Grading the 49ers’ 2014 Draft Class

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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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49ers at Raiders: The Black Hole

San Francisco 49ers v Oakland Raiders

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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. Bears: What I’ll Be Watching For

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The 49ers play their first game at Levis Stadium tomorrow, looking to shut down the Chicago Bears. The Bears are… pretty similar to the Cowboys, with a potent, if inconsistent, offense, and an uncharacteristically bad defense. The 49ers will be playing a historical home opener in front of what promises to be a very loud and excited crowd; it’s their game to lose. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game- The Bears’ defense has been surprisingly bad over the last two seasons, struggling to keep pace with an offense that is certainly playoff-caliber. They retooled a bit in the offseason, signing Jared Allen and Lamar Houston to beef up the defensive line and drafting Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller. However, they gave up 193 yards on the ground to the Bills last week, meaning picking up rushing yards will be crucial for the 49ers. Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and surprise running back Bruce Ellington will all be relatively fresh after last week, and the offensive line will be improved with one of its best run-blockers, Alex Boone, returning to the fold.

Run defense- On the other side of the ball, the 49ers will need to play much tougher against the run. Chicago’s Matt Forte is as talented and consistent as they come, and he showed no signs of slowing down last week, picking up 169 total yards against the Bills. I do think the 49ers’ front is capable of slowing him down, but they will need to generate much more push than they did last week. The Bears will be playing without center Roberto Garza and guard Matt Slauson, giving the 49ers something of an edge, but it will be on them to step up and control the run.

Pass rush- Bears quarterback Jay Cutler poses the same threat as Tony Romo: if you give him too many chances, he can carve your defense up. Like Romo, he is also prone to throwing picks, making the performance of the 49ers’ pass rush central to their success on Sunday. It will be on the 49ers to prove that their lack of success getting pressure last week was simply season-opening jitters, and not a deficiency of talent.

Read option- This could be a great game for Colin Kaepernick to pick up some yards with his feet. The Bears defense has struggled against the read-option before, making the threat that Kaep represents all the more valuable to the 49ers’ offensive game plan. If the 49ers are able to establish things on the ground, I could see Greg Roman throwing in some designed runs or read option to further complicate things for the Bears.

2014 Expectations and Ray McDonald

Aaron Lynch, Cornellius CarradineAP/Patrick Semansky

The 49ers begin another long road tomorrow, taking on the Dallas Cowboys with a battered defense and a potentially resurgent offense. The timeline of this season is fascinating; we will know exactly how this year will go within the first eight games. The defense is missing two of its most talented players in Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who will be back mid-late season. It will be on the offense to keep the 49ers above .500 for the first leg of the season.

Every season is ‘major’, in some way, but 2014 feels a bit more so. Colin Kaepernick signed a massive contract in the offseason, and it will be on him to prove that he was worth the money. The offense looks a lot better than it did in the 49ers’ first game last year, when the wide receiver depth chart consisted of Anquan Boldin and almost nothing else. Kaepernick has weapons; he has a reliable run game and a good offensive line. The only thing left is for him to produce.

If the offseason wasn’t such a mess for the 49ers, I would look at this year more hopefully. As it stands, I’m looking at this as a pseudo-rebuilding year. The 49ers should make the playoffs, and should give us plenty to cheer for, but I don’t think the defense is going to be up to the standards of the last three seasons, at least for a little while. That’s okay, though. The 49ers have drafted really heavily in the last few years, and this year we’ll see the fruits of Baalke’s labor. Redshirt players like Tank Carradine are going to get their first chance to play in a while, and rookies like Aaron Lynch and Bruce Ellington are going to fight for a role.

It is worth noting that my expectations were low last year too. Michael Crabtree’s injury was huge, and the 49ers still managed to weather it. We’ll see.

I also wanted to address what is the biggest storyline going into this game: Ray McDonald. The response to McDonald’s arrest and the 49ers’ stance has been simultaneously intriguing and nauseating. Tim Kawakami and Ann Killion both weighed in on the issue of McDonald playing while the police decide whether or not to take legal action. They did not like that the 49ers are going to wait and see what the police want to do, as that approach essentially shelters a man who in all likelihood abused a pregnant woman.

