Given the holes that the San Francisco 49ers have on their roster, an underlying theme in their 2013 draft war room will be quality over quantity.
General manager Trent Baalke is all but certain to move up the board—but the questions are when, and for whom?
With a league-high 13 draft picks, Baalke will have great flexibility over the three-day draft and the realization has become that if the 49ers truly fall head over heels for a prospect, they will have little trouble in acquiring him.
Like anyone else, the Niners have needs, but there are several cant-miss prospects who could be a great fit for San Francisco.
With Baalke, the 49ers will not rule anyone out. Remember that In 2010, the team vaulted two spots early in the first round to secure Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis (h/t AOL News).
The following year, San Francisco was high on another potential marquee player and traded up early in the second-round to acquire Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, via Kevin Lynch of the Chronicle.
The Niners have the picks to operate with and the bravado to do so.
While it is great that the 49ers have a ton of picks spread throughout the draft, they require starter-caliber players this year. Consequently, there should be a high concentration on acquiring NFL-ready talent, meaning fewer lower-round prospects.
Here are the top-five prospects the 49ers could trade up for on Day 1:
5. Sheldon Richardson, DL – Missouri
After an irregular cardiology report surfaced from the NFL combine, Star Lotulelei was rendered a question mark, causing him to fly under the radar for most of March, via Chris Mortensen of ESPN.
Given the gravity of a cardiovascular condition, there were serious concerns regarding his health, which would have caused teams to waver when considering the investment of a high first-round pick.
However, as we inch closer to draft day, the latest report on the matter via NFL.com cited an MRI that “showed no evidence of dysfunction”. This follow-up has Lotulelei gaining steam again heading into late April, reasserting his top-10 status.
With the mauler from Utah back in play, this is going to push guys down the board, particularly at the defensive line position. Moreover, during Lotulelei’s short-term draft hiatus, a window had opened for Sheldon Richardson to receive some well-deserved attention.
Bearing in mind the losses of Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, one of the chief prerequisites for the 49ers is on the defensive line.
San Francisco will be on the lookout for a hybrid trench player—someone who can bring power and versatility to the position. Ideally, this individual would be able to be a presence at the three- and five-techniques, respectively, where he can either be a 4-3 defensive tackle whose job is to rush the quarterback through the B gap or be a 3-4 defensive end whose job is to stop the run through the B and C gaps.
Richardson can play the tackle spot, but potentially move to end, making him a candidate as Justin Smith’s inevitable successor. Bringing in such a player would help with the transition going forward.
The addition of Richardson settles a position of need and provides the 49ers with a budding difference-maker up front.
4. Kenny Vaccaro, FS – Texas
Arguably the biggest need for San Francisco in the draft is at free safety.
It was a position that they chose to forgo in free agency, thus depending on the incoming rookie class to supplant All-Pro Dashon Goldson.
To adequately replace the gaping void left by Goldson, it makes all the sense in the world for the Niners to aggressively target the top prospect at the position.
Kenny Vaccaro, out of the University of Texas, is the most polished, well-rounded safety prospect. While it is a deep class, a lot of the better defensive backs are better suited for strong safety, which is a potential hazard for the Niners.
Of the higher-rated prospects that truly project as free safeties, Vaccaro has created separation between himself and his peers. Operating within the prototypical build (6’0”, 214 pounds), Vaccaro brings superb athleticism, allowing him to tackle and cover well.
Vaccaro has sound mechanics and no one will argue that he does not possess the measurables of a first-round prospect.
As a tackler, he is a player who takes pleasure in coming downhill and brings a thunderous punch to dislodge the ball with regularity. Vaccaro already fits the mold and can emerge as another tone-setter as a rookie on San Francisco’s brute defensive unit.
Even more assuring is the fact that he not only bring a lot of pop at the point of contact, but is also going to wrap up, throw guys down and provide a trustworthy safety net.
From the standpoint of a pass-defender, the former Longhorn comes without those questions plaguing prospects like Eric Reid and Matt Elam.
In coverage, Vaccaro is reflexive, consistent and generally locates the ball well. He has the adequate read-and-react ability, as well as ball skills, to actually be an asset on the back end. At the combine, Vaccaro posted a 38-inch vertical leap, showing he can elevate and disrupt passing attacks.
As his role expanded with the Longhorns, Vaccaro saw increased confidence and began to display the bravado of a route-jumper. Aside from being a technically sound contributor, he can grow into a playmaker for the 49ers.
This would be a solid move by San Francisco on Day 1.
