With the 2014 NFL Draft in the books, now comes the time when all football enthusiasts reflect on their teams’ selections and give grades accordingly. In San Francisco, GM Trent Baalke may have taken a different approach than most had predicted but he found a way to address team needs at great value, and while the 49ers draft class may be imperfect, it is very difficult to argue the potential of this year’s haul.
The general consensus prior to the draft was that San Francisco would use their bevy of draft choices to trade up in the first round and select a marquee player of their liking. That did not happen. Instead, Baalke and company chose to stay put at number 30 where they selected versatile defensive back Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois. Some may feel that it was a little early for Ward, as he was graded as more of a second-third round prospect, but his versatility to play both the safety and cornerback position gives him the opportunity to make an instant impact on a defense that lost three of its four starting defensive backs in free agency. On top of the sudden lack of depth in the secondary, San Francisco has had difficulty defending the slot receiver in recent seasons and that is one of the things Ward does best. He may not have been everyone’s favorite pick but with his intensity, sound tackling ability, and passion for the game he is a natural fit for the San Francisco defense.
Before the second day’s festivities began Baalke executed a trade with the Buffalo Bills, acquiring wide receiver Stevie Johnson in exchange for a conditional 2015 fourth round pick. Wide receiver has been an area of need for many seasons, and aside from Michael Crabtree, San Francisco has had difficulty locating talent at the position through the draft. In Johnson, a native to the Bay Area, they not only get a proven receiver with three 1,000 yard receiving seasons on his resume, but they eliminate the growing pains of having to develop another young prospect in the offense. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, dishing out a conditional fourth round pick for a 27 year old veteran receiver of Johnson’s caliber is a huge victory.
Baalke’s second round selection of Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde appears puzzling upon first glance because for one, it is the passing game that is in need of the boost on offense, not the rush, but also because the backfield seemed crowded in San Francisco as it was. Upon further study, however, there are several reasons as to why this is a very solid pick. The first being that 49ers all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore will be 31 years old when the season begins, placing him firmly in that stage of a back’s career when decline starts to hit heavy. For the past decade Gore has been the 49ers best and most dependable offensive player, and even though he has not shown blatant signs of wearing down yet, and continues to produce as a key piece of the 49ers offense, one has to wonder just how much longer it will last. That is something the 49ers organization has probably pondered itself on many occasions.
The second reason being that it is unknown whether any backs on the current roster could actually take on Gore’s load without a significant drop in production. Kendall Hunter has shown flashes as a back up but can his smaller frame handle a full season of being lead back? It has been more than a year since the once-heralded Marcus Lattimore has taken hand-offs in a game situation and nobody knows if his surgically repaired knees will hold up and allow him to be the player he once was. LaMichael James is rumored to be on his way out every second week, and Jewel Hampton is probably no more than a practice squad player.
There are well-known names on the depth chart, but there are more big time questions, and so it makes perfect sense that a smash-mouth run-based team would pick up some very talented insurance. Hyde, a bruising 6 foot, 230 pound power back with good hands and a willingness to block, is just that. The former Big Ten warrior has drawn comparisons to the Packers’ Eddie Lacy and is just the type of football player coach Jim Harbaugh goes crazy for. Hyde not only gives San Francisco the big bodied type of back that can wear out the hard-hitting defenses of the NFC West, but he also provides an insurance policy for the present, as well as the future.
Round three saw the 49ers draft USC center Marcus Martin, who could be a major steal as many scouts had him projected for the second round. The talented 20 year-old fills a need as former starting center Jonathon Goodwin is no longer with the club, and he will compete with Daniel Kilgore for the starting job in training camp. With their second selection of the third round San Francisco picked up Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland to add more insurance for the injured NaVorro Bowman. Borland slid a little in the draft due to concerns over his size and athleticism, but what he lacks he makes up for with great instincts and outstanding hustle. He is a pure football player and another Harbaugh signature. Last but not least, Baalke picked up another one of his patented ‘red-shirt’ picks when he nabbed Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas, who had second round talent but fell due to an ACL injury. He will most likely sit out the season on the PUP list and then compete for a spot on the offensive line in 2015.
South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington was the first pick for the niners on day three, and what a first pick he is. The knock on him is his size at 5’9″, but as a former basketball point guard with an incredible 39.5 inch vertical jump he plays a lot bigger than he is. Ellington’s elite burst and agility combined with his excellent quickness make him very difficult to defend in tight spaces, and while he may not be a true burner, he has the explosiveness to threaten deep. Ellington has the potential to eventually carve out a Wes Welker-like role in San Francisco as an ultra-shifty slot receiver.
23 picks later and North Carolina State defensive back Dontae Johnson became the next member of the 49ers draft class. Johnson is somewhat reminiscent of 2011 third round pick Chris Culliver, a bigger defensive back without a defined position after having been switched around the secondary throughout his collegiate career. Johnson’s tackling ability has been a little suspect, and he has had a difficult time covering receivers with elite speed, but size and untapped potential are the keys to this pick. Niners management obviously saw something they liked and are possibly banking that the right amount of coaching and the competitive atmosphere of the franchise will help develop Johnson in the same way Culliver had begun to take shape prior to his injury.
The same could be said of fifth rounder Aaron Lynch, a hybrid defensive end/rush linebacker out of South Florida. Lynch was once a coveted high school prospect who landed at Notre Dame but eventually transfered to South Florida and has never really taken off the way scouts had projected him to. He has the size and burst to rush the passer and it will be up to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and the defensive staff to see what they can get out of this kid.
Baalke added two more players at the cornerback position by taking Keith Reaser from Florida Atlantic in the fifth round and Kenneth Acker from SMU in the sixth. Reaser is a blazing fast corner who runs a 4.3 second 40, but he is currently injured and could be another red-shirt player they are stashing for the future. Acker does not run quite as well but has more size. Whether he will make the roster is yet to be seen, but it was imperative for the San Francisco to add as much competition at the team’s weakest position before heading into training camp.
The 49ers draft finished off with seventh round picks Kaleb Ramsey from Boston College and Trey Millard out of Oklahoma. Ramsey is a 293 pound defensive lineman who will be brought in to compete for a depth spot on the line. Millard is a do-everything fullback with exceptional size. With his lead-blocking ability and soft hands he is almost tailor made for Jim Harbaugh’s offense. However, he is another player with an injury who will most likely sit out the season, but could become a key offensive cog for the red and gold in the future.
San Francisco decided not to trade up in the first round to make the big splash, but ultimately by waiting, they still filled team needs and acquired great value picks. Many might give a low grade on the Carlos Hyde selection because the 49ers real need was at receiver, but by trading for Stevie Johnson, and getting a great depth receiver in Bruce Ellington, they solidified the receiving corps without having to spend future selections. It may not be immediate, but Hyde will show his value at some point down the road and people will look back on this draft much differently. The 49ers draft class may be imperfect, but from top to bottom, it is difficult to argue the potential.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky