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)

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.

I Hate the New York Giants

ginsider10s-1-web (1)John G. Mabanglo/EPA

Twenty-three years ago, the 49ers played the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game. The 49ers were hoping to reach, and win, their third Super Bowl in a row, the ultimate capstone to one of the greatest decades by any sports franchise ever. Unfortunately, the Giants ruined it. The 49ers not only lost 15-13, but Joe Montana was thoroughly broken by a blindside tackle from Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall. I was less than a year old at the time, but I like to think that some part of me remembers this game. Some part of me remembers how my parents groaned and by big brother cried as the Giants’ Matt Bahr hit the game-winning field goal.

Almost exactly three years later, the 49ers took on the Giants at Candlestick for a chance to reach the NFC Championship game. It was the first football game I remember watching. I can still hear my dad roaring at the TV, imploring Ricky Watters to “GO! GO!” Watters rushed for 118 yards and five touchdowns that day, helping the 49ers bury the Giants 44-3. That game made me a football fan, and ensured that I would forever associate fun and excitement with watching the Giants lose.

I hate all sports franchises on some level. For the hard luck teams like the Browns I have a certain amount of glowing indifference, but little more. That said, I cannot think of a team that makes me angrier than the Giants. The Dodgers are the worst, but that is a rivalry I share with an entire city. With the Giants, it’s personal.

I hate their uniforms, an utterly vacant mix of big, dumb colors that signify nothing. I hate their logo, which has to be the most half-assed in professional sports. It looks like it was drawn left-handed at 4:59 on a Friday afternoon; 80% of the logo designer’s body and 100% of their mind was already outside of their tiny cubicle, raring to head to a bar, drink gallons of gin and ponder how the fuck their life became so crushingly awful.

Look at this shit

Look at this shit

I hate MetLife Stadium, a massive, half-used roll of duct tape jammed unceremoniously into the New Jersey swamp. I hate Giants fans, who spend more time complaining about the team they claim to love than cheering for them, only to backtrack as soon as the Giants stumble backwards into another playoff berth. Actually, scratch that. Giants fans spend their time mocking people who had their lives ruined by natural disasters and government incompetence.

I hate the way the Giants play. Their team is exemplary of why the veneration of championships is one of the most reductive and annoying parts of sports. The 2007 and 2011 Giants will be remembered for their dominant defense, but they were actually in the middle of the pack during the regular season. The 2007 team was ranked 13th in defensive efficiency and averaged 1.6 turnovers per game, but averaged 3.5 turnovers in the playoffs. The 2011 team was even worse. They ranked 19th in defensive efficiency, and surrendered an average of 2.7 touchdowns per game. That average dropped to 1.5 touchdowns in the playoffs. Whatever worked for them in these instances escaped the Giants in other playoff appearances. Since 2000, the Giants have reached the playoffs six times. Other than ’07 and ’11, they have been outscored 108-69.

Their quarterback is a scummy moron. He refused to play for the team that drafted him, instead crying to his father until he was traded to New York. He still will not admit that he was too much of a dipshit to sign on with a rebuilding franchise.

Here are three quarterback stat lines:

QB 1: 173:122 touchdown/INT ratio, 3.4 INT%, 61.5 CMP%, 85.3 Rating

QB 2: 246:177 touchdown/INT ratio, 3.3 INT%, 58.5 CMP%, 82 Rating

QB 3: 93:62 touchdown/INT ratio, 2.5 INT%, 59.1 CMP%, 81.3 Rating

One of these quarterbacks is a longtime backup currently starting for the Buffalo Bills. Another is right now watching as fans of his team burn his jersey. The third has won two Super Bowls and will, by virtue of those championships and his brother’s accomplishments, reach the Hall of Fame. That’s Eli. He’s #2.

You can tell me that Eli Manning and the Giants are well coached, are ‘clutch’, or they know how to ‘win when it counts’, but the fact is, none of these truly suffice. There is no statistical, strategic, emotional or metaphysical explanation for this blight.

The Giants are an unfortunate reality. Every few years, they swoop in like a swarm of locusts to devour any joy and entertainment we might hope to extract from watching football. Why? Because the New York Giants hate football, and they want you to hate it too.

