the catch. I can't really project out what kind of numbers that would lead to, but I think it would involve him becoming more of a dedicated deep threat over the course of the season. He does not need to develop into a five or six catch per game guy to become an A draft pick. He could haul in two catches a game and be an impact player if his speed can carry over to the NFL. A successful first year will involve him converting college speed to NFL speed.

LaMichael James: He rolls in and quickly establishes himself as a strong complement to Frank Gore. An A season does not require he surpass Kendall Hunter on the depth chart, but I could see that happening in a strong first season. It will be interesting to see how the team cuts into Gore's carries with Hunter and James, and potentially Brandon Jacobs as well.

A solid season from James would be him taking his speed and developing it into NFL game speed. He has shown that he can be taken down from behind, but he also can squirt through holes extremely well. A successful season would see him becoming an effective third down back as a receiver out of the backfield, while also being able to break out some runs on first and second down. I have to say, I'm kind of excited to see the 49ers roll with both Hunter and James in some formations. While it remains to be seen if either could be an every-down traditional workhorse back, there are enough backs in the 49ers backfield to combine them into an effective work-horse.

Joe Looney: A great season would see him fully recover from his Lisfranc injury and claim the starting right guard job. There has been some mentioned of moving Alex Boone or Anthony Davis into the competition for right guard, but I believe it will come down to a battle between Daniel Kilgore and Looney.

The season would still be a success if Kilgore beats him out for the job, if Looney can develop into the primary backup at both guard positions this season. I think that still qualifies as an A performance.

Darius Fleming: At the top end, he does enough, potentially along with Cam Johnson, for the 49ers to decide Parys Haralson is worth cutting by the end of training camp. He provides strong support in special teams and becomes a situational pass rusher behind Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Given the talent in the 49ers OLB depth chart, it is a pretty simple result.

Trenton Robinson: With the help of the secondary coach Ed Donatell, Robinson is able to develop his fundamentals in both tackling and in his instincts in coverage. Given the safeties on the depth chart, his primary competition will be CJ Spillman. In an ideal world, Robinson emerges as the primary backup safety.

Jason Slowey: For year one, there is not much of a high ceiling on Slowey. The team drafted him with the potential of working him in as the long-term answer at center. In transitioning from Division II to the NFL, Slowey shows he can keep up with the speed and athleticism at the next level. A successful season would see him make the 53-man roster and simply spend the year learning the center position at the NFL level. He could be inactive all 16 games and I think the season would be fine so long as the 49ers are happy with his development.

Cam Johnson: The Virginia defensive end slipped due to health issues related to his sickle cell trait. He is a bit of a raw prospect but could develop into a strong pass rush specialist. A strong first season would see him joining Darius Fleming, or even beating out Fleming, as a primary backup at outside linebacker. The health issue is tough to figure out as far as whether he could completely supplant Parys Haralson, but he's an interesting one to watch. He and Looney are the two prospects I will watch especially close in training camp.

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