The reason the San Francisco 49ers are amongst the deepest and most talented teams in the NFL is largely due to smart drafting. Sure, there’s some key guys on the roster who have been brought in via trade and free agency, but by and large the bulk of this roster is homegrown. That reputation of smart draft day decisions was continued this year in the 2014 NFL Draft, as SF pulled in what just might be the best class in the league.
At first glance Jimmie Ward (S, Northern Illinois) was a head scratcher, largely because they just signed SS Antoine Bethea to a big contract and took FS Eric Reid in the first round last year. But take a closer look at his skill set and experience and you realize he won’t just be playing S in Vic Fangio’s scheme, but CB as well, specifically at nickel.
Ward will likely get a chance to start at nickel back (the ‘Niners ran nickel sets more than 60% of the time last year), and fill in at S here and there for the time being. Don’t be surprised to see Ward take over the SS spot from Bethea after 2015.
Carlos Hyde (RB, Ohio State) at 57th overall was a steal. No, RB isn’t even close to a need with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James, but Hyde is arguably the best back in the entire draft class and a perfect fit for the bruising inside run game OC Greg Roman prefers.
Plus, Gore is 31 and in the last year of his deal, Hunter likewise in the last year of his deal, James is rumored to be on his way out of town and Lattimore hasn’t played a football game in almost two years after a devastating knee injury, so Hyde could find himself playing a big role in the near future.
In the third round, SF took Marcus Martin (C, USC), Chris Borland (ILB, Wisconsin) and Brandon Thomas (G, Clemson). Value, value and more value. Martin was arguably the best center in the class and SF just let Jonathan Goodwin go, so he could start right away. Borland was thought to be a late first/early second round guy and will be an outstanding no. 3 inside behind Patrick Willis and NoVorro Bowman. Thomas has experience at G and T, and was thought to be an early second round guy before tearing his ACL in a recent workout. All three could wind up being long term starters.
Bruce Ellington (WR, South Carolina) and Dontae Johnson (CB, NC State) were the teams fourth round picks. Ellington is a burner and can provide a terrific deep threat to a receiving corps that lacks one. Johnson is a big and physical DB who will provide depth at both CB and S.
The teams 5th, 6th and 7th rounders will have tougher times making the team, but all have good upside. Aaron Lynch (DE/OLB, USF) has physical skills galore but fell in the draft because of maturity issues. Considering the maturity issues on their current OLB’s, this was a questionable pick, but one with good upside. Keith Reaser (CB, FAU) needs to prove he’s healthy after a season ending knee injury last year. Kenneth Acker (CB, SMU) has good versatility despite an average skill set.
This class is all about value. SF, as a byproduct of smart drafting, is in a position where they can almost always take the best player available, and the result is a stellar class. I don’t think there’s a chance in heck all 12 guys make the 53 man roster this August, but there’s 8 or 9 guys who could play serious roles with the team moving forward.