Three years ago, I was sitting in the subbasement break room of a swanky Manhattan hotel, watching as the Giants recovered Kyle Williams’ fateful fumble and set up the game winning field goal. The 9-7 Giants, who wheezed their way into the playoffs, had targeted Williams because of his history with concussions. It paid off.

In an effort to cheer me up, some coworkers took me to Korea town to buy me dinner. Just after we ordered, a man on the other side of the restaurant spotted my 49ers shirt and started berating me:

“Hey. HEY! The 49ers are a good team. They’re a good team. But the Giants are perfect. They’re fucking PERFECT.”

This went on for a while. I had a hard time sleeping that night.

So what will I be watching for tomorrow?

Pain.

49ers vs. Panthers: What to Watch For

Cam Newton, Ahmad Brooks

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The 49ers are heading to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round. Just like last Sunday, this game is a replay of a matchup that took place in the regular season. However, the 49ers failed to strike a decisive blow against the Panthers in week 10. Instead, they wheezed out the worst offensive effort in Colin Kaepernick’s career as starting quarterback. This game promises to be very different from the last time these two teams met; the stakes are higher, and both teams are playing football elevated well above their just-enough-to-win sputtering in the regular season. The Panthers have two significant advantages: they will be playing at home after enjoying a week off, but the 49ers have more than enough talent to take them on.

Before I go into the details, I have to say that this game is the ‘all in’ moment for me. Should the 49ers fall short, I will be very bummed, but it wouldn’t bother me as much as a loss in the NFC Championship Game would. I don’t mind the Panthers; of the remaining NFC teams (besides the 49ers, of course), their road to the playoffs has been the most surprising and the least obnoxious. I didn’t have high hopes for this season, and I would be happier if my pessimism was realized against a team I don’t actively dislike. Should the 49ers win, they have to go to the Superbowl. A loss in Seattle or a defeat by the Saints in the last game at Candlestick Park would be truly unbearable. Here is what I will be watching for:

Comeback Players

The biggest story about the 49ers going into this game is how their rejuvenated offense will look. The last time they played Carolina, the offense piled up a measly 151 yards and failed to score a single touchdown. The Panthers’ front seven had their way with Kaep, but more importantly the 49ers lost both Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek to injuries mid-game. Both tight ends play a crucial role in run blocking, and Davis provides tremendous speed as a receiver. Both are healthy, and should help the offense get going a little better than they did in week 10.

Michael Crabtree did not see action against the Panthers. After Davis’ departure, Kaep was left with Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams as his primary targets. Needless to say, the passing game was lacking. Since Crabtree’s return, the 49ers have been on something of a hot streak:

Having Crabtree, Davis and Boldin will put a lot more pressure on the Panthers’ secondary, which wasn’t really tested the last time these teams met.

Aldon Smith is the final piece of the puzzle. He saw limited use against the Panthers in week 10, but has since become one of the best edge-rushers in the league. He harried the Packers last week, disrupting their entire offensive scheme with vicious bull rushes and constant pressure on Aaron Rodgers. His presence means big things for both him and his fellow pass rush specialists on Sunday.

Defense

The 49ers defense was incredible in week 10, and gave the team every opportunity to win. It is clear that they have the physicality and strategy to blunt the Panthers’ attack. Whether or not they can shake off the Lambeau chill and stand as strong on the road isn’t clear. Unlike the 49ers, the Panthers’ offense hasn’t changed much since week 10. Stout run defense and pass rush worked well in the past, and should be enough to contain Cam Newton and force him to turn over the ball.

Turnovers

In a defensive battle like this one promises to be, turnovers will be crucial. If the 49ers can keep Newton uncomfortable and be opportunistic, they can level the playing field. The Panthers match up really well with the 49ers and will have a friendly crowd supporting them; ball safety will be critical. The 49ers have won the turnover battle in the last six weeks, forcing 8 turnovers while only coughing up the ball 3 times. If the 49ers can continue that trend, they will be playing for a Super Bowl berth next week.

