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Previewing the 2019 Senior Bowl

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Derrik Klassen breaks down prospects the 49ers coaching staff should watch at positions of note.

Massachusetts v Mississippi State Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have a wonderful opportunity to maximize their five draft picks by hosting the South team at the Senior Bowl this year. As a team that underperformed largely due to injury, particularly to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers are fortunate to earn a first-hand opportunity with the senior class in a way that only one other team (Oakland Raiders) shares.

Given the 49ers are strapped for picks and will likely select a high-profile underclassmen if they stay put at second overall, the Senior Bowl is not a be all, end all draft event for the 49ers. Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen elected to stay home from the event, but they can still get great value out of the game for their mid and late round picks.

With that said, let’s get into the key players to keep track of at San Francisco’s primary positions of need.

North Roster (Raiders)

South Roster (49ers)

Offensive Guard

Between stellar bookends, be they old or new, and center Weston Richburg, the 49ers boast a formidable offensive line that fared well on the ground statistically and may have been hurt in pass protection by a young, third-string quarterback for most of the season. However, with Jimmy Garoppolo returning next season, the team should look to do even more to keep Garoppolo upright. Changes at guard are necessary for the 49ers’ offensive line to take that next step, and thankfully this class of seniors gives them plenty of options.

Right off the bat, the two Wisconsin guys — Beau Benzschawel and Michael Deiter — will catch the attention of many. They helped lead another great Wisconsin offensive line and were particularly effective as downhill movers and bouncers on pulling plays such as counter and power. However, Shanahan is more inclined to wide zone concepts, which are not necessarily the forte of these two.

Chris Lindstrom (Boston College) has the chance to solidify himself as the best guard at the event, though he may also not be of the ilk Shanahan is looking for. Like the other two, Lindstrom does best when he can generate downfield push or pull across the line of scrimmage. Counter, power, trapping, folds; whatever the action, Lindstrom has the ability to move in space and bull over targets. What Shanahan may appreciate, though, is Lindstrom’s experience in an offense that featured similar personnel and heavy play-action, which could make his transition into Shanahan’s passing game smooth.

One of the more interesting cases at the event is Dalton Risner. Risner played center as a redshirt freshman in 2015 before transitioning to right tackle for the remainder of his collegiate career. Furthermore, Risner is seen as someone who could make a transition to guard, similar to players such as Kyle Long or, to a lesser degree, DJ Fluker. Someone with that type of versatility is incredibly value in an NFL where you can only afford to suit up two or three reserve linemen on game day.

Wide Receiver

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has spoke before about the notion of needing a “number one” wide receiver. As he alluded to, it is nice to have someone of that caliber (a la Julio Jones), but it is not necessary. Shanahan can just as easily operate with a diverse wide receiver corps that can be mixed and matched depending on the scenario, similar to how Bill Belichick’s offenses have typically operated outside of the Randy Moss era. With some finesse and speed already on the roster, the 49ers could look to Mobile for more talent on the outside to round out their receiver group.

For bigger, X-type wide receivers, Shanahan could be eyeing Tyre Brady (Marshall) and Anthony Johnson (Buffalo). As niche a comparison it may be, Brady can be what Brandon LaFell was for the Patriots 2014. LaFell primarily ran go, curl, and slant routes to take pressure off the middle of the field and make defenses respect the sideline/deep ball, and that is exactly the type of tree Brady should be asked to run. With his burst off the line of scrimmage and frame to box defenders out at any level of the field, Brady could give the 49ers a sturdier option out wide.

Johnson can be used in similar fashion, but is more of a bully and YAC monster. Johnson can be a poor man’s version of what the 49ers had with Michael Crabtree: a physical, catch-point receiver who can win on the outside as well as transition underneath catches into tough-earned yards. This would certainly be a new dynamic for this 49ers roster.

A more well-round, versatile target could be someone like Deebo Samuel (South Carolina). Samuel reeks of big-play potential and is especially effective the sooner the ball gets to his hands. He is a shifty, explosive player who could be moved all around the formation and provide anything from an end-around threat, to a YAC-oriented drag route runner, to a vertical presence down the seam. In any environment where Samuel can get space, he is a problem. As such, Samuel can also double as a kick returner, of which he returned four for touchdowns in college.

