Trent Baalke threw a wicked 12-to-6 curveball with the A.J. Jenkins pick in 2012. As a result, we spent weeks trying to crack the code in hopes of deciphering how (and when) the 49ers would trick us on the first day of the 2013 draft. Then they went and pulled off the obvious move. They needed a safety after losing Dashon Goldson and signing a lesser player in Craig Dahl, and they moved up 13 spots to grab Eric Reid, a free safety from LSU with prototypical size and the demeanor of a student body president that everyone actually likes and respects.
We’ve spent a couple more weeks than usual figuring out how the 49ers will trick us this time around, but there are two obvious choices. Well, one obvious choice. We’ll get to that soon.
In this week’s edition of BASGcast we talked to Matt Barrows, someone who spends far more time than yours truly researching all the draft-eligible players and pinpointing potential matches that could be to Baalke’s liking. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I highly recommend you check it out.
Barrows thinks the 49ers’ first pick will be a receiver, and he made a strong case. As the team works toward an extension with Colin Kaepernick, Barrows says the team will want to protect its investment with some receiving help. He also pointed to comments Jim Harbaugh made after the 2013 season indicating he’d like to open up the offense and add some more three-wideout looks.
“There were definitely times where we just were not getting guys open for him … There was tough sledding at times,” Harbaugh said in March.
This is also supposedly the deepest draft when it comes to wide receivers in a long time. I use the word “supposedly” because no one — even Mike Mayock, the hair helmet who works for ESPN or the YouTube scouts on Twitter — knows who’ll fit in where, or what every team is thinking.
Now that I’ve gone over why the 49ers would lean toward drafting a wide receiver first and how no one has the ability to predict any of this stuff, here’s why I think San Francisco will target a cornerback with this pick.
— The 49ers’ starting receivers are Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Behind them are Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd, Jonathan Baldwin, Kassim Osgood, Chuck Jacobs, David Reed, DeMarco Sampson and Devon Wylie.
— The 49ers’ starting cornerbacks are Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. Behind them are Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Eric Wright, Darryl Morris and Dax Swanson.
Neither position was what one would consider a relative strength last year, and they aren’t discernibly better in either area now.
The 49ers didn’t lose a receiver in free agency, but they lost two of their top three corners in Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. The 49ers retained Osgood, a special teams standout who isn’t a factor in the pass game, as well as Cox and Wright, who battled for nickel snaps when Rogers was hurt. The Lloyd and Cook signings are similar — at the same time there’s upside (Lloyd has been productive in the past; Cook has top-end size and physical tools for a corner) and question marks (Lloyd is coming off a year away from the NFL; Cook’s career has been disappointing thus far).
Many believe the 49ers need to find a future No. 1 wide receiver because Crabtree is an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season and Boldin turns 34 this season. The cornerbacks group is younger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as good. The future is always a consideration, but with the 49ers finally moving into their new stadium it’s time to win now.
That’s a lot to digest, so I should probably simplify things. I believe the 49ers should draft a corner first, because I wouldn’t trust Culliver to start Week 1. I have no idea why the 49ers would either, since he’s coming off an ACL tear, he has a court case pending for his hit-and-run incident, and the last time we saw him he got torched by the Ravens in New Orleans.
The 49ers can go into next season with the receivers they have and it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster. They’d be tempting fate if they failed to add a corner to compete with Culliver for the No. 2 spot, or at the very least bring in someone who could step in as the nickel guy — just like they wouldn’t have slept well after the first round of the 2013 draft if they waited on grabbing a safety.
Predictions in order of likelihood
Here are the most likely scenarios in my mind, so rest assured none of these probably have any chance of happening. Yay, draft!
1. 49ers trade WAY up and draft CB Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State).
He’s big (6′ 0″, 202), he has long arms (33 1/8″), and he dominated at the combine (4.37, 20 bench reps). He isn’t just a consensus top-two corner in this draft, he also averaged 26.3 yards on 102 kickoff returns while taking six to the house in his collegiate career. He only returned eight punts, all in his freshman year, but this is a guy the 49ers would undoubtedly love to add. They’d almost certainly need to move up more than 13 spots to get him, but if the 49ers pool their picks together and make a big move, I think Gilbert is the man they’d target.
2. 49ers trade up and draft Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State).
Dennard (5′ 11″, 199) doesn’t have the measurables (4.51, 15 bench reps) or return experience of Gilbert, but he won the Jim Thorpe Award last season and put together an outstanding resume while helping lead one of the nation’s best defenses (Harbaugh surely noticed Dennard during the Spartans’ Rose Bowl win over Stanford). Also, he’s a press corner whose strengths include attributes like “likeable personality” and “accountable with leadership traits.” Not that the 49ers could use a guy like that or anything …
3. 49ers trade up and draft Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech).
He’s almost as big as Gilbert, but not quite as strong (12 bench reps). However, Fuller is a good leaper and has two brothers who played in the pros. Chris Biderman of Scout.com thinks the 49ers will move up to the No. 19 spot (currently held by Miami) and take Fuller with that pick. That wouldn’t surprise me at all, and since we’re both in agreement that probably means this scenario has no chance of happening.
Note: I forgot to mention Bradley Roby. I would’ve added him to the discussion, but I think the 49ers will shy away due to his 2013 arrest for disorderly conduct and a recent citation for operating a vehicle while under the influence.
4. 49ers stand pat and take a cornerback they really like that most had projected to go in the second round.
Phillip Gaines out of Rice is really fast (4.38). Utah’s Keith McGill is really big (6′ 3″, 2011). Stanley John-Baptiste from Nebraska is not only huge for the position (6′ 3″, 218), he would add yet another hyphenated name to the 49ers’ roster. Barrows mentioned Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir as a potential target in the second round, but if Baalke has shown that if he really likes a player, he’s quite willing to swoop in early and risk having observers call the pick a “reach.”
5. 49ers move up and grab a receiver.
Baalke’s history also says he doesn’t pick cornerbacks in the first round. That could change, as the risk of busting out on two first round receivers could be too much to take. However, the 49ers need a receiver who can differentiate himself from Crabtree and Boldin and work together with Kaepernick for many years, and they’ll want a shiny new toy to show the fans when Levi’s Stadium opens …
Before I talk myself out of my original prediction, I’ll just sit and think about brass knuckles for a minute. Yep, it’s settled — the 49ers need a starting corner. That’s what I expect they’ll get before day one of the draft has concluded.