Grading the 49ers’ 2014 Draft Class

hi-res-77284dc72587ecc87074d786e0232486_crop_northThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

About eight months ago, before the 49ers were a red and gold travesty, before Greg Roman became the leading cause of global warming, before Jim Harbaugh and Jed York began their six-month winner-take-all cage match, before Aldon Smith was exiled to Elba for committing crimes around the same time as Ray Rice, the 49ers were sitting on 11 draft picks. They had plenty of needs, to be sure, but Trent Baalke saw to basically all of them in just three days.

Baalke has played an interesting role amidst the recent turmoil in the 49ers organization. If recent reports are to be believed, the front office sees Harbaugh as eminently expendable, which essentially coronates Baalke as the future architect of the 49ers. Baalke is tremendously valuable; his draft strategy has not only brought a wealth of talented athletes, it has kept the team flush with future picks. I personally don’t think having a great General Manager is in and of itself enough to keep the 49ers relevant, but it’s better than nothing.

All that said, the 2014 draft will probably go down as the best in Baalke’s career. Despite the deluge of injuries, the 49ers were able to stay above .500 for most of the season, thanks largely due to the depth Baalke shoveled onto the roster over the last few seasons. The failure of the 2012 draft notwithstanding, Baalke has proven himself adept at finding bargain talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Of the 12 players picked up in the draft, seven saw playing time, while five were shunted into starting roles. Here is how they performed:

Round 1:

Jimmie Ward- Defensive Back, Northern Illinois, 8 games started, 19 tackles, 1 assist, 2 passes defended

Ward was something of an unknown when the 49ers drafted him, and he remains one going into next season. His most notable games were the low points, when some rookie mistakes and blown coverages saw him give up multiple touchdowns to Brandon Marshall and John Brown. Ward is an unusual case, as he was drafted to play the safety position once Antoine Bethea’s contract expires, but he was also a first round pick, and thus had to contend with a galaxy of high expectations. I’m not comfortable calling him a bust, but I didn’t see anything incredible from Ward. Given that he’s an undersized rookie playing out of position, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not sure he was worth a first round pick.

Grade: 60/100 (I am grading these because this is a list on the Internet.)

Round 2:

Carlos Hyde- Running Back, Ohio State, 14 games started, 4 touchdowns, 333 yards on 83 attempts (4.0 Y/A), 68 yards receiving on 16 targets

My second favorite pick of the 2014 haul, Hyde showed lots and lots of good things, while his shortcomings seemed more due to inexperience than a lack of talent. He has power and a little burst, and has been really, really fun to watch. Considering how inconsistent the run blocking was this season, Hyde’s solid Y/A and willingness to lower his shoulder and level defensive backs is encouraging. Oh, and he can cut a little bit.

Grade: B+ (You’re only here to see the grades, right? Are you even reading my blurbs?)

Round 3:

Marcus Martin- Interior Offensive Lineman, USC

Thanks to his injury during the preseason, Martin was able to bide his time behind Daniel Kilgore before being forced in as the starting center. It’s hard to honestly identify exactly how well he has done. He hasn’t really done anything of note, which may be a good thing. It’s also difficult to discern just how well any individual lineman performed given the constant o-line shuffling.

Grade: 4/7 (Grades are no less subjective than the stuff I’m writing… I guess you’re saving time if you aren’t reading, though. Good for you, I guess!)

Chris Borland- Linebacker, Wisconsin, 11 games started, 84 tackles, 23 assist, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Borland is easily the most interesting rookie of the class. I was skeptical of his ability to play in the NFL when he was drafted. He was one of those players that analysts felt did not deserve any kind of deep or descriptive analysis: they would say things like “He’s just a FOOT. BALL. PLAYER.”, “He has a nose for the ball”, “He plays with tremendous instinct” and so on.

I have never been happier about being wrong. Borland has been a revelation; he leads the teams in tackles and assists, and played his heart out in every single game. He does not have the sideline-to-sideline speed of Navorro Bowman or Patrick Willis, but his skill at run stopping and diagnosing plays will only get better with more experience. The future is bright!

