With the NFL Combine a week away, it's around that time everyone puts their draft caps on and keeps their stopwatches handy. For the San Francisco 49ers, it's the busiest time of year for general manager Trent Baalke and this personnel department.
The 49ers had a tremendous year, coming up 5-yards short of a sixth Lombardi Trophy. After the Super Bowl, a lot of people realized it's actually San Francisco's defense that needs to be upgraded. This was a unit that struggled to get after the passer late in the season and had occasional lapses in coverage.
They also had their issues on offense, though. The Niners depth at wide receiver came back to bite them for a second year in a row. After Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham went down with season-ending injuries, Randy Moss, Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Jenkins failed to step up.
For Super Bowl contenders and reigning NFC Champions, the 49ers could sure use some personnel upgrades.
After analyzing San Francisco's needs and becoming familiar with this year's draft class, I put together my first mock draft for the 2013 NFL Draft.
I used the projections from CBS Sports' draft analysts, so each one of the following picks corresponds with the player's draft stock.
DeSimone Mock 1.0:
First round: Own pick
Matt Elam, S - Florida
I think if the 49ers sit tight in the first round, Elam will fall right into their lap at No. 31. With the issues revealed in the secondary, it is a position group that needs to be addressed. The Niners have to take advantage of a strong group this year and nab their safety of the future.
He fits the identity of the 49ers and provides a great building block for a retooling secondary. San Francisco gets a marquee player at the end of the first in Elam.
Strengths: Athletic, instinctive and quite physical, Elam demonstrated the ability to walk up into the box and be a force near the line of scrimmage while also dropping back into coverage as a single-high safety when coaches called for it -- showing off the type of versatility NFL teams are demanding from today's hybrid safeties.
Drops down to cover slot receivers, getting a strong initial jam on them and riding them throughout the first few yards aggressively. Shows good vision and anticipation when fighting through blocks near the line of scrimmage and is generally a reliable, physical tackler. He brings his hips as a hitter, showing the closing speed and raw power to generate explosiveness.
Shows savvy to complement his physical talents, using his hands to knock away passes at the last moment and avoiding blocks with patience and vision rather than simply attempting to out-physical his opponents at every opportunity. High-effort player who seems to love the game. Quality special teams performer. Voted a team captain in 2012.
Weaknesses: Lacks preferred size for the position. Too often loses out on 50-50 balls, being forced to attempt to rip away at the hands of the receiver as he attempts to come down with the catch. Highly aggressive downhill tackler who can come in too hot and lose control, leaving cut-back lanes.
Tends to lead with his shoulder and will leave his feet to make the lights-out hit, resulting in some ugly lunges and misses. Good, not great lateral agility and can get left grasping at air. The same good, not great lateral agility shows up in coverage where Elam can lose positioning against slot receivers, though he does have a nice burst to close quickly.
Has twice had run-ins with police regarding minor in possession offenses involving alcohol (July 2010, July 2011).
Second round: Own pick
Jonathan Jenkins, DT - Georgia
Based on the density of the class, I think a very good defensive tackle is going to fall out of the first round. When that happens, I think it's in Trent Baalke's best interest to jump up in the second and secure one.
In 2010 and 2011, Baalke traded up for Anthony Davis and Colin Kaepernick, respectively. They have plenty of ammunition to move up to select a top-5 or top-10 defensive lineman and they have the brass to do it. Jenkins could be an impact player in the trenches for San Francisco and would be a steal in the early second.
With other defensive tackles like Star Lotulelei, Shariff Floyd, Sheldon Richardson, Jesse Williams and Johnathan Hankins all highly ranked prospects, there is a chance Jenkins drops.
STRENGTHS: Built like a Coke machine and is just as difficult to move. Has a wide frame with thick, strong limbs. Good strength and use of leverage (generally) to hold up to double-teams and create a pile. Surprisingly quick off the snap and can split gaps to destroy plays before they've even begun.
Good lateral agility, balance to slide laterally in pursuit of the ballcarrier to string out the play while fighting off blockers. Keeps his hands active, showing good effort, strength and technique to battle his ways towards the quarterback.
Good bull rusher. Can simply drive opponents backward. Locates the ball well and shows good effort to the flanks. Slips off of blocks to grab on and drag down ballcarriers attempting to slip past him. Very good strength for the drag-down tackle.
Versatile. Has lined up virtually all over the Georgia defensive line. Appears to possess long enough arms to potentially play the five-technique role, as well as at nose guard or defensive tackle.
WEAKNESSES: Provides little in terms of an interior pass rush. Is simply too wide to not get slowed down while squeezing through tight gaps in the interior line and has only phone booth quickness.