3. Ezekiel Ansah, DL/LB – BYU
Hold the phone—Ziggy Ansah to San Francisco?
This comes with having a crowded, unpredictable draft class. As mentioned previously, Star Lotulelei, once rated the top-overall prospect in 2013, has been thrust back into the picture.
There are also three top-tier tackles (Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson), and a pair of elite guards, to boot. We also have to consider the unknown element of the quarterback class, which could affect the first 10 taken off the board.
Then there are the clear No. 1s at the skill positions: (DE/LB) Dion Jordan, (DT) Sharrif Floyd, (CB) Dee Milliner and (WR) Cordarrelle Patterson.
So, with all of these names considered—as well as the annual draft surprises—this is a very crowded top 10.
If Ansah falls, largely due to inexperience relative to other prospects, the 49ers can move up to snag him. In all likelihood, San Francisco would have to hurdle half the teams in the middle of the first round to move up to around No. 15.
First of all, this works because Ansah has a ton of versatility as an athlete who can play out of the nickel- and base-defenses. Whether he is upright or has his hand in the ground, he can fire off the snap and create havoc.
Being the natural pass-rusher that he is, Ansah possesses the flexibility to line up anywhere on the defensive line.
The investment in the attacker from BYU would prove to be well worth it, despite Ansah not being a bonafide starter. He will see plenty of time on the field, greatly adding to the Niners' pass-rush, which fell off late in 2012.
These are organizations that have given even the most proficient teams in football grave issues because of their ability to penetrate and blow up plays in their opponents' backfields.
Adding Ansah puts the Niners on the same plane as those defensive fronts, and perhaps launches San Francisco into another realm of defensive football.
With his natural penetrative skills, Ansah gives the 49ers another premier pass-rusher. A native of Ghana, Ansah originally joined Brigham Young as a sprinter and does an exceptional job transitioning speed to power.
When you view the film, it is clear to see that Ansah is a physical anomaly who could be molded into one of the league's most-feared defenders under a creative, competent defensive coordinator.
As a sprinter, he is big, fast and incredibly dominant.
Although he is very raw, Ansah has an unlimited ceiling in San Francisco. Not only is he one of the most disruptive players available on Day 1, but he is just scratching the surface of his ability.
Paired with third-year Pro Bowler in Aldon Smith, Ansah and Smith become an unsolvable enigma for opposing defenses. With Justin Smith nearing the end of his career, a decision to add an extra pass-rusher makes sense.
It is all about transitioning smoothly from year to year and preparing for those generational personnel shifts.
The good news is that even if he explodes as a rookie, the 49ers cannot extend Ansah until the last year of his rookie contract, per league rules. At a minimum, Ansah will not be eligible to redo his deal until his third offseason.
Moreover, 2017 is the final season of Ahmad Brooks’ contract (via Spotrac) when he’ll be 33 years old. Leading up to that, the 49ers can maneuver and defer deals similar to how the Giants have with their pass-rushers and wide receivers.
Ansah can potentially step in as a situational player before being turned loose as a future starter in San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme.
2. Tyler Eifert, TE – Notre Dame
Now with the Tennessee Titans, Delanie Walker is out as the No. 2 tight end opposite Vernon Davis. For the 49ers, who operate a tight end-friendly system, it is alarming how much they lack depth at the position.
Having ignored the tight ends in free agency, the 49ers are primed to make a move in the draft. By not even hosting a single free agent tight end, San Francisco must adequately address the position with one of the incoming prospects.
Baalke and the 49ers may reach above and beyond with this one, trading up for the top tight end available in Tyler Eifert. The initial attraction here is that he is a player the 49ers can plug in and play, and Eifert will be a game-changer.
As the unanimous No. 1 prospect at his position, Eifert will add an entirely new dimension to the San Francisco offense. Right away, it gives the 49ers perhaps the most threatening tandem in the league, rivaling what Bill Belichick has built in New England.
Given where this league is headed, Eifert’s size (6’6”, 250 lbs.) and overall measurables are enticing. His height/weight/speed combination at tight end has had scouts doing double-takes leading up to late-April.
His natural ability as a pass-catcher, however, might be the most appealing facet of his game. A lot of player currently check-in at 6’6”-plus but do not have the blocking/receiving ability of Eifert. It’s what separates him from the rest of the prospects.
As a receiver, Eifert simply puts blinders on and meticulously executes the technical side.
He displays unparalleled focus, coupled with sure-handedness and an efficient use of his size. Eifert can box out his defender and beat his man to the highest point, coming down with the football more often than not.