Of a similar ilk as Samuel, Andy Isabella (UMass) is the most productive wide receiver of the bunch. Through three years as a starter, Isabella accumulated over 3,500 yards with 30 touchdowns, all on a cool 15.3 yards per reception. Be it out wide or in the slot, Isabella can press vertically and flash the shiftiness to break free at the top of his routes. He may need to be “hidden” in the formation a la Brandin Cooks or someone similar, but good coaches (like Shanahan) can account for that.

Edge Rusher

It has been years since the 49ers had an outside pass rusher that opposing offenses legitimately feared. An abundance of resources over the past couple drafts were dumped into reinforcing the interior, but without sack-getters to finish out plays, the investment has sort of been for naught. Thankfully the 49ers will get their eyes on a number of true edge rushers at the Senior Bowl, many of whom will be on the South team.

With Josh Allen sitting out the Senior Bowl, Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) stand far above his peers this week. Coming from a long line of MSU front-seven draftees, Sweat is a long, speedy edge rusher who sports the bend to get around offensive tackles. Given his supremely slender frame, akin to someone like Leonard Floyd of the Chicago Bears, Sweat is someone who wants to win with speed rush around the edge and as a twist player, not as a bull or counter-move rusher.

A handful of mid-round options could also help the 49ers, even if it means the team is double dipping at the position. Christian Miller (Alabama), who may fall due to his injury history, is a hybrid player who could assume the role that Ahmad Brooks played some years ago. Group-of-Five demons Sutton Smith (Northern Illinois) and Oshane Ximines (Old Dominion) should also get looks as edge rushers for the 49ers. Both players put up double-digit sacks in 2018, and Ximines will be with Sweat on the South team. For a completely different style of player, the 49ers could look to Chase Winovich (Michigan), who impresses as a run defender, but may not be the guy you want on the field on third down.

Linebacker

Rookie Fred Warner proved to be a steal in the third round of last year’s draft. However, with the departure of former standout Reuben Foster, the team is again looking to bolster the linebacking corps. A few names in this year’s senior class could give the 49ers another opportunity to find another mid-round steal.

Te’Von Coney, coming from a Notre Dame program known for producing linebackers, headlines this year’s group. Coney is not the athletic phenom Jaylon Smith was, but Coney does possess the instincts and aggressive nature to be a strong run defender in the NFL. The “eye test” for linebackers vs. the run is typically measuring whether they are within two yards of the line of scrimmage when the back gets the ball (two and a half yards vs shotgun), and Coney passes that test more often than not. However, Coney is more of an homage to the old NFL and is not the most equipped to handle speed on the perimeter or out of the backfield. Seeing how he handles linebacker vs. running back air drills in practice will be huge for him.

Coney’s primary rival will be Germaine Pratt (North Carolina State). The “safety turned linebacker” story pops up with a top linebacker every now and then — Shaq Thompson of the Carolina Panthers, for example — and Pratt is the latest edition. Similar to Thompson, Pratt shows fantastic vision in both phases of the game and has plenty of range in coverage. If need be, Pratt can follow running backs out of the formation and man them up. The problem, however, is that Pratt’s former safety nature can show too often in the way he handles contact. Pratt is not the most enthusiastic linebacker when dealing with blockers head on and he can struggle with losing ground in situations where he absolutely should not given his timing and leverage. Nonetheless, Pratt flashes a versatile and intriguing skill set that can compliment Warner.

If the 49ers want to lean on another player equipped to win in coverage, Cameron Smith (USC) could be the guy. Smith is a capable athlete, but more importantly, Smith understands his assignments in coverage very well. Smith can carry tight ends up the seam in man coverage as well as flow around the hook/flat area as a zone defender. Passing off defenders and knowing where to transition to on the fly is something Smith can handle, which is important for an ever-creative landscape of NFL offensive minds.

Now, if the 49ers really want to lean into the future and getting linebackers who win in space, look no further than David Long Jr. (West Virginia). At 5-foot-11, 215 or so pounds, Long looks more like a strong safety than a traditional linebacker, but that is where the NFL is moving. Long is an effective blitzer given his speed and ability to close in space. Of course, Long’s stature leaves him vulnerable to getting blown over in run defense, but Warner is the “hammer” up front anyway. Long might be an interesting day three option.

