49ers Combine Preview: Top Targets, Sleepers and Prospects to Watch
The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend in Indianapolis, and just like that, the San Francisco 49ers will be back into the swing of things, preparing for next season. It’s already time to get better and start restructuring this roster.
Watching a team like this maneuver through the offseason will be interesting to say the least, largely because this is a ballclub that appears to have all the pieces.
Few teams in the league have the type of talent distribution San Francisco has on its roster. Yet they’ve continued to sorely underperform in a few key areas and its cost them world championships. Drafting well at need positions will be essential if they hope to realistically compete. It has to cure what ails them.
So, after three straight NFC title visits and a near-miss in Super Bowl XLVII, what do coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke need to add to get this team over the hump?
Those that have been following along don’t have to be told how concentrated the needs are here. Cornerback, wide receiver and safety are the three positions they have to hit on and they can continue to make value picks around them for depth, which would be similar to last year.
But with 12 picks, they’ll need to scour all seven rounds, hitting on multiple prospects, particularly early on.
In the following rundown, we will identify specific prospects for the 49ers, tagged as “top targets” and “sleepers.” Top targets will be players that the 49ers can be expected to pursue anywhere in Round 1 or even move up to the top half of the second round to take. Said player also fills a top need this offseason.
Sleepers consist of players that will be of high interest to the 49ers but aren’t getting near the attention they should be. These players are also perfect team fits in every conceivable way, so much so that you can already envision them donning the scarlet jersey and gold helmet.
They can also be had at any time after the first round.
All of the players have been studied and projected as fits within San Francisco's offensive and defensive schemes. Without further delay, here is a list of names to look out for at the combine that could be of interest to the 49ers.
Statistics courtesy of College-Football-Sports-Reference, unless specified otherwise. Contract information provided by Spotrac. Measurements and rough round projections via CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout.
Top Target: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
The concept of the 49ers finally investing at cornerback is on a lot of people’s minds with this unit currently in limbo. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are likely out, and right now, it's a great defense without an elite talent at a very important position in today's NFL.
Instead of skimming by with C+ corners because they have an A+ front seven, the defense can finally add an intimidating defender that complements the linemen and linebackers.
Imagine if on top of this brutish front seven—which is manned by four All-Pro linebackers—the 49ers had a cornerback that could take away half of the field. They have that option of adding that dimension to a defense that is already multi-layered, if they deem it more influential than what they can get at receiver.
Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert is a unique prospect because he is one of the taller, more well built and refined corners available in this year's class. At 6’0”, 200 pounds, he fits the new-era prototype that can run, hit and blanket receivers. They'd be adding a pure cover corner that can man the boundary opposite a similarly-built Chris Culliver.
Gilbert, a Big-12 standout, also happens to be one of the most exciting overall athletes coming out this year.
Going into the draft process, San Francisco's scouting department will be well aware of the special skills he brings as a returner. He was among the most prolific in college football during his tenure. This natural ability also translates when Gilbert gets hands on the ball on defense, making him a scoring threat there as well.
It would add a whole new dynamic to the 49ers defense, which is predicated on fundamentals—bending but not breaking.
With that foundation, Gilbert could infuse some much-needed playmaking.
So, combine or no combine, he has pretty much made his case as a first rounder already and the top cornerback in the class in the eyes of many. If the 49ers get an up-close look and really like what they see, they can potentially trade up.
And they could feel confident knowing they’d get quite a bit with one player.
Most importantly—and circling back to our original point—if he responds well to coaching, the developmental upside with Justin Gilbert could give this defense a shutdown corner once and for all.
Finalizing game notes on Justin Gilbert (CB-OKState). Would have drafted him over any CB not-named Patrick Peterson in last three classes.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2014
Sleeper: Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
One of the most physically gifted wide receiver prospects in this draft is 6’4”, 200-pound Martavis Bryant of Clemson.
