Bullshit

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During last Sunday’s game, my roommate, a Broncos fan, asked me why the 49ers were moving on from Jim Harbaugh. I thought about his question for most of the game, and realized I didn’t have a good answer. There were reasons, to be sure, but none of them made any sense.

“There were philosophical differences.”

“Harbaugh and Trent Baalke butted heads.”

“Jim Harbaugh’s attitude was an issue.”

The reasons came readily, but I couldn’t say them. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to borrow the woefully insufficient language that the 49ers organization tossed to a ravenous and frustrated fanbase. No matter how insignificant the question, I wasn’t going to add to their bullshit.

2014 was a year of problems, and of blame. For the first (and last) time in the Harbaugh Era, the 49ers struggled. In truth, the problems started almost a year ago in Seattle, when Navorro Bowman saw his knee destroyed while recovering a Seahawks fumble in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship. The problems kept on; the roster was worn down to a stump, but still managed to stay productive. Through all of this, there was talk about Harbaugh being difficult to work with, Harbaugh losing the locker room, and Harbaugh being too expensive for Jed York’s taste.

It was as if the ownership could not stomach anything less than total success. Despite the fact that Harbaugh was one of the surest bets in football, the team’s immediate failures outweighed a history filled with winning. Perhaps they bought into the perpetual myth that Harbaugh is only good at rebuilding programs. Perhaps the front office and ownership were convinced he was no longer necessary.

The only rational explanation is that Harbaugh was unwilling to shake up the offensive staff. Once again, I think ALL of the 2014 49ers’ problems start with injuries, but anyone that reads my blog or any other outlet that covers the 49ers knows that Greg Roman was a very unpopular offensive coach. Harbaugh could have refused to get rid of Roman, but this theory has no actual basis.

Until we know more, we have to go with the answer that makes the most ‘sense’, even if it isn’t sensical. After a year of problems, another one has cropped up: the 49ers aren’t a well-run organization. You can point to the drafts and the recent playoff berths, but I can just as easily point to the unpopular mess that is Levis Stadium, or York’s insistence on venting his frustrations on Twitter and elsewhere. Perhaps as a corporation interested in making the largest amount of money possible, the 49ers are succeeding. However, as an organization hoping to pay back a fanbase that remained mostly loyal through ten years of futility, York and the 49ers just made their debt much harder to repay.

For a million or so a year, the 49ers have transformed from a juggernaut to a league laughingstock. Some have contended that this is simply a short-sighted attempt to reap the benefits of a new stadium without the cost of a premium coach, but no matter what the case, it is clear that York, and perhaps Baalke, have goals distinct from those of the fans, and of the team.

If I were not a huge fan of Harbaugh, I might try to look at this more empirically. Even from a hyper-rational standpoint, this move makes little sense. Harbaugh was the fifth-winningest coach in NFL history, and there are no obvious replacements on the market. Harbaugh was simply too good, and the head coach market too lacking in viable options.

So there you have it. The 49ers have made a move that has no logical basis. They continually backed down from defending Harbaugh, and from acknowledging the actual circumstances of a lost season. York has shown the fans and the team that his ego and profit margins are vastly more important to him than winning, and that he considers his negligible football and business experience more estimable than Harbaugh’s actual, tangible, record-setting accomplishments.

I wish there were some positive to take away from this, but there isn’t. Maybe in a year I will look back on this post and laugh at my own lack of foresight, but from where I sit now, there is no one in the world of football capable of filling Harbaugh’s shoes.

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)

Seahawks At 49ers: More of the Same

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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.

49ers at Giants: Glorious

chris-borland-nfl-san-francisco-49ers-new-york-giants-850x560Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers put together one of the most glorious and frustrating games of the season, defeating the New York Giants 16-10 on the road. The 49ers’ travels are basically over; other than a short trip to San Diego and another to Seattle, every game from here on out will be at home or across the Bay in Oakland. The 49ers are 6-4, tied with Seattle in second place and still in the hunt for a wildcard spot. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

Every week it gets harder to figure this team out. The defense has been dealt a horrible hand, losing all-pros, leaders, role players and everything in between. But no matter what happens, they keep balling. The 49ers are ranked 3rd in the league in weighted defensive efficiency, ahead of Seattle and Arizona. They are ranked 1st in the NFL against the pass, which I had to recheck three or four times because it makes no sense. Last week I attributed this ridiculous success to Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke, but I think this goes deeper than that. The 49ers defense has proven capable of weathering nearly anything, and that starts with the players. Despite a massive loss in talent, every single healthy defensive player has risen to the challenge. They are the primary reason the 49ers sit at 6-4.

