While the 49ers seem poised to do absolutely nothing (or at least very little) from here on out in free agency, it’s time to turn our attention towards April 25th. San Francisco is in a position to make some serious noise in the draft — they have the firepower to move up, down and all around, and while the class may not have a clear crop of top-10 talent, it’s rich with solid draft choices worthy of fortifying a team for years to come.
Of the few “can’t miss” prospects is West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin. The 5-9, 175 lb burner (how does a 4.32 combine 40 sound?) was prolific in college, playing in a variety of offensive positions and returning kicks. He scored 12 receiving touchdowns and carried the ball 72 times for 643 yards last season. He’s small yet durable, and he might as well have the words “game changer” tattooed on his back. After all, it’s the only place defenders would be able to see it and it wouldn’t be false advertising.
Get excited if you wish: that game changer is scheduled to visit the 49ers, according to Matt Barrows. I say “if you wish” because a lot of folks are writing this off as a smokescreen. CBS Sports has Austin going to the Rams at either 16th or 22nd overall, which would mean a big jump into the mid-first round if San Francisco wants him.
So is this a smokescreen? It could be, but if I’ve learned anything from the Trent Baalke-era 49ers, it’s to expect the unexpected.
As it stands, San Francisco’s front office exists to confuse and baffle you. Now in Baalke’s third offseason as general manager, fans have seen more twists and surprise endings than an M. Night Shyamalan flick. This year, with 14 draft picks, the job of a mock draft specialist is essentially pointless. It’s like trying to predict the outcome of a maze based on the course of a straight line. Everyone’s mock drafts are useless after the first trade of the draft and San Francisco has the means to move up to the first overall pick if they wanted to. They won’t of course, but moving up to 15th overall for Austin is by no means out of the realm of possibility.
So why wouldn’t they?
— The 49ers have more pressing needs in this draft, most notably at safety. After letting Dashon Goldson walk and signing only Craig Dahl to reinforce the position, it looks like San Francisco will need to draft a starting-caliber safety. As I mentioned earlier, this draft is deep with quality talent and very little separates the cream of each position’s crop. A lot of people think Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro is the only clear-cut first-round safety prospect, and the 49ers would probably have to move up to get him.
— San Francisco would have to jump at least 16 spots to get Austin, if the draft experts are right about St. Louis’s interest. It would mean losing the 34th overall, the 61st, maybe both and more to get there. If the 49ers seem unwilling to part ways with those picks for a player like Darrelle Revis, why would they do it for an unproven wideout in Austin?
— Speaking of wideout, the 49ers kind of have a lot of them. Kyle Williams ran yesterday for the first time since his season-ending ACL injury, Mario Manningham took a pay cut, San Francisco traded for Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree trusts Colin Kaepernick and A.J. Jenkins … yeah, A.J. Jenkins.
There are, of course, counterpoints to every argument…
— Todd McShay’s latest mock draft actually has the 49ers taking defensive tackle John Jenkins with 31, Zach Ertz at 34 and safety Jonathan Cyprien at the 61st pick. With some careful maneuvering and effective scouting, San Francisco could theoretically draft an above average safety like Cyprien outside of the first round. There’s also plenty of safeties still available in free agency too, including the guy they courted, Charles Woodson. They know they can still sign players in free agency, right?
— As previously mentioned, they have more than enough picks to make the jump to No. 15 overall. It might be wise to do it, not only because would Austin be a hell of an addition to the 49ers’ offense, but also because it’d be nice to not face him twice a year with the Rams. San Francisco will already have a headache in new Seahawk wideout Percy Harvin (thank you, I’ll be here all week). The last thing they need is another burner on the Rams.
— You can never have too many wide receivers, and the 49ers have a lot of band-aids in their receiving corps. Williams’ recovery, although seemingly on track, is still up in the air. The same can be said for Manningham’s injury, although his restructured salary indicates he’ll stay with the 49ers in 2013. Boldin’s one-year deal will probably be restructured/extended, but more for the purposes of lowering his 2013 cap number than because San Francisco sees him as a long-term answer. Crabtree’s contract will be up in 2015, and he’ll be due for a pretty big raise when that happens. And A.J. Jenkins… Yeah, A.J. Jenkins.
— If the 49ers’ recent draft history is any indication, they’re building an offense based on speed and breakaway ability. Kendall Hunter? Fast. LaMichael James? Fast. A.J. Jenkins? Fast. Colin Kaepernick? Fast.
It would cost, but Austin is the kind of receiver that could take an already dynamic offense to the next level. If there was ever a draft where the 49ers have the luxury of moving up for the best available player, this is it. A source told Matt Maiocco the 49ers would “shake [the draft] up like never before.” I’ll be less than surprised if this Austin visit isn’t a smokescreen at all, but actually a precursor to the 49ers’ biggest splash yet.