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Could any of the 49ers' sixth-round draft picks surprise and exceed expectations?

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Sixth-round draft picks don't often do anything of note in the NFL. Could any of the 49ers' sixth-round picks be exceptions to the rule?

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Pointing out that sixth-round draft picks typically don’t pan out isn’t exactly a revelation, but as we begin to consider whether the 49ers’ trifecta of sixth-round skill-position players will be able to make an impact, it’s an important thing to keep in mind. There are the occasional outliers, but the odds any of these players pan out are incredibly low.

With that said, we’re going to reframe the conversation around these players ever so slightly compared to previous articles I’ve written on the 49ers’ draft class. These players were sixth-round picks for a reason—they’ve got a lot of flaws. We’ll run through some of the more notable ones, but we’ll also focus in on some factors that might allow them to exceed expectations and develop into a meaningful contributor, either early or down the road, as well as some key numbers that can help us project them to the next level. Let’s get to it, going in order of draft position.

Jeff Driskel, QB, Louisiana Tech


Credit: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Key stat(s): Driskel produced solid numbers under pressure, pairing his 64.1 accuracy rate—which ranked 10th among 22 quarterbacks in this draft class, per Pro Football Focus—with a 7-to–0 touchdown-to-interception ratio on 115 pressured attempts in 2015.

Why he dropped: Ball location was the most notable of myriad issues Driskel will need to iron out before he can hope to step on the field for meaningful NFL action. Driskel’s accuracy percentage (71.6) was slightly above the FBS average (69.2), per Pro Football Focus, but ranked 17th in this draft class. And compared to the film, that number probably even overstates how often Driskel was able to put the ball where it needed to be.

Even on shorter completions, Driskel’s passes were often off-target, with his receivers routinely bailing him out by making some nice adjustments to bring the throws in. On downfield passes, it got a bit uglier. Remember when Colin Kaepernick had gotten so off last season that he was hitting trainers in the dome on the sideline? Well, many of the downfield throws I watched from Driskel weren’t far from that. He did look better in his bowl game versus Arkansas State, but on the whole it wasn’t pretty. Driskel’s deep accuracy percentage (39.1), per Pro Football Focus, was this draft class’s fourth-worst.

Why he could surprise: Driskel’s numbers under pressure are certainly encouraging, as working the pocket with bodies all around you is an incredibly difficult skill to learn. Some of the best throws he made came under pressure, and he displayed the ability to throw from different platforms to get the ball around defenders and to his intended target.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Driskel could wind up surprising, however, is situation he landed in. Fit is often a large determinant of success for NFL players, especially quarterbacks. I’m not sure QB Guru is the correct term, but Kelly has been able to get above-average production from below-average talent at the quarterback position during his three seasons in the NFL. Driskel’s deep-ball-accuracy issues might not make him a "perfect fit" for Chip Kelly’s offense, as Driskel indicated shortly after the draft, but there are undoubtedly some aspects of his new offense he should find familiar.

Driskel operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun in college, something he will continue to do under Kelly. Louisiana Tech’s offense also heavily featured run/pass option (RPO) concepts, which Kelly deploys as much or more than any other NFL offense. It goes without saying that Kelly’s offense will still be more complex than what Driskel ran in college, but he will likely find many of the basic tenets familiar, which could help ease his transition to the next level.

Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida


Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Key stat(s): Taylor’s college production leaves much to be desired. His career 4.3 yard per carry average would be a solid NFL number, but is well below the figures you typically see from drafted running backs coming out of college. Football Outsiders’s BackCAST—a running back projection system which uses a combination of a player’s college production and select combine scores to predict NFL success—ranked Taylor as one of the worst RB prospects in this class. His minus–58.4 percent BackCAST score indicates Taylor is expected to be less than half as productive as the average running back prospect.

Why he dropped: When you’re selecting players late in the draft your odds of finding complete players is slim. Different teams will look for different traits, of course, but you’re often hoping to find one thing a player does very well. Then, you can hope to build the rest of the player’s game around that one strength that can help him early.

My biggest problem with Taylor’s game is I don’t see that one thing that really stands out in his game. He’s a tough runner, but he’s not overly powerful, so you’re not likely to see him break many tackles or pile up yards after contact. His quickness and acceleration through the hole are solid, but he doesn’t have the explosion or long speed to become a big-play threat (Taylor ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash at the combine and produced the second-worst pSPARQ score among running backs in this draft class). The Gators didn’t use him as a receiver very much (only 24 receptions in three seasons), but you didn’t exactly see anything on tape that would lead you to believe he’s about to become the next Darren Sproles in Kelly’s offense. And compounding everything mentioned above was Taylor’s pass protection, which, uh, needs some work.

To be clear, outside of the pass protection concerns, Taylor wasn’t awful in any of these areas necessarily. It’s just difficult to project any of them as clear strengths as the next level.