For the 49ers, this makes sense because they need somebody that can take the top off the defense with his speed and Bryant can really fly. The long limbs translate to gazelle-like strides, helping him to split defenses. While he’s not too bulky, he still possesses the foot quickness and top speed to beat jams in the NFL.
The other positive is that even if Bryant is covered, he has the length to go over the top of defenders and make contested grabs.
He can levitate and those long arms stretch out for days. So in one pick, very possibly after Round 1, San Francisco can add a deep threat and fix the red-zone issues. That’s great value, and all the reason Bryant will be on the team’s radar right now and into the combine this week.
They’re going to want to see how he does catching the ball and how strong he looks running patterns. They don’t want to see him being rerouted by corners and they certainly don’t want to see any drops or body catches.
If Bryant is to get over the slight against him being a raw talent, he has to show it’s only upside from here on out.
With a little more polish and consistency attacking the ball in the air, Martavis Bryant could wind up being one of the steals of the draft. And in their quest to add size and speed to the offense, it's possible the 49ers take that chance, selecting the Clemson phenom with a second- or third-round pick in May.
Top Target: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
There might not be a more picturesque pairing between a first-round prospect and an NFL team than 6’5”, 225-pound wide receiver Mike Evans and the San Francisco 49ers.
This is a team that needs a unique aerial threat to mend the red-zone issues and greatly improve scoring. For how good this team is on defense and special teams, as well as moving the ball on the ground, they’ve seriously lacked any sort of identity as a passing unit (particularly size and a deep threat).
That equates to them seeking out a big-bodied jump-ball specialist with long speed, and in that respect, Evans is best in breed.
The Niners might not even talk to Evans at the combine, as to not tip their hand. They did it with LSU's Eric Reid last year. They prefer a close-to-the-vest type of approach, where they explore other avenues to finding out more about the player and person, like extensive conversations with college coaches and teammates.
Even if they don’t speak to Evans, the 49ers will be watching closely, particularly for his 40 time.
It will give them an idea of what he can do in their offense, as well as giving them an opportunity to reconfigure where his draft stock is. If they are to execute a Day 1 trade that is intended to procure Mike Evans, the team has to have an idea of the range he'll go so they don’t miss this gift-wrapped opportunity.
Finished my WR Mike Evans scouting report last night. So much fun to watch that offense, but he was bailing out Manziel left and right #TAMU— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 16, 2014
Sleeper: Lamarcus Joyner, CB/S, Florida State
Inevitably, Florida State tweener Lamarcus Joyner is going to be overlooked in the draft because of his measurements (5’8”, 190 lbs.), coupled with the mystery of where teams play him. Is he a safety? Is he a nickel back? What is he going to be at the pro level?
Unfortunately, his size, which is the one thing he can’t control, expects to cost him money in slotting.
Honestly, if he were a couple inches taller, Joyner is looking like the undisputed No. 1 free safety on the board in 2014. He’s athletically gifted and rangy, bringing incredible top speed and acceleration to the position. But at the same time, he also plays with high energy and relies on his instincts to make plays.
His game is beaming with toughness and confidence, emitting the aura of a special defensive player.
The confidence, physical tools and mental aptitude are all there with Joyner. And as that multifaceted hybrid defender, he’d function as a movable chess piece in a very sturdy San Francisco defense, which can afford the luxury of a deployable weapon like him.
Like defensive back Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona, Joyner can play the free safety spot but can also come down and play corner if the 49ers want to go Cover 1 with Eric Reid. And honestly, he is so fast and quick to react that he’d be fine when the unit goes with its Cover 2 shell, which it uses most in its base scheme.
He can share the field with Reid, who is also quite rangy.
And the reason you roll the dice on Joyner from the get-go is for the upside. Very aggressive in nature, Joyner is a guy that makes big plays, attacking the football in the air and in transit. In four years with FSU, he racked up 6.5 sacks, eight interceptions, 21 pass deflections and three forced fumbles (45 games played).