Grade: +33.3 (Are you even paying attention to the grades? Write them on your hand so you can yell them at your family over Christmas dinner)

Also drafted: Clemson Offensive lineman Brandon Thomas (did not play)

Round 4:

Bruce Ellington- Wide Receiver/Running Back, University of South Carolina, 12 games started, 62 yards receiving on 12 targets, two touchdowns, 28 yards rushing on six attempts, 4.7 yards per attempt, one touchdown

188 yards on 23 punt returns, 8.2 yards per return, 614 yards on 24 kickoff returns, 25.6 yards per return

Say it with me: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. I’m a Bruce Ellington fan, but he hasn’t really been tested yet. All that said, his athleticism and versatility were a huge part of the offense at South Carolina, and he has experience working with a mobile quarterback. His ability to return the ball for more than -10 yards is also amazing, but that’s more because I’m willing to take any kind of gain after years of Kyle Williams and LaMichael James. I don’t think Greg Roman has the aptitude to fully utilize a player like Ellington—here’s hoping the next offensive coordinator does.

Grade: Pretty Good (I had some friends in high school who didn’t get grades. They just got lyrical poems written on papyrus about their performance. It was very San Francisco).

Dontae Johnson- Defensive Back, North Carolina State, 2 games started, 21 tackles, 7 assists, 5 passes defended, 1 interception (pick-six)

Of all the rookies, Johnson got the rawest deal. He had the length, measureables and skill to be a great cornerback, but he needed time to bulk up and adjust to the demands of the NFL. However, losing Chris Cook, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and other corners for extended periods accelerated his professional debut. He played reasonably well, but still looks like a developmental prospect. He was easily manipulated by veteran quarterbacks, and even struggled against fellow rookie Derek Carr. He should improve going forward, but there isn’t much worth mentioning, other than his garbage time pick-six, of course.

Grade: 3/5 Faux hawksScreen Shot 2014-12-24 at 12.55.37 PM

 

Round 5:

Aaron Lynch: Linebacker, University of South Florida, 3 games started, 15 tackles, 6 assists, 5 sacks, 4 passes defended

My favorite pick of the 2014 draft, Lynch stepped in to help out the 49ers’ reeling pass-rush unit and never looked back. He might not have the run-stopping skills to be an all-around great linebacker, but his size, speed and ferocity were a factor in every single game. His college tape, particularly from his freshman year, showcases just how talented he could be. With both Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier having down seasons, Lynch made his case for a starting position. He is only a strong training camp away from getting it.

Grade: 100% (Hope you memorized these grades. They will be incredibly important next season).

Also drafted: Florida Atlantic University Defensive Back Keith Reaser (did not play)

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Why the 49ers Are Missing the Playoffs

hi-res-015d79ac08d4b0ac08f6e329ffd4dfbb_crop_north 2Ben Margot/AP

The 49ers ended a three-season playoff streak on Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks for the second time this year. They sit at 7-7, and have very little to play for other than self-respect. The ever-eager local media has pounced on the 49ers and the fans have followed suit, calling for some kind of retribution against a team that has fallen far short of preseason expectations.

Watching the anger and the subsequent blamefest unfold has been equal parts fascinating and depressing. As with any subject debated in the public forum, most fans’ conclusions were hopelessly reductive, excoriating Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman or the bad karma brought on by the much-maligned move to Santa Clara. As with any subject worth discussing, the ‘reason’ that 49ers fans are looking for is far more complicated than any single player or coach; blame should be spread in varying layers across all parts of the 49ers franchise.

However, the most under-discussed factor is, in my opinion, the most obvious reason the 49ers failed to return to the playoffs, or even come close. Last season, I wrote a short piece summing up what I thought was holding the 2013 49ers from dominating: injuries. By the 13th week of the 2013 season, the 49ers had ruled individual players out of games a collective 68 times, an average of 5.6 per game, hampering their ability to produce on offense. This year is even more dramatic.