With his size, athleticism and innate receiving ability, Eifert brings a significant catch-zone radius as a target in San Francisco’s passing attack. It will be reassuring to know he is already comfortable in his frame and utilizes his size well.
This is going to make him a situational threat as well, particularly when it comes to the red zone and third-down.
Eifert has that basketball mentality in that he will go over the top of the defender and attack the football. In short-down-and-distances, this is going to help the Niners convert and stay on the field.
It also upgrades the 49ers' vertical game and gives them more flexibility scheming downfield. The tandem of Davis and Eifert will draw serious attention and completely change the way teams game plan for San Francisco.
Even better, Eifert is NFL-ready and the 49ers might only have to trade up into the early-20s to make this happen. Frankly, this move has head coach Jim Harbaugh written all over it.
1. Tavon Austin, WR – West Virginia
If there is one player in 2013 that will be popular in virtually every war room, without a doubt it’s Tavon Austin.
At first glance, this move may not make a ton of sense for San Francisco, which has progressively enhanced the receiving corps, building around star wide out Michael Crabtree.
In the past two offseasons, San Francisco made waves by acquiring Mario Manningham via free agency, Anquan Boldin by means of trade and A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick.
Nevertheless, even for teams that are shining at wide receiver, this young Big-12 standout will be ranked highly on a lot of boards. Austin is a universal prospect in the sense that any of the 32 teams could presumably draft him and find a fit.
For teams in search of a difference-maker, Austin is a first-round talent who jumps off the tape. With 7,284 all-purpose yards during his time at West Virginia, he is perhaps the most-popular name to go on Day 1.
In four increasingly productive years with the Mountaineers, the first-team All-American (2011, 2012) was recognized as one of the most dangerous players in college football.
As a senior, Austin captured the Paul Hornung Award, presented to the league’s most versatile player, and had nine games with over 100 yards from scrimmage. He was also a huge weapon on special teams, quickly proving he was no one-trick pony.
Referring to him as the “new breed of player” and the “most dynamic” player in this draft, NFL analyst Greg Cosell believes Austin is perfectly suited for the new-look NFL. He believes the league is about space, which is where Austin is most threatening.
Any coach that Austin plays under is going to want to optimize his touches, utilizing him as a slot receiver, return specialist and tailback.
Austin has it all—Top-end speed, lateral explosiveness, rapid acceleration, hands and vision of the field. It adds up to him being a home run-threat on any given down. Between his abilities and dynamic aura as the total package, Austin is going to bring those game-breaking plays to the NFL.
With the addition of Austin, the 49ers would land their return specialist and find their speed-threat to complement the receivers in place. San Francisco is flush with possession- and slot-receivers so Austin would give them an entity they would not have otherwise.
With or without possession of the ball, this speedster (4.28 40-time per NFL Draft Scout) can get downfield in a hurry.
Even though undersized (5’9”, 174 lbs.), Austin is sure-handed and has the ability to get open. In addition to the litany of other services he’ll be able to provide for the 49ers, he would take the top off the defense.
Over a stretch of four quarters, having a multifaceted threat like that is grueling for a defense.
Once again, from a structural take, adding talent at the position will give them leverage in contract negotiations.
Right now, the flame beneath the 49ers to extend Crabtree is beginning to heat up, particularly with his natural chemistry with Kaepernick. So for insurance purposes, it would be wise to invest at wide receiver, helping the 49ers brace for potential loss.
As a player once co-managed by Deion Sanders (via ESPN), Crabtree has held out before, showing he is not hesitant when it comes to that side of the business.
49ers cap guru Jay Hurley, founder of Niner Cap Hell, discussed Crabtree’s cap situation recently in a piece for Niners Nation. He cited deals by Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson and Greg Jennings, drawing comparison for the potential figures on his next deal.
Hurley's conclusion was that Crabtree would be offered somewhere within the vicinity of five years and $50 million, which puts him between Jennings and Bowe.
However, there is the possibility Crabtree holds out for Mike Wallace-type money (five-years, $60M). In a recent live chat, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area believed there was a chance that Crabtree leaves the 49ers once his contract is up:
That's a tough one, but based on how difficult it was for the 49ers to sign him to his rookie contract, I think there's a decent chance he tests the market after the 2014 season and does not return.
While I don’t agree 100 percent with Maiocco due to several changes within the organization since Crabtree's last holdout, it is definitely something to consider.
Trading up for Austin gives the 49ers their speed-threat and launches San Francisco into a top-five offense. If Baalke is determined to trade up in Round 1, Austin is the best option.