So just from a defensive perspective, it’s plain to see that the 49ers would be getting a lot for the roster spot.
Moreover, Joyner is a killer threat on the return team, which could be appealing to the 49ers scouts. For those that remember him on Saturday’s playing for the 'Noles, a return by Joyner could turn into a blur. His top speed and change of direction simply froze coverage teams.
It should be known that he is a legitimate home-run threat there.
Joyner's 40 time at the NFL combine should turn heads, and his 10-second split might also rank up there. Scouts will be sure to eye his footwork in the cone drills, reaffirming his ability to cover. For teams that are willing to gamble on him because they like what he offers in man coverage, this should matter quite a bit.
And with Joyner trying to accentuate his strengths for scouts, this should help him stand out as far as individual drills go.
But with questions regarding him playing safety at the next level, teams will want to take note of his vertical (in regard to his range), as well as his bench press and upper-body measurements. Safeties are usually the third- or fourth-leading tacklers, so he has to be able to take the physical punishment that comes with the position.
"I can show I'm one of the most dominant w/ controlled violence. Not to hurt anyone—to impose my will." 5'8" 190 #FSU CB Lamarcus Joyner.— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) January 4, 2014
Top Target: Deone Bucannon, SS, Washington State
Strong safety Deone Bucannon projects to be high on San Francisco’s big board, simply because he is a top-rated player at a position that the 49ers will be looking to reboot in 2014. Once contracts expire on March 8, they’ll likely have a gaping hole on defense.
As most can probably guess, with his current market value and the fact that the former first-round pick has yet to land a sizable deal in the NFL, 28-year-old safety Donte Whitner is unlikely to return to the team next season.
With other deals they have to distribute at more pertinent positions, the 49ers cannot realistically expect to keep him. They can also enhance the position and build for the future for way cheaper.
And if you were to ask Whitner, he’d tell you it’s about business this year, which could make this a mutual parting:
No more time for temporary people/things... All business #Hitner 2014— DonteHitner (@DonteWhitner) February 15, 2014
Waiting for a result with Whitner one way or the other, it is safe to assume the team will be targeting a safety fairly high, and they'll be looking at the combine.
It’d be risky and irresponsible to not prioritize the spot, so Indy will provide them with the perfect platform to judge everybody side-by-side, since these prospects come in all shapes and sizes. Like last year when Trent Baalke moved up for LSU’s Eric Reid, it is vital they identify somebody that is pro-ready.
Knowing they need a Day 1 starter, it’s easy to make the connection to the Washington State defensive captain.
When it comes to Bucannon’s game, there are few things to take issue with, which is why he is such a highly regarded prospect. Right off the bat, they know he is a devastating hitter with range (15 interceptions, 23 breakups) and exceptional leadership qualities. He can take this secondary by the reins.
But heading into the combine, the 49ers reps will want to see his footwork and hip fluidity in lateral drills.
Cone and shuttle drills will be key to Bucannon appealing to the eyes of scouts, including the 49ers. A good 40-time will help, too, and scouts will be paying attention to his 10-yard split in order to gauge his recovery speed.
Since his lower body appears heavy, teams will want to make sure he’s not sluggish or flat-footed.
Even more so for Harbaugh and Baalke, they've got to see definitive evidence that he possesses the rare combination of athleticism and torque in order to hang with the skill players in the NFC West.
But he’ll have a definite edge in Indy. Having an up close look at Bucannon next to the rest of the players at his spot should also be reaffirming. He’s 6’1”, 216 pounds and rock solid, with legs like tree trunks. He should do well in the broad jump, which will speak to his burst at the point of contact.
Overall, Baalke and Co. will want to see that Deone Bucannon measures out to be the total package at safety.