Wears down quickly and will need to be substituted often to be fully effective in the NFL. Allows his pad level to rise as he tires, which negates his strength.
Third round: Own pick
Justin Hunter, WR - Tennessee
The wide receiver position was another group that was exposed as a weakness. They were handicapped by injuries and did not have talented enough depth to endure them. The 49ers will likely draft a WR and when they do, it should be the 6'4" Hunter.
Hunter is projected as an early-to-mid round selection, and possesses the complementary skills this 49ers receiving corps needs. Now, with Colin Kaepernick behind center, Hunter has a chance to emerge as a threat in his rookie year. Kaepernick showed brief flashes of chemistry with Randy Moss (6'4"), indicating he could benefit from another big target with fresher legs.
If the Niners draft him, don't be surprised if he leaps the depth chart to the No. 2 opposite Michael Crabtree.
Strengths: Hunter is a tall, long athlete with an exception catching radius and reach. He is a fluid, gliding mover with long strides and deceiving speed to get vertical or make plays after the catch. He has strong footwork in/out of his breaks with sharp route quickness to sell patterns and create some separation. He tracks the ball beautifully, adjusting with outstanding body control.
Hunter does a nice job becoming a DB downfield to knock balls away and prevent the INT. He has the size/speed combination to attract defensive holding and pass interference penalties in his routes. Hunter has experience lining up as an X, Y and Z receiver, lining up all over the offense for Tennessee.
He had a productive 2012 season as one of only four SEC receivers to surpass 1,000 receiving yards, finishing third in receiving yards (1,083) and touchdown grabs (9). Despite just 17 career starts, Hunter finishes his Tennessee career ranked top-five in career 100-yard receiving games (8) and touchdown catches (18).
Weaknesses: Hunter has a lean body type from head to toe and needs to add more strength and bulk, but lacks the frame to easily put on weight. He isn't overly explosive after the catch and is a little straight-linish, lacking flexible ankles and needing a moment when changing his directions. Hunter plays rushed and needs to stay under control in his routes and when locating the ball.
He needs to eliminate some bad habits, playing wild at times, jumping when he doesn't need to and losing yardage when he reverses his field trying to do too much. Hunter lacks natural hands to corral fastballs and is too inconsistent catching the ball with a lot of body catches and double catches. He needs to secure grabs and doesn't always look the ball into his hands or locate, battling streaky hand/eye coordination.
Third round: From Carolina in trade-back during 2012 draft
David Amerson, CB - NC State
After this year, the team should be in a major transitional period in the secondary. The contracts of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are all going to be in question between now and then, and the Niners need to be prepared.
In the midst of the team's personnel changeover, Amerson could play a pivotal role. The 6'2" defensive back has the versatility to play corner or safety, which the 49ers could decide accordingly. But in the short- and long-term, he would be an asset, and could really reach his ceiling with secondary coach Ed Dontatell.
During his time with the Wolf Pack, Amerson was an instinctive and hawking playmaker for that defense. He is someone that is underrated but projects very well to the next level.
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.
Third round: Likely compensatory selection
Quanteres Smith, DE/LB - Western Kentucky
In the third round, San Francisco gets a major chance to upgrade their pass rush with Quanteres Smith.
He is another raw prospect that has a high ceiling at the next level. The 49ers were able to successfully transition Aldon Smith from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 rush linebacker, and they could do the same with Quanterus Smith. It will be essential for the Niners to bring in another pass rush specialist this offseason.
Aldon Smith was tapped out by the end of the season and could use some assistance from another skilled rusher. The 6'5" product from Western Kentucky is an ideal candidate for the job in San Francisco. And with him on board, Vic Fangio would have more flexibility and be able to introduce new blitz schemes.
Strengths: Possesses good strength at this time and the lanky frame to add more mass without a significant loss of quickness. Shows impressive burst off the snap to get the tackle on his heels, as well as the flexibility to dip under his opponent's reach and the lateral agility to counter back inside. Uses his hands well, showing a classic arm-over swim move, as well as a hard chop to break free from tackles latching onto his jersey.
Good lateral agility to slip blocks at the edge and shows good overall athleticism, speed and hustle in pursuit. Plays with good leverage to hold up better than expected in the running game. Has improved each year of his career.
Weaknesses: While the performance against Alabama was impressive, much of his production came against lower-level competition, including an eye-popping five sacks against Florida International. Relies on his agility and leverage to hold up against the run but is too often pushed off the line and/or sealed off from the action, which could necessitate a move to outside linebacker in the NFL, a position he has never played.