Many fans have fallen in lock step with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, saying waiting it out is the right thing to do, as it shows that the organization has some measure of faith in McDonald’s character (McDonald maintains that he did nothing wrong). I don’t feel pulled one way or the other. I would prefer that McDonald sit, but I can also understand the 49ers’ thinking. Nobody disagrees on the point that McDonald should be cut if he is found guilty; it’s just a matter of how they treat him until then.

Even though I think Kawakami and Killion have the right to believe what they believe, that does not hide the fact that both of them, for a long time, have gone out of their way to attack the 49ers and Harbaugh. Kawakami has done little to hide his dislike of Harbaugh since he arrived, and has been making his bones alternating between speculation about Harbaugh’s future and towering moral screeds against the organization it is his job to cover.

The fact that I understand and respect their viewpoints in this instance does not take away from the opinion I and many others hold about them and some other Bay Area sports writers. This is a complex problem, but writers like Kawakami and Killion consistently fail to write informative stories about the 49ers. What makes them truly deplorable is that they continue to hide behind a veneer of journalistic integrity. Were they to admit that the combination of some personal animus and the pervasive reality that sensationalism gets clicks is what drives them, I would look at them more favorably.

2014 NFL Draft: All the Rest

 

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The later rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft were decidedly more exciting than the first, which saw the 49ers calmly wait as the high-profile picks were made, and eventually select a Safety from a small school. Trent Baalke was a little more spry after the first round, making multiple trades to move up and down the draft board. On top of that, the 49ers announced before day two began that they had traded a conditional 4th round pick in 2015 for Buffalo Bills wideout Stevie Johnson. In typical Harbaalke fashion, the 49ers added depth and talent, picking up players that had inexplicably fallen and filling roster holes for now and in the future:

Carlos Hyde, running back, Ohio State University

This was a bit of a head-scratcher, but after it sunk in it made a lot of sense. Hyde was a monster for the Buckeyes, picking up 1521 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. He fell out of the first round because of character concerns stemming from assault allegations leveled against him last year. I did not have running back as a position of need for the 49ers, but it isn’t hard to see the logic of this pick. Marcus Lattimore is the heir apparent, but there is no guarantee that he can perform after two brutal knee injuries. Should he struggle to produce, Hyde can step in and spell Gore while he learns the 49ers’ system. Hyde has the power and versatility to help drive the 49ers’ offense.

Marcus Martin, center, University of Southern California

This was my favorite pick by far. Martin was seen by most as the best center in the draft, and the 49ers managed to snag him in the 3rd round. He is a big, strong interior lineman, standing at 6′ 3” 310 lbs. He has long arms and, despite his youth, could be the 49ers’ starting center in 2014. He will compete with interior lineman Daniel Kilgore to play center, but is most likely the 49ers’ center of the future.

Chris Borland, inside linebacker, University of Wisconsin

This was a depth pick, as the 49ers need someone to replace an injured Navorro Bowman for the first half of the season. Borland was a prolific linebacker at Wisconsin, picking up 111 tackles as a senior. He fell a few rounds because of his size, which is not typical for a linebacker, and his short arms. Despite these shortcomings, Borland was highly functional at Wisconsin and showed plenty of ability as a run stopper. He will compete with Michael Wilhoite to play next to Patrick Willis at inside linebacker.

Brandon Thomas, offensive lineman, Clemson

Thomas was heralded as a 1st round pick until he tore his ACL at a workout in New Orleans. Much like Lattimore in 2013, Thomas will sit out this season and rehab in the hopes that he can bring his first round talent to bear in the future. He played all along the line at Clemson, and, as is typical for a Harbaalke pick, he has exceptionally long arms.

Bruce Ellington, wide receiver, University of South Carolina

I really liked this pick. Ellington was another steal for the 49ers, who finally added some speed to their receiver group. He was a huge weapon for the Gamecocks, lining up as a receiver and even returning kickoffs. His speed and versatility has many speculating that the 49ers are done with LaMichael James, who had a similar skill set but was largely unproductive in San Francisco. I am still not sure that Greg Roman is good at utilizing speedy players, but at the very least Ellington could see some use returning kickoffs and punts.

Dontae Johnson, cornerback, North Carolina State

Much like Jimmie Ward in the first round, Dontae Johnson is versatile, with experience as both a safety and corner. He is unusually fast for his size (6’2”, 200 lbs.), but is still raw in terms of play recognition skills. Fortunately, most of the knocks against him (reading offenses, footwork) are things that can be ironed out with the right coaching. He has the physical tools to be an excellent corner, provided the 49ers can coach him up to that level.