I put together an edited 2014 roster, eliminating injured players that were never meant to play this season (Brandon Thomas, Marcus Lattimore) and other players buried in the depth chart (Kaleb Ramsey, Keith Reaser). I also omitted Aldon Smith from the list, given the circumstances of his absence. Of this pared-down roster of 43 ‘impact players’, the 49ers have missed a collective total of 135 games, an average of 9.6 players per game. The offense had 58 absences, while the defense struggled with 77. Of those 135 games, Pro Bowlers missed 27. Only 18 players on my roster have gone the whole season without missing a game. Some of those 18, like Chris Borland, Carlos Hyde and possibly Frank Gore, could miss Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

There isn’t any explanation for this, there isn’t any blame to go around. The very simple reality is that this team was missing many, many pieces. They lost team stalwarts like Patrick Willis, and quality backups like Michael Wilhoite and Derek Carrier. They lost players from every corner of the roster, and still managed to stay in the playoff hunt through 13 games. The fact that a team this battered still has a shot at a winning season is, quite frankly, remarkable, and stands in my mind as the best argument for giving Harbaugh another chance in San Francisco.

People spent a lot the 2014 season (and every other season, if we’re being honest) deriding Roman for his predictable and mostly ineffective game plans, but it is crucial that we examine his choices, along with everything else, with these injuries mind. It is easy for me to say that he isn’t dialing up enough run plays, but in so doing I am willfully ignoring the tremendous turnover on the offensive line and at the tight end position. Vance McDonald has failed to impress as a passer but has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. He missed 7 games. Losing any player, even a role-player like McDonald, limits what the coach can do.

There are also the lingering injuries, the ones that the 49ers were forced to play through. It’s no secret that Vernon Davis has been a major disappointment this season, but very little consideration is given to how injuries to his ankle and back have limited him. It is so easy to blame his ego, his work ethic or his preseason holdout, but the most obvious reason has been present almost all season. His lack of speed and execution might be the number one reason the 49ers’ passing game struggled so mightily, and his injuries are the only tangible reason I see for his rapid decline.

The poor health of the team is not an excuse as much as a deflating reality. The 49ers could have been coached better. Kaepernick could have worked on his patience and accuracy. Special teams could have un-trainwrecked itself. Roman STILL could have called more run plays. But none of that is really as compelling to me as the numbers listed above. To ask why the 49ers are missing the playoffs and fail to consider the effect injuries have had is simply foolish.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What I’ll Be Watching For

Colin+Kaepernick+Bobby+Wagner+San+Francisco+urFR3N2lCTxlOtto Greule Jr./Getty Images

The 49ers are playing out what is likely the final installment of the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry in 2014. As I’ve stated before, the 49ers’ loss to the Raiders effectively ended their season, altering their outlook and motivation going forward. I don’t expect the 49ers to throw this game away, but I’m honestly not sure how they’re going to respond tomorrow. It’s the first time since 2010 that this team stands a chance of missing the playoffs. I am genuinely interested to see how they respond.

Rather than discussing what I’ll be watching for, I figured I’d sum up what will or will not motivate this team to win tomorrow. The things they need to do — rely on the run game, get a consistent pass rush, avoid turnovers — are the same they have been all season. Here’s what’s on the line for this team tomorrow:

Pride

This is the strongest motivator, in my opinion. Whether or not they say it, this team knows how dire things are. That can increase their anxiety and desperation, or it can motivate them. This team has struggled against Seattle for two seasons now, and they are in a unique position to both play spoiler and win their first game in Seattle since 2011. The fact that the playoffs are unlikely means they can throw everything they have into this game. At this point, a win in Seattle would feel as major for the 49ers as last week’s game felt for the Raiders.

Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh has been a mystery this season. I don’t put a lot of stock in interviews, but his recent appearance on KNBR sounded like a different coach than we’re used to. He hasn’t dealt with this kind of collapse since his playing days, and there is more on the line in this game than simply winning. He is playing for his job, and an ever-elusive win in Seattle would make him much harder to fire, or at the very least would make him look even better in the eyes of the Raiders/Michigan/Google or whoever Adam Schefter says wants to hire him.

