1. Jimmie Ward, S Northern Illinois
2. Carlos Hyde, RB Ohio State
3. Marcus Martin, C USC
3. Chris Borland, ILB Wisconsin
3. Brandon Thomas, OT Clemson
4. Bruce Ellington, WR South Carolina
4. Dontae Johnson, CB N.C. State
5. Aaron Lynch, OLB South Florida
5. Kyle Reaser, Florida Atlantic
6. Kenneth Ackerman, CB SMU
7. Kaleb Ramsey, DT Boston College
7. Trey Millard, FB Oklahoma
The San Francisco 49ers are run by one of the best general managers in the NFL in Trent Baalke and the 2014 NFL Draft once again allowed him to demonstrate what makes him so effective. In all, the 49ers drafted twelve players thanks to smart trades and gathering of draft resources, attacked needs, and picked up players they can stash for the future without taking up roster space in the present, so while all twelve may not make the roster, almost all of them will. The 49ers had so much flexibility in how they were able to attack the draft that they can take some risks, perhaps reach on picks and then fall into some really nice values, though there is one noticeable hole they really did not address in this draft.
The secondary might have been the most concerning part of the 49ers’ roster. Donte Whitner went home to Cleveland on a handsome contract from the Browns, so getting another safety was a primary concern. Last year, they took Eric Reid who had a productive rookie season and they hope can get even better in year two. This time around, they selected Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois.
This is a departure from Whitner in style, at least slightly. Whitner was at his best as a deep safety but was more built to play the run than Ward. Ward has more range and is more effective in coverage, able to play some man coverage against receivers. The 49ers got a little less stout in exchange for more range and athleticism in coverage.
Reid is their deep safety that can hit while Ward is able to play deep but he can also help in man. As a result, Ward can help protect their corners over the top or supplement their man coverage looks and free up more help in zone, man or additional pass rush. He gives them a lot of options in how they want to play coverage as well as potentially disguise it.
This is in a division that has two teams that are trying to get faster and create more mismatches on the outside. The Rams added smaller, faster receivers that can operate in space while the Cardinals got bigger in the middle to create more favorable matchups for their stud receivers. This pick was also made with an eye to the playoffs as teams like the Packers, Saints and Broncos all have more spread based looks that Ward could provide huge help in countering.
Worst case scenario, Ward is a sub package player this year that can come in with certain situations but Ward can come into camp and beat out Antoine Bethea for the starting job and give the 49ers a great set of young safeties that are dirt cheap for the next four years. In that scenario, Bethea could be insurance for both safety spots and keep them intact in case of an injury.
In the second round, the 49ers made a surprising move by taking Carlos Hyde. The move was surprising because no one expected Hyde to last that long. The pick makes a ton of sense now that the dust has settled on the draft. The 49ers give a huge nod to the style of football Jim Harbaugh liked to play at Stanford, getting a big back that can carry the football and punish potential tacklers.
Frank Gore keeps playing, but the 49ers have someone that can take carries and punish defenses. And they have Marcus Lattimore but the reality is they have likely viewed Lattimore’s knee as a two-year project anyway, but even if Lattimore can help them, they are not likely to just give him a full workload of carries. Now, they have Gore, Hyde, and potentially Lattimore as a great bonus that provide a great stable of backs for them.
If Lattimore is not healthy, they can keep Kendall Hunter as well, who has been effective for them in stretches. LaMichael James has been a complete bust so far for the 49ers and there have been rumblings they would listen to trade offers, but he will likely be cut sooner than later.
From a performance standpoint, Hyde was an irresistible force the entire college season until the Big Ten Championship after serving a suspension the first couple games of the season. Opposing defenses could not bring him down with one tackler, he always seemed guaranteed to push the pile forward and the offense revolved around his ground game and then Braxton Miller getting outside and making plays through the air or on the ground. Michigan State is the first defense where Hyde was not able to consistently fall forward and push the pile. With that 49er offensive line, he should be able to carry that type of power into the NFL as well as being agile with the ball in his hands. This is a great fit for both sides.
In the third round, the 49ers took the one spot on the offensive line that is not great by taking center Marcus Martin. Martin played guard for his first few years at USC before sliding inside and playing the pivot. He is physically strong and can be athletic on the field, but was brutally slow in testing. Martin was also an unfinished project in terms of technique and understanding of offensive line concepts.
Martin goes into a great situation where he could end up winning the starting job at center, but was selected more with the idea of starting as interior line depth and then taking the starting job, likely in his second year. It remains to be seen how long Daniel Kilgore will be able to hold onto that job and keep Martin from taking it, but the 49ers are a team that does not rush its rookies and really does a great job in terms of development.
Not only does this work to ensure the 49ers maintain a high level of play along the offensive line, but they have one lineman on the entire roster that is older than 29 and that is Adam Snyder at 32. The 49ers have been great in terms of adding line talent and keeping it in house, giving them a great unit that can stick together for years.
With the second of their third round picks, the 49ers took Chris Borland. Borland was a short middle linebacker that got a curious amount of hype during the draft process with some making the case for him as a first round pick. The value was not ideal here, but it is not awful by any stretch. In Borland, they get depth and a thumper in the middle of that defense behind Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
Borland will do the dirty work in the middle, take on blocks and flow to the football. He is limited in what he can do in coverage and can end up leaving his feet too much in coverage. There was also an injury concern with a shoulder issue. Borland is physically impressive with a build like a wrestler that makes him stand out because of his bulk at that height.