49ers at Titans: The Kaepernicking

KapeTitansFrederick Breedon/Getty Images

The 49ers are 5-2 after grabbing their first ‘pretty’ win of the year. Ever since this season started, the 49ers have been ‘ugly’. The win over Green Bay was kinda pretty, but we knew in the back of our heads Anquan Boldin wasn’t going to collect 200 yards in every game. Every game since week 1 has been some kind of ugly. Sure, lots of bruising defense and bruising offense makes for ugly football, but that’s exactly what this team does so well. If there was anything pretty that Alex Smith did, it was because it materialized in a sea of ‘Frank Gore up the middle, Frank Gore up the middle, David Akers field goal, defense forces three-and-out, repeat.’ What we saw against the Titans was legitimately pretty, a ‘good all-around game’ by San Francisco. While it may not be the style the 49ers should use against contending teams, it was nice to see them switch things up a bit.

What I saw on Sunday:

The Good Things

Zone Read Plays: There was a lot of complaining about the lack of zone read plays being called early in the season. This complaint is valid, but I am pleased to see them using Kaepernick carefully. It is clear that they want the threat posed by Kaep’s legs to be present in every game, but they also want to be judicious when putting him in a position to take big hits. Against an aggressive defense like Arizona’s, the read option would be unwise, but it was clear that the Titans were caught totally unaware. Perhaps the best thing about Kaep’s running is the effect it has on the rest of the team. The offense seemed to flow better after his first touchdown; they played with a confidence that we hadn’t seen since week 1.

Colin Kaepernick: Kaep still has plenty to learn, but his solid effort against the Titans was sign that he is benefitting from Greg Roman’s simplified play calling. He made plenty of mistakes, but looked strong in the pocket and made some great throws. Any momentum this team builds is centered around Kaep’s ability to take control of games and play with confidence, and we saw both of those things happen on Sunday.

Special Teams: The special teams coverage has been excellent in 2013, and seems to be getting better as the season goes on. It is difficult to parse individual special teams efforts, but it is obvious that they are playing with an aggressiveness that was lacking in 2012. Kassim Osgood’s muffed-punt-recovery-touchdown was the nail in the Titans’ coffin, and was a big moment for a special teams squad that has been quietly dominant all year.

Ball Distribution: This was one of the more balanced offensive efforts we’ve seen all year. Of course, this just means a more equal distribution of passes between Boldin and Vernon Davis, but it was still good to see Kaep spreading the ball around. Gore even grabbed some receiving yards, and we saw a glimpse of Vance McDonald’s pass catching ability with a big 20 yard reception that set up a touchdown.

The Bad Thing

Safety Depth: Late in the game, Donte Whitner and Eric Reid both suffered minor leg injuries and were pulled from the field. They were replaced by special teamers C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl, and on the very next play Titans running back Chris Johnson turned a short pass into a 66 yard touchdown run. Johnson’s speed and skill had a lot to do with this run, but it was Dahl and Spillman’s inability to make a tackle that allowed him to break through the secondary. There haven’t been any major reports of what happened to Reid (who reentered the game soon after) and Whitner (who was seen walking without a limp soon after leaving the field), but it is clear that the 49ers lack depth at the safety position. The 49ers have already been hit hard by injuries, and losing either safety would be bad news for a secondary that has played well thus far.

Other Things

Turnovers: Technically speaking, the 49ers won the turnover battle. However, anyone who watched this game would know this wasn’t the case. Kaep threw what would have been two interceptions if not for a penalty call and a misplay by Titans cornerback Jason McCourty. Kyle Williams also fumbled the ball, but the referees called it an incomplete pass. These mistakes went the 49ers way, but they show that Kaep is still very prone to mental errors. The way the defense was playing, the turnovers might not have mattered, but it remains something to be concerned about.

Kyle Williams: I do not know know what to make of Mr. Williams; despite possessing some return skill, he has called for a league-high 16 fair catches. This hasn’t hurt the 49ers, but it hasn’t helped much either. Any player able to run the ball back, even if just a little, would be a step up from Williams. As I mentioned above, his one reception of the day resulted in a fumble that was miscalled, but was something that could have actively hurt the team. I applaud Williams for being a team player, but he is a total non-factor at this point. He has shown almost nothing thus far in 2013, and as such I cannot think of a way for the 49ers to use him that benefits the team in any way.