Chris Borland

When the 49ers drafted Borland, I was skeptical. I don’t trust players who get by on instinct to last in the NFL. I’m glad I was wrong. His lack of physical tools has not stopped him from becoming the hero of the 2014 season. I’m still not 100% sure he can keep producing at such a high level, but here’s to hoping. For now, let’s just enjoy the one-man wrecking crew that is Chris Borland.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

The offense struggled to get anything done, picking up just 333 total yards against one of the worst defenses in the league. Kaep was a big part of this, although he is not entirely to blame. He overthrew receivers numerous times and was ineffectual in the red zone. The Giants’ defense did a decent job covering the 49ers down the field, but Kaep had far too many missed opportunities.

Offense

It was a truly pathetic showing by the offense, which was only able to score 3 points off of five interceptions. The 49ers dominated in the trenches until they moved inside the Giants’ 20 yard line. This game should have been a blowout. Unlike the defense, the offense has no excuses. They are mostly healthy and should be averaging more than 21 points per game. The 49ers might be able to squeeze enough out of this offense to make the playoffs, but they won’t be able to go much farther.

The Other Thing

Aldon Smith

It wasn’t an incredible day for Aldon Smith, but his presence was certainly welcome. The pass rush was the best it has been all season. With Smith commanding the attention of multiple offensive linemen, the rest of the d-line was given plenty of opportunities to disrupt plays and get to the quarterback. It’s scary to think just how good this pass rush could be going forward.

49ers at Saints: Sweet Revenge

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints

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The 49ers did enough right on Sunday to take down the New Orleans Saints, moving to 5-4 on the season. It was by far the most entertaining game of the season; only the win in Dallas in week one comes close in terms of entertainment value. It was also a deeply satisfying win for 49ers fans, who saw a very similar game slip away in 2013 thanks to some very poor officiating. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Coaching

Specifically, defensive coaching. The 49ers have lost three of their four most productive defensive starters. Of this defensive ‘core’, only Justin Smith remains. The 49ers have thrown out rookies and castoffs, and inexplicably are fielding the 8th ranked defense in the NFL. If there is one silver lining to this season, it’s that Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke are proving themselves to be the most potent defense-building and coaching duo in the NFL. The emergence of Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland has been incredible to watch, but perhaps more striking is the production of what many were happy to call the most tenuous secondary in the NFC. Despite an inconsistent pass rush and constant turnover at the cornerback position, the 49ers rank 6th in defensive efficiency against the pass (which is 8 ranks higher than Seattle’s vaunted pass defense).

Colin Kaepernick

He did not rise to the occasion as dramatically as I had hoped, but Kaep had a good day, and provided what I hope will be a major turning point in the season with his unbelievable 4th down game saving strike to Michael Crabtree. Kaep has yet to play a full four quarters, but he has been remarkably productive behind the league’s 31st ranked pass protecting unit. His line for the season: 179-289, 61.94 comp%, 2166 yds, 13 Tds, 5 int, 92.7 rating. Given the incredible amount of drops from 49ers receivers, his numbers show that he may in fact be coming along as a passer. His completion percentage dipped to 43.75% in New Orleans, but this was due to the 49ers receivers’ 8 droped passes (without which his comp% would have been an excellent 68.75%). He still makes mistakes, sometimes hesitating to throw the ball away or failing to check down when the situation calls for it, but things are looking up for Kaep.

The Bad Things

Drops

One of the most fascinating and disturbing things about this season is how poor the 49ers have been at football fundamentals. A lot is made of quarterback play, of injuries, of strategy, but all of that is irrelevant when professional athletes aren’t doing their job. Dropped passes have stung the 49ers a few times this season, and they nearly became the story of this game. Crabtree has had an uninspiring season, but Anquan Boldin’s sudden inability to secure good passes is worrisome. Hopefully, like the abundance of penalties and the ‘can’t-score-in-the-second-half’ nonsense early in the season, this will pass.

The Other Thing

Injuries
I realize it’s a little odd to put this in the ‘other’ column, but bear with me. The 49ers keep getting injured, and with each injury they lose strategic options and talent. The latest blow is the biggest of the season, leaving the most critical part of the 49ers’ defense in the hands of a rookie and a skilled but unremarkable player.

However, the 49ers have done a miraculous job of following the ‘next man up’ philosophy. Despite losing some tremendous talent, they’ve been able to exceed what was expected of them, particularly on defense. That is not to say injuries are in any way a good thing, just that giving the 49ers’ rookie class reps could prove beneficial in the long run.

