The San Francisco 49ers made significant changes this past offseason, and that was due in large part to inconsistent drafting over the past five years. The 49ers have found some solid players, and some diamonds in the rough, but they missed far too often to build a consistent winner once the stars started retiring or departing in free agency.
The 49ers struck out entirely in 2012, but seemed to make some progress in 2013. They added Eric Reid in the first round, got some solid contributions from Corey Lemonier and Nick Moody, and had high hopes for Tank Carradine, Vance McDonald and Quinton Dial. And of course, they were hoping Marcus Lattimore would eventually develop into something. It was not a great first year for the class, but the team made it to the NFC title game, and had some momentum heading into the 2014 NFL draft.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke decided to do some re-grading of the 2014 draft. The 49ers had three picks in the third round, and two in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds. Here is what they walked away with by the end of Saturday.
1 (30). Jimmie Ward, DB
2 (57). Carlos Hyde, RB
3 (70). Marcus Martin, C
3 (77). Chris Borland, ILB
3 (100). Brandon Thomas, OG
4 (106). Bruce Ellington, WR
4 (129). Dontae Johnson, CB
5 (150). Aaron Lynch, DE
5 (170). Keith Reaser, CB
6 (180). Kenneth Acker, CB
7 (243). Kaleb Ramsey, DT
7 (245). Trey Millard, FB
When SI first graded the 49ers, they gave Trent Baalke & Co. a B+. Here’s what they said back after the draft concluded:
Armed with a flood of picks from the third round on, and with the knowledge that they've hit on just one starter (safety Eric Reid) in their last two drafts, the 49ers knew that they had to hit bigger. They certainly did in the first round with Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, a special player who can also line up at corner and slot corner. Second-round running back Carlos Hyde presents the best power/speed combination in this class, and he fits San Francisco's offense perfectly. A few notable steals: South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington in the fourth round, South Florida end Aaron Lynch in the fifth and Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland in the third. Through sheer odds, it's tough to imagine general manager Trent Baalke striking out as he has in recent years, and there's a lot of talent here.
Baalke did not completely strike out on that draft, but the returns have been inconsistent at best. Chris Borland was looking like a star before his unexpected retirement following his rookie season. Jimmie Ward and Carlos Hyde have both shown things through their first three seasons, but injuries remain a big concern with both. At times, Aaron Lynch has looked like he could turn into the best player of the 49ers class, but conditioning, injuries, and a failed drug test have him trending the wrong way.
Burke re-graded the draft on Tuesday, and he gave the 49ers a C+ this time around. He said Carlos Hyde was the best pick, while Brandon Thomas was the worst pick. He had this discussion of the draft.
The health-related retirement of LB Chris Borland (No. 77) stung—he had a phenomenal rookie year, but then called it quits. Hyde fell an iota shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. He would have made it there were it not for the MCL injury he suffered in Week 16. Hyde and Jimmie Ward each could have important roles for the rebuilding 49ers this season, the latter via a permanent move to safety. Third-round OL Brandon Thomas (No. 100) never made it back after tearing his ACL pre-draft. DE/OLB Aaron Lynch (No. 150) has 14.0 career sacks to his credit.
The 49ers exercised their fifth year option on Ward as they prepare him to take over at free safety. The move was a no-brainer given that it is only guaranteed for injury until the start of 2018 league year. This will be just a slightly critical year for Ward.
As for Hyde? An extension does not seem forthcoming, so whether his future is with the 49ers or another team, he is playing for his lunch money in a big way this season.
That leaves Bruce Ellington, Dontae Johnson, Aaron Lynch, and Keith Reaser as the other remaining members of the class. Lynch is slotted in as the LEO pass rusher for the time being, but training camp will offer some clarity. Reaser and Johnson will be competing for some kind of role in an overhauled secondary. I think Reaser has the better chance of seeing some significant defensive snaps this fall, but I still think Rashard Robinson and Ahkello Witherspoon are the two starters.
Ward is the only one of this class under contract beyond 2017, thanks to his option. Hyde, Ellington, Johnson, Lynch, and Reaser are all free agents next year. Reaser is a restricted free agent due to spending his rookie year on the NFI list. How many of these guys will be on the roster in 2018?