Aaron Lynch, defensive end, University of South Florida

Lynch is a tremendously talented pass-rusher, a physically prototypical defensive end. After a dominant year as a freshman at Notre Dame, Lynch transferred to USF and saw a precipitous fall in production. The biggest knock against him, and it is a big one, is that he lacks motivation and seems disinterested in playing up to his potential. This pick speaks to the faith Baalke has in Vic Fangio and the defensive staff to motivate and mold players. If the 49ers manage get him fired up, he could be an incredible outside linebacker.

Keith Reaser, cornerback, Florida Atlantic

Another injured player that the 49ers will stash and develop, Reaser brings decent coverage and strength to the position. He isn’t a tremendous player, and will have to come back from a torn ACL, but if he works out he will provide depth.

Kenneth Acker, cornerback, Southern Methodist University

Acker was a great corner at SMU, but will need some coaching up to learn the finer points of press coverage. Much like Reaser, he has good physical traits, but will most likely provide depth until he is proven.

Kaleb Ramsey, defensive end, Boston College

Ramsey is a high upside player with a lot of durability issues. He led all defensive lineman in bench-presses at the combine, and has a lot of burst and strength. However, he missed a lot of games in college thanks so a series of injuries. He has the ability to play the position well, or even start, but only if he can stay upright and healthy.

Trey Millard, fullback, Oklahoma

Millard is a versatile pick but will also be sitting out the 2014 season with, you guessed it, a torn ACL. He has decent pass-catching ability, and also plays well on special teams. He is a typical Harbaalke pick: tough, versatile and intelligent.

Undrafted free agents:

Kory Faulkner, quarterback, Southern Illinois University

Faulkner was a near unknown who the 49ers saw at the Northwestern Pro Day. Harbaugh took a liking to Faulkner’s tools and mindset and moved forward. He will compete with McLeod Bethel-Thompson for the 3rd string quarterback spot.

Morgan Breslin, outside linebacker, University of Southern California

Breslin is a Bay Area local with a modicum of pass rushing talent. The 49ers will most likely use him much like they used Corey Lemonier, a situational pass rusher who will spell Aldon Smith, Tank Carradine and others.

L.J. Mccray, safety, Catawba College

Another safety with experience as a corner, Mccray played Division 2 football but could be used any number of ways. He has experience as a kick returner, and, given how much competition the 49ers have in the secondary, this would seem like the primary reason the 49ers have invested in him.

Asante Cleveland, tight end, University of Miami

Cleveland is a long shot to make the 49ers roster, as he has seen very little use as a receiver. He has the physical skills to be a decent blocker, but on a team that values versatility and multi-skilled athletes, this pickup strikes me as a strange one.

Shayne Skov, inside linebacker, Stanford University

Skov was by far the most interesting undrafted player the 49ers picked up. There are legitimate questions about his durability and speed, but he was a big part of an excellent defensive unit at Stanford. He will be coached by one of the best coaching staffs in the league and could end up being a steal for the 49ers. He has the strength and smarts to prove himself at the NFL level.

Bonus free agency pickup:

Stevie Johnson, wide receiver, Buffalo Bills

Augmenting a really strong draft by the 49ers was the addition of Stevie Johnson. He has been a consistent producer since 2010, when he brought his excellent hands and route running to bear. He put together three 1000 yard seasons for the Bills, which is especially impressive considering how unstable Buffalo’s offense has been over the last few years. He carries with him a sizable contract, but will probably rework it to in order to free up money for the 49ers.

This acquisition is huge for a number of reasons. The 49ers now have three great receivers in Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Johnson. Last season, the lack of depth in the receiving corp stung the 49ers when Crabtree when down with a torn achilles tendon. Kaepernick will now have plenty of targets, which will open things up for the running game. In other words, the 49ers offense is now well-rounded in way it hasn’t been for a long time.

All in all, I’m pleased. The 49ers addressed every need, and picked up a lot of players that could contribute down the road. A part of me wishes that Baalke had traded down a bit more and grabbed picks for the next draft, but that could still happen. Last year, the 49ers traded Cam Johnson and Parys Haralson away for picks following some great performance by both players in the preseason. After picking up 12 rookies and signing a veteran wideout, the 49ers are loaded and in a prime position to get future picks by trading away players they do not need.

UPDATE: This is a cool article detailing the last time Hyde and Borland faced off.