Cornerback

Richard Sherman has not lost the magic from his Legion of Boom days, but the rest of the cornerback room is question mark after question mark. Be it injury or inconsistent play, the 49ers cornerbacks as a whole have yet to prove themselves as a solid group. It is time for the 49ers to inject even more youth into position. Unfortunately, the pickings in Mobile may be slim, and the 49ers will have to choose wisely among this group to find their guy.

To get an idea of what type of player Kris Boyd (Texas) is, know that he would be a perfect solution for the Kansas City Chiefs. They are a press-heavy defense and Boyd is the right blend of athletic ability and press coverage skills. Boyd likes to get up on the line of scrimmage, jam his opponent, and follow them around the field. The 49ers could dive into more press coverage next year if they bring on Boyd. In fact, Saleh could even do what Vic Fangio did in Chicago with combo coverages by using Boyd in press man with Sherman in zone on the other side.

Rock Ya-Sin (Temple) is not a 90’s rapper from New York, but is instead a fluid zone corner who could pair opposite Sherman. Coming in on the taller, slimmer side of the spectrum at roughly 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Ya-Sin has the size and length to keep up with any style of receiver. Not too big to get worked by the shorter, quicker receivers, but not too small to get bullied by the Mike Evans’ of the world. For a more match-zone and off-man style of defense, Ya-Sin is a guy to keep an eye on and a favorite to raise their draft stock throughout the week.

Down the road from Ya-Sin, Amani Oruwariye (Penn State) may be the best of both worlds. Like most every cornerback at this year’s Senior Bowl, Oruwariye is a tall, lanky player. Oruwariye has the length and discipline to frustrate opponents at the line of scrimmage, but enough fluidity and on-the-fly ball skills to keep up well in man coverage. Heading into the week, Oruwariye is heralded as the best cornerback in Mobile and that will be his crown to lose.

All that said, if the 49ers want to recreate the hulking Legion of Boom cornerback duo the way they tried to with Ahkello Witherspoon recently, Lonnie Johnson Jr. (Kentucky) and Isaiah Johnson (Houston) might be more the mold they are looking for.

Safety

The brief success of Adrian Colbert was a delightful surprise, but the 49ers are again in the market for a safety — specifically a cover safety. If the 49ers want to be a defense that can play three-deep zones and Cover-1 style coverages, it will take a retooling of their back end.

A hybrid safety/cornerback the 49ers could look to is Juan Thornhill (Virginia). At both positions, Thornhill is an excellent zone defender with impressive vision and a knack for finding the ball. In three years as a starter, Thornhill snagged 13 interceptions with 26 total passes defended. Thornhill may not fix their issues strictly as a single-high safety, but he can add some versatility and be a “duct tape” answer for any issues across the secondary.

Range in the backend is a premium at safety. Small schooler Nasir Adderley (Delaware) sports range and speed in spades. The sheer speed and athleticism is important, of course, but what truly unlocks a deep safety like Adderley is the ability to read the field and change directions in a moment’s notice, and Adderley can be counted on to do so. What is more, Adderley possesses all those free safety traits without suffering as a box player or tackler. Adderley will not be on Shanahan’s South roster, but he should be one of Shanahan’s primary targets from the North team and someone to look out for come game day.

A few other names to watch as free safety solutions are Darius West (Kentucky) and Marquise Blair (Utah), while Darnell Savage (Maryland) could be of use in nickel sets and possibly replace K’Waun Williams.

Extra: Quarterback Draft Stock Monitoring

In the scope of the 49ers, quarterback Drew Lock (Missouri) is worth paying attention to because he is the most likely of any quarterback here to spark a trade up. Lock has a ridiculous arm and enough athleticism to threaten as a scrambler. His skills need to be honed, but surely some team will be convinced they can be the ones to do it. Lock may not force a trade up to second overall, where the 49ers currently sit, but if the 49ers trade into the 5-10 range and want to trade out again, some team’s lust for Lock could be the 49ers’ opportunity to further accumulate picks.

Though far less likely, the same could also be true of Daniel Jones (Duke). Granted, Jones’ hype feels much more like the Tom Savage first round hype than something legitimate, but hey, the 2011 first round happened, so who is to say what is really a first round quarterback.