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

imrsRicky Carioti/The Washington Post

The 49ers take on Washington tomorrow, hoping to extend their win streak to three and show a little something at home. They are facing a beleaguered, banged-up team that has had a lot of turnover at the quarterback position. It’s an excellent chance to have a statement win, but the 49ers have struggled to score on just about everybody this season. Here is what I will be watching for:

Offensive Line

Washington is far from a complete team, but they do have some quality pieces. Their pass rush has been solid for a lot of the season, and was a big reason they were able to steal a win from the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. The 49ers’ o-line has been improving, due in large part to the emergence of Marcus Martin as an anchor at center, but they still aren’t close to their 2012 dominance. If they are able to keep Washington’s pass-rushers at bay, Colin Kaepernick can take advantage of their horrible secondary.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush has helped them stay afloat in the wildcard race, and it needs to take it to Washington’s o-line. Making Robert Griffin III uncomfortable will keep Washington from putting together any kind of momentum. I also just want to see Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch go to work; it has been insanely fun to watch Lynch mature as a player, and having Smith back only makes him more dangerous.

Dominance

Last year, the 49ers went to Washington and dominated in every aspect of the game. They held Washington to just 190 total yards, sacked RGIII six times and looked, for all intents and purposes, like a playoff team. The 49ers have failed to truly dominate in a single game this season, and it’s starting to worry me. Kaep will be in a good position to bounce back from a poor game against the Giants, while Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde should get plenty of chances to make plays against the NFL’s 29th ranked rush defense.

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

Colin+Kaepernick+San+Francisco+49ers+v+New+n9ZIR6sSo6UlChris Graythen/Getty Images

Sunday’s game is the most important of the season. I’ve said that before, but it actually means something now. The 49ers have dug themselves into a hole over the last three weeks, and they need to start crawling out now, or not at all. Just like every other game on their schedule, this game is winnable, but they will need to do something that escaped them for the first half of the season: establish an offensive identity. The offense is at full strength, or as close to it as they will be this season, and the onus is on Greg Roman, Colin Kaepernick and the offensive line to show that they aren’t done. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Offensive Line

Last season, the 49ers lost an ugly game in New Orleans, the result of some horrible offensive play (the offense only gained 196 yards and 12 first downs) and some equally horrible officiating from Tony Corrente. This year, the 49ers’ offense, despite being replete with playmakers, looks even worse, easily among the worst in the league. A big reason for this is the offensive line, which has seen lots of turnover. The o-line doesn’t need to have an incredible game, but they need to stop making mistakes. The stupid penalties, whiffed blocks and lack of push in the run game that have limited the 49ers’ o-line need to end, now.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep hasn’t been excoriated quite the same way he was last year, but he has yet to truly play up to his contract. He will have a great chance to prove his worth in New Orleans. After some unsustainably good defensive play in 2013, Rob Ryan’s unit has fallen part, falling from 10th to 29th in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders. If Kaep can get Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis involved, he can feast on New Orleans’ banged-up secondary and take control of the offense.

Aaron Lynch, Jimmie Ward, Chris Borland, Marcus Martin

Due to some unfortunate injuries, the 49ers’ future has been rushed onto the field earlier than expected. Results have been mixed, but overall much better than can be reasonably expected of rookies. If the 49ers can’t get it together and the season is indeed lost, rookies like Lynch and Ward will be one of the only things worth paying attention to (other than the Seahawks games). The 49ers’ rookies are being run through a meat grinder – Borland, in particular, will have faced off against two of the NFL’s greatest passers in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in his first three games. After this week, the 49ers’ missing defensive core will start to return, starting with the suspended Aldon Smith. We know Vic Fangio doesn’t like to overuse untested talent, so the rookies will need to show out in the limited chances they get.

2014 NFL Draft: All the Rest

 

carloshydeJamie Sabau/Getty Images

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.