Why he could surprise: Outside of the general notion that we see late-round, and even undrafted, running backs exceed expectations more than just about any other position, there are a couple of reasons Taylor could wind up carving out a role in Kelly’s offense.

At his best, Taylor is the sort of one-cut runner we’ve historically seen do well in zone-blocking schemes. While Taylor can often seem a little hesitant if a clear hole doesn’t develop, he does have the quickness to evade defenders in the backfield and can layer multiple cuts together to sneak through narrow openings. Combined with Taylor’s experience running out of a primarily shotgun-based zone run game in Gainesville, these traits make him a good fit for the ground attack we’re likely to see from the 49ers under Kelly.

Opportunity will also be on Taylor’s side. After Carlos Hyde, the depth chart at running back is wide open. Mike Davis, last year’s fourth-round pick, is likely secured of a roster spot due to his draft position, but he did nothing to secure himself touches this season. The other two backs currently on the roster, Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris, are free-agent journeyman who, like Davis, will certainly be in the mix but aren’t guaranteed anything in the way of workload. Taylor will have a chance to compete for a role right away in an offense that figures to be on the run-heavy side and use a committee of ballcarriers.

Aaron Burbridge, WR, Michigan State


Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Key stat(s): Like Taylor, analytical projections aren’t kind to Burbridge. Playmaker Score—Football Outsiders’s college wideout projection system, which, like BackCAST, combines production and select combine numbers to predict NFL success—ranks Burbridge in the 24th percentile of drafted wide receivers since 1996, and actually places him below new teammate, and undrafted free agent, Devon Cajuste.

Burbridge’s poor projection stems from several factors: his one-year-wonder status (his senior-year totals for receptions, yards, and touchdowns were all more than his previous three seasons combined); a poor combine showing (namely, an awful 30.5-inch vertical jump); and a penalty for entering the draft as a senior rather than an underclassmen (due to the former historically experiencing less NFL success).

Why he dropped: As touched on above, Burbridge lacks a consistent track record of success at the college level; he only produced at a high level during his final college season, and even that was filled with inconsistency, mixing dominant stretches (like the four-game run in the middle of the season that was bookended by a 10–156–1 performance against Rutgers on the front end and a 10–164–1 effort versus Nebraska on the back end) with poor ones (like the five-game conclusion to his season in which he put up a 4.6–52.8–0.2 average line).

Some receivers can overcome that sort of production with elite physical traits, giving the player that vaunted "upside" tag, but Burbridge is lacking there as well. With a pSPARQ score in the eighth percentile among NFL wideouts, he’s a subpar athlete without the large frame to compensate (6-foot–0, 206). Put all of that together and you have a receiver who lacks the requisite athleticism to consistently separate from coverage and the size to consistently out-muscle defenders at the catch point to win the contested catches he will frequently have to make because he can’t separate.

It’s not just the testing that paints this picture, it’s on the tape as well. In the games I viewed, it was rare to see Burbridge make a reception without a defender in close proximity. Matt Harmon, of NFL.com and Footballguys, put together his now-annual Reception Perception and found similar results. Harmon charted the All–22 tape for 21 college wideouts, recording how often players got open by route and versus different coverage types, among other things. Burbridge’s success rate getting open was below average in every split Harmon measured with the exception of slant routes, which came in right at average.

Adding insult to injury, Burbridge struggled with drops throughout his college career as well. In 2015, his 10.5 percent drop rate was 85th among FBS wideouts, per Pro Football Focus.

Why he could surprise: Considering the above section, you would be right to assume I’m a bit skeptical about Burbridge’s chances of surprising, but we’ll give it a shot anyway.

As has been the theme with these selections, opportunity and fit are the biggest reasons to feel optimistic about Burbridge’s chances of contributing. On San Francisco’s wide receiver depth chart, it’s Torrey Smith and everyone else. There’s not a single wideout after Smith who’s guaranteed of a roster spot or playing time.

Early indications point to Burbridge getting an opportunity to compete for time in the slot, a spot where Kelly prefers bigger, physical receivers who can win contested catches on vertical routes rather than the quick, shifty slot receivers many would typically think of. Burbridge didn’t spend much time in the slot at Michigan State, but if you had to pick a strength in his game, it would be his ability to make contested catches.

Due to his drop issues, he didn’t bring these passes in at the rate you would hope, but this is all about projection, and Burbridge did show an aptitude for going up and making catches above his head with a defender on top of him at times. This showed in his deep-pass production, where Burbridge ranked eighth in deep pass yards (475) and fourth in deep pass catch rate (64.0 percent) among FBS wideouts, per Pro Football Focus. If he can limit the drops and learn to more consistently use his body to shield defenders, he could wind up being a solid option in the middle of the field in Kelly’s offense.