They always say judge a draft class three years later, and for good reason. As easy as it is to get excited about all the new players arriving, the truth is that this is just the beginning for them — what lies ahead is even more hard work, adjustment, and maturation, all of which are necessary if they are to make the final 53 man roster, let alone pan out as prospects.
I mention that adage again now to temper expectation and to keep perspective about what the Niners did this weekend. It’s never too early to have thoughts about a team’s draft — and I certainly do below — but outright grades? Winners? Losers? Definitive opinion? Those have to be made when there’s actual results to go off of, so you won’t see either from me, at least.
San Francisco entered the 2014 draft with only a couple of minor holes, if that, and rather than looking for any particular addition to put them over the top, they were simply looking for good players who could help finish the Quest For Six. This was not the case last year, for example, when they had an opening at safety, and traded up to get future Pro Bowler Eric Reid to meet it. But this is a luxury — only winning teams are the ones who need not reach.
And, in my opinion, it looks (as of now) like they were successful overall — perhaps not as successful, as say, the St. Louis Rams, or the Minnesota Vikings, two teams whose draft classes are being universally lauded, but successful in their own right, adding solid value and plenty of potential upgrades. [Player evaluations will come in a separate post.]
By the end of the three-day pick-making extravaganza, the Niners:
- Stole wide receiver Stevie Johnson for the low low price of nothing at all, by sending a 4th rounder to the Bills, but getting another in a later trade. For a pass offense too often hindered by a lack of legitimate targets last year, Johnson will immediately step in and solve that issue, as will a — hopefully — healthy Michael Crabtree, who played only 8 games last season. If Quinton Patton can give us anything in year two, that’s a bonus.
- Got a back for the future in physical force Carlos Hyde, who many pundits felt was the best player at his position this class, yet went third, after Jeremy Hill and Bishop Sankey. This is one of the aforementioned value picks, where the Niners got a very good player who fell further than expected. As to what Hyde signifies, well…that’s open to interpretation. Frank Gore is nearing the end of the line and is unlikely to return this year, so you have to figure he’s out of the running back mix come 2015. But even factoring that in leaves the calculus a bit uneven — a Gore-less backfield still leaves four contenders, and not nearly enough footballs to go around. Kendall Hunter should be just fine after his torn Achilles, but there remains the interesting dilemma of LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore — the former has often complained about his lack of playing time in San Francisco, and seems like a good bet to be cut, released, or traded sometime before September…and yet, adding Hyde could just as easily be viewed as an insurance policy for the former Gamecock, who continues to work his way back from a devastating knee injury. Though the front office insists that Lattimore is progressing just fine, there is at least some legitimate cause for concern there. Hyde could just as easily be taking his place, and not James’.
- Needed more bodies in the cornerback mix, and pulled in no less than three candidates here. Which one of Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker sticks is still to be determined — the odds are against all three making it, obviously — and you can even count first round draft pick Jimmie Ward toward this group, if you feel so inclined. Jim Harbaugh has said that Ward, a 5’10 safety from NIU, will challenge for a spot at nickel corner first, rather than at his native position. I assume that he’ll be groomed for a return there once Antoine Bethea moves on.
- Further insured themselves against Navorro Bowman’s injury, with third round pick Chris Borland, and to a degree, undrafted free agent Shayne Skov. Two big, talented linebackers to go in the middle of an already dominant defense.
- Met the NFC West’s defensive line arms race with reinforcements of their own. Like Hyde, USC center Marcus Martin was highly rated on most boards, but slipped into the third round, and guard Brandon Thomas had a second round grade before his ACL injury. Despite their reputation as a quintet of road-graders, the truth is that the line slipped a bit in performance last season, as the run game averaged only 4.4 yards per carry, down from a much more impressive 5.1 in 2012. Martin and Thomas should provide good competition and much needed depth here, especially against a suddenly lethal looking St. Louis Rams front four.
- Picked up a high upside steal in Aaron Lynch. You may not have heard of him, but in his one season at Notre Dame, Lynch looked the part of a future first-round, pass-rushing stud. True, that same form didn’t hold after his transfer to USF, but you have to figure that with a new environment and some strong coaching, there’s a chance this pick pays off handsomely. Well worth the risk, especially at the fifth-round price we paid.
- Were able to stash several redshirts for 2015. When your team already has a ton of established depth, roster slots are at a premium, and taking anyone with upside you can put on the Physically Unable to Play list becomes a clever way to circumvent that 53 man limit. Marcus Lattimore was one high profile example of this, but he wasn’t alone — last year, the Niners were able to put Tank Carradine away too, and both guys are expected to make an impact this fall. The aforementioned Thomas is one of three players in this group, as is Keith Reaser. For bonus points, though, keep a close eye on Trey Millard, who did it all at fullback for Oklahoma, and could replace Bruce Miller down the line.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that looks pretty damn good to me. Admittedly, this is by no means a sexy draft class, since there’s no shiny offensive toy or well-known first round talent coming to the Bay. Sometimes, though, all you have to do is get better, especially when you’re so close to the top already.
They look like they did just that.