Trent Baalke spoke with the media at the NFL Combine today, broaching a number of personnel topics as the league gears up for NCAA players’ draft auditions. One of the questions asked of him was what the 49ers would do with all of their draft picks (did you know they have 14 of them? I know, 14 draft picks! What could they possibly do with 14 draft picks?!):
Question: You’re a Super Bowl team, what do you do with 14 draft picks?
Baalke: “Draft them.”
Question: Well, theoretically you’re good. Do you need 14 rookies?
Baalke: “Well, I don’t know that we need 14 rookies. We need good football players. And we’ve always maintained that we’re not afraid to move up, we’re not afraid to stand pat and pick where the selection is. And we’re certainly not afraid to move back. We’ve been successful doing all of the above. So, how we’re going to use them, that remains to be seen. But, certainly enjoy the fact that we’re in position to have 14.”
Baalke isn’t lying when he says they’ve “been successful doing all of the above.” In 2010 they moved up in the first round to take Anthony Davis, and in 2011 they moved up to snag Colin Kaepernick. They also stood pat in the same draft and landed Aldon Smith. In 2012 they did a lot of moving back in the later rounds, which explains why the 49ers have such an embarrassment of riches this year.
One player who has my attention is cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. If you have even vague interest in college football you know his story: after a stellar 2011 season for the LSU Tigers which saw the DB become a Heisman candidate, Mathieu suffered a rather abrupt fall from grace, failing multiple drug tests and getting kicked off the team. Although he was once projected as a top-4o pick, he’s now slotted by Rob Rang of CBS Sports to go in the fifth or sixth round thanks to his off-the-field troubles and a year away from football.
Here’s how Rang describes Mathieu:
Positives: Plays bigger than his size. Doesn’t back from the physical challenge of lining up opposite taller wideouts and is actually more effective the closer he is to the line of scrimmage, demonstrating stellar instincts and awareness to avoid blocks and make plays in close quarters. Possesses excellent lateral agility and acceleration which gives him the ability to close quickly on the ball. Is a tenacious defender with strong, active hands to rip the ball away. Excellent ball skills. Minimizes his natural height disadvantage by timing his leap well in jump-ball situations and competing throughout the catch process, ripping away at the ball as he and the intended receiver are descending. Naturally plucks the ball out of the air and secures it quickly. Tracks the ball well over his shoulder. Quick feet, fluid hips and a legitimate second gear make him very effective in coverage, especially on shorter routes. Dynamic returner with a flair for the dramatic. Has demonstrated the ability to play well on the big stage against elite competition.
Negatives: Lacks ideal height for the position and is quicker than he is fast, making him susceptible on longer throws. Highly aggressive and will bite on underneath routes. Possesses the suddenness to make up for a miss-step but does not have the elite straight-line speed to recover against a well-executed double-move and accurate pass. Trusts his instincts too much and can put his teammates in difficult positions by drifting to where he anticipates the quarterback will be going with the football. As such, cerebral NFL quarterbacks will be able to manipulate him with their eyes and potentially beat him over the top with accurate deep passes. Has a well-documented history of poor decisions off the field that could result in even more struggles given the money and notoriety he’ll receive as an NFL player.
Mathieu was LSU’s leading tackler in 2011 and a stud punt returner (27 returns, 421 yards, 2 TDs, 15.59 AVG). Enter the 49ers, who have a need to upgrade at both of the aforementioned positions. While his 5-8, 180 lb dimensions would instantly make him the smallest corner on the 49ers, his upside as a slot corner in nickel and dime packages is intriguing. Add in his special teams abilities and you have a player the 49ers could draft in the fifth or six round; someone who could replace Ted Ginn for a minuscule cap hit.
The 49ers have two picks in the fifth round (24th and 31st) as well as two picks in the sixth round (12th and 31st). How would you feel about the 49ers using one of the four to take Mathieu, should the troubled cornerback fall that far? While the organization hasn’t shied away from players with troubled histories in the past (Ahmad Brooks and Perrish Cox come to mind), Mathieu’s hiatus from football is concerning. Still, I think his potential is well worth the 5th round price of admission.