The San Francisco 49ers have a fantastic conundrum heading into the 2014 NFL Draft; they have at least 11 draft picks with very few glaring needs to address. As a result, general manager Trent Baalke and company have options. They can stay put at No. 30 overall and likely have the opportunity to select a receiver like Brandin Cooks of Oregon State or Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State. They could also choose to focus on their need for fresh talent at cornerback and select a player like Bradley Roby of Ohio State or Justin Verrett of TCU.
Another option is to bundle picks and make an aggressive move up the board to snag No. 1 wide receiver prospect Sammy Watkins.
At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Watkins isn’t close to being the biggest receiver in the draft. But he’s a dynamic playmaker who is absolutely lethal in open space. Never was his skill set more apparent than in his final game as a Clemson Tiger, as he exploded for 227 yards receiving on 16 receptions in Clemson’s narrow victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. The majority of his receptions were screen passes that Watkins was able to turn into big gains.
So how would Watkins fit in San Francisco?
He’d give the 49ers an electric downfield threat that would stretch opposing defenses. He’d be a perfect complement to Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin (assuming he’s re-signed), as both are physical, possession-type receivers who rarely run routes deeper than 20 yards. The Niners finished 26th in the NFL in total passing yards in 2013. It’s clear that quarterback Colin Kaepernick could use another weapon on offense, and Watkins is versatile enough to be used on reverses and short crossing routes on top of deep balls and screens.
In addition to creating wider intermediate throwing lanes for Kaepernick, stretching out defenses would also do wonders for the Niners’ already solid running game. It’s no secret that offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh love to run the football. They ranked third in rushing attempts in 2013, and while Watkins wouldn’t alter that core component of the offense, he would certainly force safeties to be weary of getting beat deep. The Niners could also target a deep threat like Emmanuel Sanders in free agency, but Watkins would be a more compelling addition who could contribute for a long time.
In his latest mock draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. projects (subscription required) that Watkins will be taken at No. 5 overall by the Oakland Raiders. But the Raiders have a laundry list of major needs to address in this draft, and they’re desperate for more draft picks. If the Niners deduce that Watkins is indeed worth trading up for, the Raiders would likely be willing to listen to potential offers. If the Raiders choose to go a different direction and pick a quarterback, the Niners could also look to make a deal with the Atlanta Falcons at No. 6.
Could Watkins end up sporting a red and gold jersey on May 8? Only time will tell.