Bowman suffered a bad knee injury at the end of last year, which could allow Borland to have a shot to start this year, but in the long term, he is best suited to be a run stopping specialist that can potentially help in short zone situations. He is not suited to play in obvious passing situations and at Wisconsin, they moved him to a rush end, which the 49ers do not need. He can blitz up the middle, but when it comes to pure coverage, the 49ers are going to want to bring in someone more athletic and rangy.
The 49ers used their third and final pick in the round on a stash pick in Brandon Thomas. Thomas was a talented tackle at Clemson that suffered an ACL tear in a private workout before the draft. He could have potentially helped a team as a guard or tackle as a rookie. Now, the 49ers take an opportunity to get a player with high talent and potential, put him on injured reserve as a rookie and go from there in the second season.
This is something Baalke has been doing since he arrived in San Francisco and did it last year with Lattimore in round 4 as well as Tank Carradine in round 2, who now comes back almost as a bonus player with first round talent. Thomas can take his time and recover effectively, not feel the need to rush to try to come back this year and be ready to come in and compete next year. The 49ers get another talented offensive lineman that could help them at a few different spots in terms of depth with the potential to start.
With their first pick of day three, the 49ers picked a slot receiver that could come in and contribute immediately. Bruce Ellington was an impressive over achiever in college, graduating quickly while playing both football and basketball for South Carolina.
Ellington is still developing as a route runner, but he is extremely physically developed and there is an element of his point guard past in how he is able to get to spots on the field and how he can make opponents miss with the ball in his hands. He has been a hard worker, so now focusing on football full time should allow him to really hone his skills as a receiving threat.
Despite the amount of receivers on the 49ers roster, Ellington is the type of player who could find his way onto the field early. Stevie Johnson has some of the same qualities but Ellington is perfectly comfortable to operate in the slot and he has more strength than Johnson does in exchange for a decent amount of height. Ellington is just another option and weapon for Colin Kaepernick and gives the 49ers a really talented top 5 receivers on their roster along with Michael Crabtree, whatever Anquan Boldin has left, Johnson, and Quinton Patton. This was a great pick in my opinion.
Later in the same round, the 49ers picked up a versatile defensive back in Dontae Johnson. Johnson played corner in college but projects to safety more effectively in certain schemes and the early indication are is that where the 49ers like him. Like with Ward, Johnson is more of a coverage player but Johnson is tough and a willing tackler. He showed this quite a bit when he went up against Sammy Watkins.
N.C. State has a scheme that naturally produces these corners that are trained like safeties with their combination of off man coverage and zone looks. As a result, Johnson could be slated to be a free safety behind Reid, but he could have some opportunities to play corner in certain situations.
Johnson has size and length that can play a little press, but his hips are a little stiff and his top end speed is average. He is at his best when he play coming forward as opposed to going back, which is why he is perhaps better equipped to be a safety.
In round 5, the 49ers took a pass rusher in Aaron Lynch. Lynch has a ton of talent and was regarded as a potential first round prospect when he was at Notre Dame as a 5-tech. He transferred closer to home, basically did nothing for the better part of a year and showed up at South Florida as an edge rusher. Lynch has a terrific frame, length and quickness, but he basically may as well have suffered a significant injury with the amount of atrophy and lost muscle he suffered, which was reflected in poor testing numbrs.
If the 49ers take the same approach they did last year with Corey Lemonier and used that rookie year to bulk him up and get him physically prepared, Lynch could come back and look the part of a first round talent again. It may take longer than a year, but there is a ton of potential with Lynch if he buys in and puts in the work. Lynch can be a situational pass rusher, but the potential is there for him to eventually become a starter. For a fifth round pick, the risk and reward are outstanding. And for Lynch, he is in the perfect situation for him.
Later in the round, the 49ers took another stash player in Keith Reaser. Reaser had tested physically impressively coming into the season but suffered an injury that ended his season and will likely keep him out next year. The 49ers basically took a flyer on physical tools that will not count against their roster this year. Reaser may never play a down in a 49ers uniform, but they had the picks and flexibility to take this kind of risk.
The 49ers took another corner in Kenneth Acker and a developmental defensive tackle in Kaleb Ramsey. Both may have trouble making the final roster and could be destined for the practice squad. The last pick of the draft was another notable stash player in Trey Millard. Millard is a unique fullback/H-back prospect because of his size and athleticism.
Millard is the third stash player the 49ers took in this draft and he is definitely interesting. Healthy, Millard is huge and can be a lead blocker, but is also a threat with the ball in his hands. He has made plays receiving handoffs as well as passes with a good amount of speed at 6’2” 247lbs. It remains to be seen if the 49ers want him to put on more weight and make him into a more traditional blocking back, but he is fast enough where if he was 260lbs, he could be a tank of a blocker and still make plays. Depending on how he recovers this year, he could end up pushing for a starting job next year or at least be a valuable role player.
I like the way Baalke drafts, acquires resources and manages his roster. I do find it questionable that the 49ers oddly did almost nothing to help their corners. As it stands, Chris Culliver and Tremaine Brock project as the team’s starting corners with Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris potentially being as their subpackage corners.
Corner has been an ongoing issue for the 49ers over the past few seasons, so while they have attacked safety in the first round in back to back years, it is odd they waited to take nine players before taking a pure corner this year. If Dontae Johnson is going to be used as a corner, it would make a little more sense, but even that was after six other players were picked. Nevertheless, on the whole, the 49ers continued to be really prudent with how they used their picks, took twelve players in total with three likely headed to injured reserve this year and most everyone else a good shot not only to make the roster but to contribute at some point. With a roster as talented as the 49ers, that is not easy to do. The corner position is my big question mark and cannot help but wonder if that spot prevents them from winning the Super Bowl this year.