Keep an eye on Washington State SS Deone Bucannon. Has size (6-1, 216), will close on the ball with some speed & he wants to compete.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 21, 2014
Sleeper: Keith McGill, CB, Utah
We discussed the 49ers adding size at the cornerback position, which they very well may do at some point in this draft. However, if they feel wide receiver or safety is a priority first, or even a nickel back, then they can still acquire a tall corner in the middle rounds.
One prospect that may be available is Keith McGill, a lengthy press defender from Utah.
Checking in as the largest cornerback in the draft, McGill is the quintessential prototype established by the Seattle Seahawks. At 6’3”, 214 pounds, he’ll jam, redirect and completely absorb wide receivers. He is an in-your-face type of corner that frustrates and takes the timing away from passing offenses.
They talk about disruptive defensive linemen; well, this is a disruptive defensive back.
A lot of teams will be after this model player, but the 49ers had a front row seat to the mayhem these guys cause. They should be as emphatic as any when it comes to getting a big corner. And they have the picks and the need to rebuild here. But they’ll want to make sure McGill isn’t just some flash in the pan.
Can he come in and continue to learn the cornerback position?
Since he’s such a unique physical prospect, the interviews should be big at the NFL combine for McGill. And since he's a mid-rounder, they won't mind talking to him. What drives him? How is he when it comes to critical thinking? What systematic restrictions does he have, if any?
They’ll want to get in Keith McGill’s head and learn about him in order to project a fit. If they feel they can develop him, this could be a big gainer for the 49ers defense.
Utah CB Keith McGill has the skill-set to be an exceptional press technique player. He is built to disrupt at the line & showed why today.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) January 22, 2014
Top Target: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin is one of the blue-chip prospects in this draft, offering teams a potential All-Pro talent at wide receiver.
Admittedly, he is raw but the ceiling is unbelievable. There are a lot of players available in this draft with equal or more bust factor with less talent, so why shouldn’t the 49ers proceed with a “go big or go home” mentality here, making the splash selection with Benjamin?
Not to mention, his strengths as a player perfectly suit this team’s needs.
Given the 49ers’ red-zone woes, the 6’5”, 235-pound galloping jump-ball specialist is exactly what they’ll be after. And while play calling has been an issue there, perhaps the attraction of his size may be able to get this team rethink its goal concepts and influence a new-look approach.
They’ll get a sneak peak at the next potential piece to the puzzle at the combine this week.
The coaches and scouts will want to look at everything with Benjamin, largely because he’s a first-round talent whose prospects as a pro are sort of open for discussion. First and foremost, they’ll want to get a look at Benjamin’s receiving skills, including his finish in the gauntlet and 1-on-1 pass-catching drills.
How natural is he?
Obviously they care how he finishes in the 40-yard dash, but most have seen the long speed at Florida State. He can run.
It’ll all be centered on his fluidity as a runner and concentration at the point of the catch. San Francisco wants to know that he can high point on a consistent basis without drops. And ultimately, the idea is that he’ll be able to step in right away, helping this offense stay on the field and cap off long drives with touchdowns.
Watching Kelvin Benjamin. When he's not dropping the ball, sometimes he looks like a faster, super-sized Larry Fitzgerald. Which is crazy— Sigmund Bloom (@SigmundBloom) February 15, 2014
Sleeper: DaQuan Jones, DE, Penn State
With Justin Smith entering the last year of his contract and Ray McDonald approaching 30 years old, nearing the apex of his deal at $5 million per year over the next two years, the 49ers may want to consider rebuilding the defensive line on the ends for the future.
They already have Tank Carradine marinating on one side, but they could still seek out a long-term partner or someone for depth purposes.
Penn State’s DaQuan Jones is an ideal candidate to develop into a 3-4 end—perfectly suited for this one-gap scheme. The 6’4”, 323-pound defensive tackle is quite nimble for his size, but still brings a mean bull rush. He’s not going to bend and get around the tackle, but he’ll set the edge and push the pocket back.
He’s quick and broad and strong, bringing the rare combination that seldom comes along but 3-4 defenses have to have.