Jim Harbaugh Rumors and Speculation Round 2

san-francisco-49ers-rumorsAdam Rifkin/Flickr

We are once again embroiled in a Jim Harbaugh rumorstorm. Harbaugh is one of the most polarizing figures in sports; his sideline demeanor, thinly-veiled dislike of the media and his status as the catalyst for the 49ers’ resurgence have made him the subject of no small amount of discussion. He has been brought up as a possible candidate for the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, and last year was supposed to be heading to either USC or Texas. Most recently, analyst Deion Sanders reported hearing from anonymous sources that the 49ers’ players were getting tired of Harbaugh.

I should note that this has happened before, last December to be exact. Village idiot Tim Kawakami reported that there was tension between Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, no doubt hunting for clicks amidst the discussion around Harbaugh’s future with the team. Nothing came of it, and Kawakami’s claims, which were much more detailed and substantial than Sanders’, proved incorrect.

Alex Boone and Antoine Bethea have already defended Harbaugh pretty fiercely, but it’s clear that as long as Harbaugh is coach, this will keep happening. But that doesn’t mean we should listen to it. That isn’t to say that Sanders is necessarily incorrect, only that, until we see actual evidence for this, it doesn’t mean anything. People asked Sanders why he didn’t want to give up his source, and this is how he responded:

He’s right, except for one wrinkle: Sanders isn’t a journalist. Journalists don’t float rumors out into the aether on national television and then take to Twitter to defend them. They don’t do this because their job is predicated on a certain amount of credibility, and there are consequences if they don’t maintain it. Sanders, on the other hand, faces no consequences if this rumor proves to be incorrect. Sports analysts aren’t paid for the quality of their sources and journalistic integrity, but rather their personality and experience with the game. They have only publicity to gain from these stunts, and nothing to lose, which makes comments like these seem almost comical:

Until something actually substantial happens regarding Harbaugh or the locker room, we should listen to Boone:

“Here’s my problem with all this: if you’re not in our locker room, then keep the 49ers name out of your mouth, because you have no idea what goes on in our locker room.”

Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde and Tempering Our Post-Draft Hopes

Carlos Hyde, John Lowdermilk, Anthony HitchensAP Photo/Jay LaPrete

The weeks after a good draft might be the most hopeful time of the year for NFL fans. Eventually, reality sets in, and you remember that no amount of Mike Mayock praise can un-bust a poor draft pick. That isn’t to say that the 49ers drafted poorly in the last few years. Indeed, quite the opposite. However, for this year’s haul to be called a ‘good’ one, only half of the 49ers’ 12 picks need contribute.

Carlos Hyde might never adjust to Greg Roman’s system. Jimmie Ward could struggle to cover anyone, let alone Tavon Austin and Percy Harvin. Aaron Lynch’s ‘character concerns’ might linger, Brandon Thomas’ ACL could never heal right. I am not trying to bring anyone down. I feel plenty hopeful too, but I think it is important to recognize that even Trent Baalke cannot force a college player to play well in the NFL, or a tendon to heal perfectly.

The extraordinary amount of talent on the 49ers frees Baalke up to make some interesting decisions, like drafting injured players in the later rounds, or signing British olympians with no gridiron football experience. Baalke can run parts of the team like Google X, experimenting with low-cost players and hopefully harnessing talent that can be used on Sundays. However, it is important to keep in mind that the success rate for this is, at best, pretty low.

When Marcus Lattimore was drafted in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft, the pick was widely praised. Not only were the 49ers getting tremendous value from a 4th round pick, but they were addressing a future need by finding a replacement for the aging Frank Gore. The story was almost too perfect; just like Gore, Lattimore was recovering from a devastating knee injury. Like Gore, Lattimore had been a huge part of the offense at his school, and for the limited time he played, he was arguably the best half back in the SEC. It was really hard not to be hopeful.

Things got a little more realistic in the 2nd round of of the 2014 Draft, when the 49ers took Ohio State’s resident battering ram, Carlos Hyde. This baffled more than a few fans. Was Lattimore not the second coming of Gore? Wasn’t the running back corp deep enough? However, if you really thought about it, the pick made a lot of sense.

We must recognize that even athletes like Lattimore sometimes never turn the corner. Doctors are getting better and better at helping athletes recover from injuries, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily can contribute in the NFL. We are all rooting for Lattimore, Thomas, Tank Carradine, Lawrence Okoye, Keith Reaser to get healthy, but the chances of that happening are slim.

 

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.

 

The 49ers Draft Jimmie Ward

Jimmie-Ward-448x328

Andrew Weber/US PressWire

With a resounding ‘huh?’, 49ers fans welcomed the newest addition to the team, Northern Illinois strong safety Jimmie Ward. After 29 rounds of grindingly slow draft coverage, injected with noxious speculation about Johnny Manziel’s destination, the 49ers made a classic Harbaalke pick. At that point in the first round, much of the talent most associated with the 49ers was gone, with Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Justin Gilbert and Odell Beckham Jr. all drafted within the first 15 rounds.