Fourth round: Own pick
Dion Sims, TE - Michigan State
The 49ers are expecting to be without Delanie Walker, who is an unrestricted free agent at the beginning of the new league year. The Niners will need to bring in a suitable replacement and can find one in the late rounds of this year's draft.
The big-bodied Sims would be an ideal candidate to fill the role opposite Vernon Davis. At 6'5", 285 pounds, he is a big powerful athlete that can fulfill blocking duties while also providing a reliable pass-catching threat. The 49ers add size and a red-zone threat here, as well as an asset in the run game.
In San Francisco's tight end-friendly offense, Sims could have a featured role as a rookie.
STRENGTHS: Excellent size, speed, agility combo for the position. Tough to bring down after the catch and can rack up yards. Improved technique, including stance, between sophomore and junior seasons. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar complimented Sims' dedicated over the 2012 offseason to get into better shape and improve his focus.
WEAKNESSES: Significant durability concerns. Sims was limited by various injuries in 2010, including a broken wrist that resulted in him going the final seven games without a reception. Missed almost three full games as a junior due to an ankle injury, and seven games as a high school senior due to a knee injury. Appears to have matured, but will need to answer questions about the felony charge that led to missing the 2010 season.
Fifth round: Own pick
Dustin Hopkins, K - Florida State
It may seem early for some but the 49ers know they're getting a starter with this pick. The struggles at kicker were too much to have to deal with again, so the 49ers should invest a pick here.
Dustin Hopkins is the No. 1 available place kicker on the board in the 2013 draft. It really could not hurt for them to use a pick on a kicker nicknamed ‘the golden toe.' After all, San Francisco drafted Andy Lee and that yielded positive results. The Niners get a potential All-Pro here, and stability at kicker is invaluable.
STRENGTHS: Possesses a lean, athletic build. Consistent approach, kick and follow-through which has resulted in reliable accuracy. Even when Hopkins misses, he's been close with kicks typically sailing within a foot or two of the uprights. Gets a high trajectory on his kicks and had zero blocked throughout his career. Has shown the ability to make high pressure kicks, including a 55-yard game-winner to beat Clemson in 2010... Played outside at Florida State and therefore shouldn't have any issues with footing outside at the next level. Consistently reached the endzone on kickoffs and won't have any problem doing so in the NFL. Willing defender with good athleticism and competitive spirit. Recorded 10 tackles (four solo) on kickoff returns over his career.
WEAKNESSES: A bit slim for the position. For all of Hopkins' success, he did miss some potential game-winners, including one from 40-yards out in the closing seconds against North Carolina one week prior to his big game-winning kick to beat Clemson in 2010 and a 42-yarder against Virginia in 2011. Hasn't played in many cold-weather games...
Fifth round: From Indianapolis in trade-back during 2012 draft
Tyrann Mathieu, CB - LSU
If Mathieu lasts till the 5th round, the 49ers should absolutely add him. They have enough draft picks to bring him to camp and see what he's made of. After being exiled from the school he loves and the game he loves, Mathieu seems determined to turn it around.
He would have a tremendous opportunity to resurrect his career in San Francisco. Mathieu would be with a strong defensive team and be part of a great locker room. For a team upgrading their secondary and special teams, he could be a great value pick here as a nickel corner and return specialist.
Positives: Plays bigger than his size. Doesn't back from the physical challenge of lining up opposite taller wideouts and is actually more effective the closer he is to the line of scrimmage, demonstrating stellar instincts and awareness to avoid blocks and make plays in close quarters. Possesses excellent lateral agility and acceleration which gives him the ability to close quickly on the ball. Is a tenacious defender with strong, active hands to rip the ball away. Excellent ball skills. Minimizes his natural height disadvantage by timing his leap well in jump-ball situations and competing throughout the catch process, ripping away at the ball as he and the intended receiver are descending. Naturally plucks the ball out of the air and secures it quickly. Tracks the ball well over his shoulder. Quick feet, fluid hips and a legitimate second gear make him very effective in coverage, especially on shorter routes. Dynamic returner with a flair for the dramatic. Has demonstrated the ability to play well on the big stage against elite competition.
Negatives: Lacks ideal height for the position and is quicker than he is fast, making him susceptible on longer throws. Highly aggressive and will bite on underneath routes. Possesses the suddenness to make up for a miss-step but does not have the elite straight-line speed to recover against a well-executed double-move and accurate pass. Trusts his instincts too much and can put his teammates in difficult positions by drifting to where he anticipates the quarterback will be going with the football. As such, cerebral NFL quarterbacks will be able to manipulate him with their eyes and potentially beat him over the top with accurate deep passes. Has a well-documented history of poor decisions off the field that could result in even more struggles given the money and notoriety he'll receive as an NFL player.