By Russ Lande
While some organizations have consistently found a way to draft poorly and pick in the top 10 every season, since pairing general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh together, the 49ers have become a powerhouse largely based on their strong drafts and excellent coaching and player development.
This year was another example of them not only drafting good prospects, but also thinking forward and selecting three players who will not have to play for them this year as they recover from injuries, which means they will not have to consider cutting them. Guard Brandon Thomas, cornerback Keith Reaser and fullback Trey Millard are all recovering from season-ending injuries and will likely be redshirted by the 49ers for the 2014 season, which helps them as it pertains to roster numbers and gives these players the chance to rehabilitate fully before having to compete for a roster spot next training camp. Of course, that's only the beginning. Below is a look at the other key players they selected in this year's draft and even a few players they signed as undrafted free agents.
With Donte Whitner now patrolling the back end of the Browns secondary, the 49ers needed to further address the hole his departure left, and they did so with the addition of Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward in the first round. Even after signing veteran Antoine Bethea, the 49ers' deep coverage could be an issue, as Bethea is no longer great in coverage. If not for Ward's lack of ideal height (5-foot-10), he would check every box necessary to be a top NFL safety. Instinctive and aggressive, he flies around the field delivering hard hits while making good form tackles both in run support and on passes in front of him. While he lacks blazing 4.4 speed, he has more than enough to get out to the sideline from a centerfield alignment to help with over-the-top coverage and to stay with any tight end in trail coverage. Ward began his college career as a cornerback, and it shows in his feel and understanding of all types of pass coverage. Plus, he's effective lining up over and covering slot receivers, giving him valuable versatility. I believe he will be both their nickel cornerback and third safety as a rookie before winning a starting safety job a year from now.
Longtime star running back Frank Gore is now 30 years old, which is usually the death knell for running backs, and just last week Marcus Lattimore said he does not feel the same explosive burst he had before his knee injury, so they cannot bank on him being the long-term replacement for Gore. Knowing these facts, the 49ers made a smart move by adding the powerful and underrated athlete Carlos Hyde. A strong and violent inside runner who makes it look easy keeping his feet versus hits and breaking tackles, Hyde constantly gained yards after contact throughout his career at Ohio State. His punishing inside running skills and underrated receiving ability make him an ideal replacement for Gore a season or two from now, which is why this was a great value pick in the second round.
While they will have to wait a season to see how good guard Brandon Thomas can be, they will get to see what center Marcus Martin (USC) can do this season. One of the most aggressive interior blockers in the draft, he consistently delivered violent blows to defenders and drove them off the line to open holes. Not only a strong in-line run blocker, Martin could step through to the second level to block linebackers effectively and stopped pass rushers in their tracks once he got his hands on them. With the additions of Martin and Thomas, the 49ers are also in a great position if they lose guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as free agents after the 2014 and 2015 seasons, respectively.
Mixed in between drafting Martin and Thomas in the third round was the selection of one of my personal favorite players in the draft, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. After playing inside linebacker in college, he provides excellent protection for the Niners if star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is not 100 percent by the start of the season and has to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list. Possessing excellent instincts and top-end playing speed, Borland has the range to track down plays from sideline to sideline and showed the strength to tackle much bigger ball carriers when he stuffed new teammate Carlos Hyde on third down and goal in the Wisconsin/Ohio State game in 2013. While his play at inside linebacker is impressive, Borland was also an explosive and highly productive outside pass rusher at Wisconsin and can contribute rushing the passer in the NFL.
Incredibly, after adding so many quality players on the first two days of the draft, on Saturday the 49ers continued adding players that should not only contribute as rookies, but have the potential to start for them in the future. When they selected A.J. Jenkins in the first round a few seasons ago, they thought they found the slot receiver their offense so needed, but he was a flop and is no longer on the team. Their selection of South Carolina's Bruce Ellington in the fourth round should end up solving that problem and more. He not only is an outstanding route runner who knows how to get open and possesses outstanding hands, but he has lined up in many different spots, so he can be a movable chess piece for their offense. I expect Ellington to immediately contribute as a slot receiver and returner, and his combination of elusiveness, balance and open-field running ability will make him a big-play weapon every time he touches the ball.
Ellington was a well-known player, so his inclusion as a potential impact rookie will not surprise many, but others that they selected after him could have a similar long term impact for the team. Dontae Johnson (N.C. State) played cornerback and safety throughout his college career, and although he played safety as a senior, he lined up over slot receivers a ton, so he is not just a deep-coverage defender. With his height, long arms, instincts and willingness to play physically, he has many of the traits to be an effective as a big cornerback, although he lacks top-end playing speed. Fellow cornerback Keith Reaser (Florida Atlantic) tore his ACL last October and will likely sit out this season, but if he returns to 100 percent, he displayed the athleticism to challenge to start in the NFL, so his selection is a great value. Late in the sixth round, they grabbed SMU cornerback Kenneth Acker, who is a top athlete but is raw technically and needs time to develop, which could make him an ideal practice-squad candidate. With Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown no longer with the team, adding these three cornerbacks give them a good chance of developing one or two future starting cornerbacks from this group within a season or two.
During the 2011 season, South Florida defensive end Aaron Lynch looked like a future star and very high draft pick when he was playing for Notre Dame, but then he transferred to South Florida to be closer to home. After sitting out the 2012 due to transfer rules, he made 10 starts in 2013 and showed flashes of the same elite talent he displayed throughout his freshmen season at Notre Dame. He is far from a finished product and likely needs a season or two to adjust to the NFL while learning to play outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4 defense, but with his athleticism he could be the answer for their outside pass rush if he develops and Aldon Smith does not straighten out his off-field behavior.
With their final two selections, the 49ers got great value with defensive tackle Kaleb Ramsey, who was consistently productive when healthy at Boston College, which was not often as he was constantly battling injuries, and fullback Trey Millard (Oklahoma), who is an outstanding blocker with good receiving skills who will likely miss the 2014 season while rehabbing from a knee injury.
After the draft was over, the 49ers continued adding players who had been highly productive in college, but do not fit the physical prototype, which is why they went undrafted. Two in particular stood out: linebackers Shane Skov and Morgan Breslin. Skov was an impact inside linebacker at Stanford who was always making big plays and was the leader of their defense. He does not have elite speed, but his instincts and intelligence help him to consistently play faster than his timed speed because he is able to get started toward the ball so quickly. He provides great depth at inside linebacker and also should be a top special teams player. Breslin was a great juco player before transferring to USC and was an impact pass rusher once there. He did not show the explosiveness off the ball or flexibility that NFL teams ideally want, but he plays with great effort, knows how to use his hands and is a natural pass rusher, which should give him a good chance to stick as a backup outside linebacker.
For teams to continue to win in the salary cap world of the today's NFL, they must continue to draft well so that they do not have to pay big money to keep all their players who develop into starters and can just replace them with a young player whom they drafted and developed. The 49ers have done of good job with this over the last five years and will have to do an even better job in the next five if they are going to continue to be one of the best teams in the NFL.
* * *
Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.