Playoff Hopes

There is still a slim chance that the 49ers reach the playoffs this year. As I’ve said all year, this team is more than capable of winning out, if they really want to. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have to be tremendous tomorrow, the defense doesn’t have to be perfect, but they need to get a little mojo working and try to take the crowd out of the game. However, if they want to be taken seriously as a contender, they need to win on the practice field. They were able to beat Seattle last season in San Francisco and nearly beat them in the NFC Championship thanks to an improved gameplan and a lights-out defense. Navorro Bowman spoke to the press about the lack of physicality and leadership in the locker room, but emphasized that the physical play that defined the 2011-2013 49ers isn’t gone. If the 49ers can put in extra work preparing, it will show on Sunday. If they don’t, they don’t deserve a playoff berth.

49ers at Raiders: The Black Hole

San Francisco 49ers v Oakland Raiders

Getty Images

The 49ers effectively ended their season on Sunday, failing in all three aspects of the game and struggling to look competent against one of the league’s worst teams. Anyone paying attention to this team saw this coming, just not necessarily against the Raiders. There isn’t much to say. The rest of the season has a new meaning. It’s on Jim Harbaugh to salvage what the 49ers have left and either prove his worth to Jed York or give his resume a little more oomph. Past that, the 49ers will be playing for pride and spite. The playoffs are still technically in reach, but after the last few weeks, I’m not going to torment myself with the idea of them playing in January.

The Good Thing

Bruce Ellington

Sunday’s sole bright spot was in the return game. The 2014 49ers have been horrible on special teams, consistently putting the offense in terrible position and sticking the defense in tricky spots. They are ranked 28th in the league, but, like every other position group, have had their share of injuries. Ellington was absolutely electric in college, and I was really excited when the 49ers drafted him. After years of placing my hopes in Kyle Williams and LaMichael James, it was nice to finally see the 49ers get SOMETHING together in the return game. Ellington was great on Sunday, averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return and showing exactly why he will be a big factor in the 49ers’ long-term plans.

The Bad Things

Pass Rush

For the first time in a while, the pass rush failed to get anything done. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr was lauded throughout the game for his calm in the pocket, but it was the Raiders’ offensive line stonewalling Aaron Lynch, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith that allowed their offense to flow.

Gameplan

The 49ers averaged 5.3 yards per rush against the Raiders, but only rushed 18 times. For whatever reason, the coaching staff decided that this distinct advantage was not worth exploiting. This is a team that averages 28 rushing attempts per game, but on a day that Frank Gore was able to pick up chunks of yardage, did not rely on this obvious strength. I would love to say that this was an isolated incident, but this has strung the 49ers numerous times during Greg Roman’s reign, most notably against the Seahawks.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was the polar opposite of Carr: jerky, indecisive and utterly ineffective. He threw an ugly, useless interception on the first play and never got it together after that. He’s had ugly stretches before, but he’s also had a strong run game to rely on. In a season like this, where everything seems to be going wrong, Kaep has failed to rally the team consistently. He is one of the many reasons the 49ers will be missing the playoffs, but nobody can honestly cite him as the primary driver of the offense’s ineffectiveness. Whatever is going on with Kaep, I hope he is learning. No quarterback has a flawless career, but the truly good ones learn from their failures and never let the problems of the present drag them down and hinder their development.

49ers vs. Raiders: What I’ll Be Watching For

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Jason Grow/ The San Jose Mercury News

In week six of the 2013 season the 49ers flew to London to take on the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite all signs pointing to a sure win, I had some reservations. How would the trip impact the team? Would the distraction of being in another country or the jetlag slow the 49ers down on the practice field and in the game? The 49ers were 5-2, but were still recovering from those ugly back to back losses to the Seahawks and Colts. Their success against Jacksonville wasn’t a sure thing.

This year, the 49ers are 7-5, yet things feel a lot more shaky. Their matchup with Oakland is a ‘road’ game, but it is the easiest possible road game they could play. Oakland is a statistically inferior team that has only managed to win one game. They are ostensibly recovering from years of horrible drafts, management and coaching, but whether they can legitimately improve isn’t clear.

