In our third offseason plan for the San Francisco 49ers, we switched it up and brought back cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon for the first time. We’ve also mentioned how the Niners have gone nearly two decades without spending a first or second-round pick on a cornerback. That has to change.
Let’s say the 49ers spend use No. 12 on any other position that isn’t a cornerback. Let’s also assume that the team re-signs Jason Verrett, but that’s the only cornerback San Francisco retained.
It’s impossible to get a feel for how many cornerbacks will be drafted in the first round. There are usually one or two players who creep into the latter part of the first that nobody projected to go that high. In this instance, let’s operate as if Caleb Farley, Patrick Surtain, and Jaycee Horn. Everyone else is fair game.
Two CBs the Niners should be all over
Tyson Campbell - Georgia
Campbell is at the top of my wishlist for the 49ers. I believe Campbell sneaks into the first round after he works out. Campbell did not have the cleanest season in coverage as he gave up five touchdowns on 46 targets, per PFF. Campbell gave up a few big plays against Alabama, which certainly didn’t help his coverage numbers on the season.
Campbell, like most cornerbacks, struggled versus Bama’s wideouts and Florida’s Kyle Pitts. Unlike most cornerbacks, Campbell was often in a position to make a play on the pass. I’m betting on Campbell continuing to develop his ball skills and that those 50/50 balls will go his way in the NFL.
Campbell also slid inside and played 47 snaps in the slot this past season. To play inside, you have to be a willing tackler. Campbell is one of the better tacklers at the position in the draft. Campbell fits the run like he’s 215 pounds and not 185 pounds.
Campbell is as good of a mirror tech cornerback you’ll see. You won’t find a cornerback who stays square for as long as Campbell does at the line of scrimmage while maintaining his leverage. You’ll see glimpses of physicality against the run. He also has a track background, so don’t be surprised when Campbell runs a 4.3 40.
If there’s a cornerback I’d bet on in this draft to outperform where he was drafted, it’s Campbell. I see Marlon Humphrey when I watch Campbell, which is as big of a compliment as you can pay somebody.
Tay Gowan - UCF
Gowan has an identical frame as Campbell as he’s listed at 6’2”, 185 pounds. Gowan didn’t play during the 2020 season after opting out. On 50 targets, Gowan gave up 274 yards with a passer rating of only 54.9 in 2019 and gave up only 20 receptions per PFF.
When you watch Gowan play, the first thing you’ll notice is that he can flat out fly. He closes on passes in a hurry, which helped Gowan force nine incompletions during 2019. The next thing you’ll notice is that Gowan doesn’t give up anything deep. He was targeted 16 times over 20 yards and allowed three completions while forcing three incompletions.
The worry is that Gowan has only played one season. You’re betting on what he will become, which may scare some off. It doesn’t help that Gowan played in the AAC and didn’t face the stiffest competition of wideouts. If we’re evaluating players and not the name on the back of the jersey, Gowan is a player the 49ers should be interested in. His style of play isn’t far off from Witherspoon’s.
Two CBs you pass on
If you cannot run, you cannot play. It’s simple as that. If I can’t trust you to run with Christian Kirk on a post or Tyler Lockett on a go ball, then I can’t play you. The next two cornerbacks have been mocked in Day 2, but I’d let them be somebody else’s problem.
Thomas Graham Jr. - Oregon
When I watched Graham Jr. at Oregon, the first thing that jumps out was his lack of burst. Too often, he was struggling to turn and run vertically with receivers. At the Senior Bowl, Graham Jr. did not look like a Day 2 cornerback. When you don’t trust your athleticism, you get grabby. That’s what I saw with Graham Jr.
Graham Jr. came in at 5’10 and 193 pounds at the Senior Bowl. When you’re small and slow, you have some making up to do. PFF had Graham Jr. with 21 penalties during his career—which is worrisome considering you can bearhug receivers at the college level, and they rarely call it.
Graham Jr. will be best suited inside where he won’t have to match vertical routes and can use his smarts and awareness to make plays and disrupt passes. The draft is all about projection, and we know who Graham Jr. is as a player. He’s not a guy I’d be interested in on Day 2.
Asante Samuel Jr. - Florida State
As a Seminole fan, this hurts, but I don’t see Samuel Jr. holding up or performing to the level of a top-50 draft pick in the NFL. Samuel Jr.’s instincts will remind you of his dad. Samuel Jr. has terrific route recognition and gets in and out of his breaks like a guy who does run a 4.3.
The issue is when Samuel Jr. has to turn and run or be physical. Against better competition, Samuel Jr. looked like “just a guy.” Against modest or inferior competition, Samuel Jr. was a rockstar. When I see a player struggle with physicality, that’s a concern. At 5’10, 184 pounds, and the likelihood of Samuel Jr. running in the mid 4.5’s, deep speed, and getting bodied by bigger wideouts makes it hard to believe that’ll be solved at the NFL level.
Samuel Jr. has the ball skills you love, making it difficult to be out on him as a player. On 32 targets, Samuel Jr. got his hands on eight of those passes and only allowed 179 yards. So when he does give up a catch, it’s not going for much. If we’re talking value, it’s not there at the top of the second round.
The wild card
There’s always a wildcard, as I mentioned at the top. This year, he comes out of a school that’s not known for putting defensive talent in the NFL.
Greg Newsome - Northwestern
Newsome was a pleasant surprise. The 6’1” 190-pound cornerback plays with the desired technique it takes to play the position. Newsome was targeted 34 times this past season and only allowed 12 receptions for 93 yards and did not give up a touchdown. That’s good enough for a passer rating of 31.7.
Newsome contested nearly every target I saw and was seemingly always in the correct position. One thing you worry about with B1G cornerbacks is their athleticism, but I didn’t get any doubts for Newsome. He showed good route recognition, and Newsome’s length came in handy when it was time to make a play on the pass.
On targets over ten yards this past season, Newsome gave up one completion on 15 targets while forcing four incompletions. That’s big-time, but not surprising given how well Newsome played this past season. He’s a junior declaring for the draft at Northwestern. Newsome is the real deal.