Many expected the 49ers to be more aggressive, but they forestalled any trades up in favor of what I can only call a cautious pick. Although I hadn’t expected them to trade up near the first 10 rounds, I was surprised they did not try to move into the 16-20 range. Jason Verrett, Darqueze Dennard, Dee Ford and Kelvin Benjamin were all available in the middle of the round. I will defer to Harbaalke’s methods, but I can’t help but feel that they missed out on some great players.

Ward is not a high profile pick, but many have praised the 49ers’ choice. Ward has a unique set of skills, with the speed and hitting ability to play multiple positions in the secondary. Jim Harbaugh spoke to this after the draft, saying that Ward will compete to replace Carlos Rogers as a nickel corner, and could eventually replace Antoine Bethea at strong safety. I must admit, Ward wasn’t on my radar, but after watching some film I can see what the 49ers liked. Harbaalke tends to favor athleticism and versatility, both of which Ward possesses, and they are not afraid to go after small school players.

All in all, I am content with the pick. Admittedly, I would be happier if they had picked up Dennard, Evans or Benjamin, but I can’t complain about Ward or the message it sends. It is clear that Harbaalke is happy with the shape of the team, and will draft accordingly. Ward may not be a major pick now, but he possesses the skills to be an excellent piece of the secondary in the future.

 

49ers Draft Needs

 

trentmurphyCarlos Avila Gonzalez

The NFL’s most overhyped program, at least until the upcoming 49ers-Seahawks game on Thanksgiving, is nearly upon us. This year’s draft has been praised as one of the deepest, one of the strongest and most complex, but don’t be fooled. Draft day will be just as entertaining as the last few years, which is to say, not very. Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of a 49ers fan. Despite not being able to win a sixth championship in the last few years, the 49ers are still in pretty good shape, and will be for a while. They once again have a boatload of picks (11, all told). Here are the 49ers’ draft needs, in no particular order:

Center

With Jonathan Goodwin a free agent, the 49ers will be looking for a center in the middle to late rounds. Daniel Kilgore is the heir apparent, but Baalke likes to stock the roster with multiple options and figure out the depth chart in training camp. USC’s Marcus Martin is the most prominent candidate, but there are lots of options for interior linemen in the 3rd and 4th rounds.

Pass Rusher

The 49ers benefited from having a lot of depth along the defensive line last season. Having players like Corey Lemonier, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie allowed them to rest starters and ensure that injuries or absences didn’t leave the 49ers’ front seven in the lurch. Tank Carradine will debut in 2014, but it couldn’t hurt the 49ers to pick up even more depth. I am pretty high on Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy, who tore up the Pac-12 last year and could be developed into a lethal pass rusher. The 49ers have also been connected with Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Auburn defensive end Dee Ford.

Quarterback

The 49ers traded for Jacksonville signal caller Blaine Gabbert, but will no doubt be looking for another one in the draft. There are some intriguing mid-round options, including LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, San Jose State’s David Fales and Virgina Tech’s Logan Thomas. David Fales would be a great backup option, and could learn a lot from Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert and Harbaugh. All that said, I wish the 49ers would just bring back B.J. Daniels

Cornerback

The 49ers resigned Eric Wright and picked up Vikings corner Chris Cook, but lost some major players in Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown. I had initially thought the 49ers would look wide receiver in the first round, but Chris Culliver decided to play Grand Theft Auto V in real life and will most likely miss some time next season. This leaves the team in a tough spot, depth-wise. Fortunately, this draft has some excellent options at corner. If the 49ers do decide to trade up in the first round, it will most likely be to grab one of the premier cornerbacks like Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. I could also see them going to the second round and picking up TCU’s Jason Verrett or VT’s Kyle Fuller.

Wide Receiver

If the 49ers do decide to be aggressive in the first round, I hope they trade up to get a wide receiver. Provided everyone stays healthy, they will be in a position to add to a receiver group that has been lacking the last couple of years. Kaepernick needs weapons, and he seemed impressed with FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin. I like Benjamin a lot, as he could be the red zone threat the 49ers have been lacking and could learn a lot under Anquan Boldin. The 49ers could also look for more sure-handed receivers, like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Indiana’s Cody Latimer.

I fully expect Baalke to trade away some picks in order to add to later drafts as well. The 49ers used all of their 13 picks last year, and do not need to ‘stock up’ on training camp bodies as much as other teams. Although it doesn’t make the actual draft process more interesting, there is a lot of talent this year and some great possibilities for the 49ers to improve, particularly on offense. We can only hope that Harbaalke stays smart and works some more draft day magic.