Their defense is currently ranked 22nd in efficiency, their offense is 30th. They have enjoyed some production from rookie quarterback Derek Carr and halfback Latavius Murray, but they haven’t had any consistency from any position group. The Raiders have two goals in this game: get the younger players reps, and ruin the 49ers’ playoff chances.

There is only one thing I will be looking for tomorrow: dominance. The 49ers are in the best possible position to control this game; they just need to execute. What happened against Seattle felt inevitable. Against the Giants and Washington, the 49ers defense forced six turnovers, but the offense only managed to outscore the other teams by ten points. That vapid production was not going to work against the Seahawks.

This Oakland game represents the 49ers’ best chance to get things right on offense. You can call me ridiculous, but a win by anything less than two scores will be a disappointment. Another weak, inconsistent, penalty-filled effort by the offense resulting in a win will simply delay the inevitable: yet another loss in Seattle.

At this point, it doesn’t matter how they do it. Whether it’s Frank Gore running roughshod over the Raiders, or Colin Kaepernick finally getting Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis involved in the passing game, they need to get some confidence and make it more difficult for their remaining opponents to draw up a defensive game plan. The lack of rushing success has left their offense one (or none) dimensional.

To put it in simpler terms: they need to get their mojo back.

C’mon Niners. Just destroy this stupid team like you should.

Seahawks At 49ers: More of the Same

dt.common.streams.StreamServerAP Photo/Tony Avelar

The 49ers lost a game in an incredibly predictable fashion on Thursday, falling apart offensively and wasting yet another good defensive day. The ‘rivalry’, the state of the NFC and the lack of any signs of life from the offense made this loss feel like a big one, but it was yet another game thrown away by a 49ers team that refuses to try anything new against the Seahawks.

The Good Thing

Defense

Once again, the defense did a great job of keeping this game winnable. Despite three 49ers turnovers, they managed to get stops and pressure Russell Wilson. The Seahawks offense, itself pedestrian, did manage to take advantage of the 49ers’ linebacker’s notable lack of speed. Other than that, it was a solid day for the defense.

The Bad Things

Gameplan

Greg Roman, the favored target of frustrated 49ers fans (and Trent Baalke’s daughter) once again failed to draw up a comprehensible game plan. For the ninth time since 2011, Frank Gore was given the ball less than ten times (their record in those games is 2-7). For the fifth time since Colin Kaepernick took over as starter, Roman decided to try a pass-heavy attack against what remains the best secondary in the NFL (the pass totals for games against Seattle: 36, 28, 29, 29, 24, record: 1-4). This was a Seahawks team lacking some of its best run-stoppers in Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane. Obviously an all-out rushing attack wasn’t going to work, but a little balance would have taken pressure off of Kaep and given the 49ers’ receivers more chances to get open. I don’t know that firing Roman will fix the 49ers, but I have no faith in him to concoct even a marginally successful gameplan against Seattle. He just doesn’t seem to get it.

Turnovers

For the reasons cited above, the 49ers exposed themselves to turnovers in this game, and paid the price. They were able to survive against Washington despite three turnovers, but had no such luck against an offense with a competent quarterback. Hopefully the turnovers in the last few games are not a trend. The 49ers will not survive in Seattle if they continue to cough up the ball.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

I realize he should be in the ‘bad’ column, but hear me out. Kaep had his second truly bad game of the season. The other, against Chicago, was an ugly late-game collapse. In both games, he was put in a position where his only choice was to throw. You could make the argument that this was correct call, as the 49ers were losing, but it was a two score game until the 4th quarter. Since 2012, the 49ers have averaged 31 rushing attempts per game. They only had 18 on Thursday.

Colin Kaepernick is not BradyPeytonBreesLuckRodgers. For three years, he has made things happen on offense with the help of a great run game. He might get better as a passer, or he might not, but that is no reason to test him out against one of the best defenses in the NFL with the season potentially on the line. This is a transitional year for the 49ers’ run game; their o-line has been all over the place and neither Gore nor Carlos Hyde have been able to keep the run game consistent. This is why I am not taking the talk about Kaep’s regression seriously. He is the most sacked quarterback in the NFL suddenly lacking a run game that has been excellent for most of his young career. Despite this, the 49ers still have a winning record.