The 49ers can rely on him to do all the things they necessitate from the position, which also includes absorbing double-teams. It’s imperative that these linemen free up the linebackers, and Jones has the size to do that. And looking at his technique in college, he may only just be scratching the surface of his ability.
The more I watch DaQuan Jones (DT, Penn State), the more I love his pocket-collapsing quickness. He's a starter in Year 1.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 30, 2014
Brandin Cooks, WR—Top Target: The 5’10”, 186-pound firecracker from Oregon State can really do it all from a play-making perspective, attacking from multiple spots on the field and triggering defensive lapses just by being out there. He is a game-changer for an offense that can also contribute on special teams.
To get an idea of what teams would be getting, Cooks recently told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee that he is shooting for a 40-yard dash somewhere in the 4.3-second range. That’s lightning.
Brandin Cooks on potentially playing for his favorite NFL team, the #49ers: "Hey, I would love to blow the top off for them."— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) February 16, 2014
Josh Mauro, DE—Sleeper: The 49ers are always in the market for gigantic linemen at great value, and at 6’6”, 276 pounds, Stanford’s Josh Mauro is exactly that. This is a player with a smaller body of work but an instant impact player once he took on a featured role.
He’s constantly disruptive, is on a solid trajectory and would fit this scheme nicely.
#Stanford Josh Mauro has been a nice riser this year. The big DE prospect got his NFL Combine invite today.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 6, 2014
Ra’Shede Hageman, DE—Top Target: This would happen if the 49ers had their backs against a wall at the end of the first round and Hageman was the clear-cut best player available. Nevertheless, it’d be a smart pick for the future to invest in the 6’6”, 318-pound goliath from Minnesota.
He, along with defensive end Tank Carradine and nose tackle Ian Williams, could be the defensive line of the future.
Just finished studying @GopherFootball DT Ra'Shede Hageman. Freakish athlete w/tremendous potential. Tape doesn't match ability, yet..— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) December 26, 2013
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB—Sleeper: You can never have enough pass rushers and that’s why this pick makes sense as an early-to-mid-rounder. Georgia Tech’s blitz monster has a quick get-off and a strong punch, and could thrive in this front seven. Attaochu would be the other backup, opposite Corey Lemonier.
The 49ers could also integrate new blitz packages that features combinations of Attaochu, Lemonier, All-Pro rush linebacker Aldon Smith, as well as bullish defensive tackles in Tank Carradine and Justin Smith.
Started w/Jeremiah Attaochu who was slightly faster at getting to the QB (3.56 seconds) on sacks than last year's fastest - Mingo 3.63 secs— Greg Peshek (@NU_Gap) January 20, 2014
Jimmie Ward, SS—Top Target: Ward checks in as one of the top overall safeties in this draft. At 5’11”, 191 pounds, he is a compact hitter that has a light enough frame to roam the back end freely. Ward can play centerfield, demonstrating his versatility in coverage for the Huskies and showing good ball awareness.
With a dense frame, he’ll also come up and charge the run. So while he is not receiving as much hype right now, it must be noted that Jimmie Ward possesses the physique and skill set that makes him look like a viable option at safety. He may be the pick anywhere from the end of Round 1 to the top half of Round 2.
Big fan of Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. Lacks ideal size but he's very instinctive and he has the fluidity to cover the slot.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 21, 2014
E.J. Gaines, CB—Sleeper: Gaines is a very technically sound player with sensational athleticism and honed ball skills. And with his 5’11”, 194-pound frame and football IQ, he brings scheme versatility. It’s a surprise he’s not higher on many boards, but that just goes to show the depth of this year’s class.
Without having to invest a first-round pick in a cornerback, the 49ers can add E.J. Gaines to solidify their top three CBs for the future.
Can't wait to see what #Mizzou CB E.J Gaines' vertical jump is. Showed serious explosion when defending Mike Evans.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 1, 2013