As the grueling NFL Draft process gets under way, many teams are beginning to look for that “diamond in the rough.” The player that is supposed to transform a losing team into a playoff contender- and it all starts with tomorrow’s Senior Bowl.
The Senior Bowl was founded in 1950, and is played annually in Mobile, Alabama, consisting of two teams; North and South. The participants taking part in the festivities is by invite only, and must first complete their eligibility in order to even qualify.
The game has since transformed into a integral part of the player evaluation process for determining a player’s draft status, making it one of the most respected off-season events of the year.
While the San Francisco 49ers are preparing for Super Bowl XLVII, their college scouting department led by GM Trent Baalke is already busy trying to build next year’s roster. With over 500 college players to evaluate, Baalke will need to rely heavily on Director of Player Personnel Tom Gamble and Director of College Scouting Joel Patten for their input.
Since Baalke took over the scouting department in 2008, he has drafted 19 active players, including three All-Pro’s. His innate ability to find talent in the back end of a draft is invaluable, evidenced by drafting five current players in the sixth and seventh rounds.
So with the Senior Bowl just a day away, who should the 49ers target? Below is a list of five players, I believe the Niners should focus on, based on their salary cap, needs, and character.
1. NT/DE Sylvester Williams
A mammoth defensive specimen from UNC, weighing 320 pounds, Williams is your proto-typical nose tackle. He has a rare combination of size and strength to hold the point of attack, allowing his linebackers to make open-field tackles. With both NT’s Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois playing in the last year of their contracts, the 49ers would be wise to invest in the position now and solidify the position for the foreseeable future.
2. NT/DE Kawaan Short
Unlike Williams, Kawaan Short is an interior-speed rusher. The Purdue product was able to rack up 14.5 tackles for loss and six sacks his Senior season. His blend of speed and strength alone is what separates him from the rest of the group, making him an intriguing prospect. If Short has a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, Pro-Day, and combine, he may sky-rocket up draft boards as a late first to early second-round draft pick.
3. OLB Alex Okafor
You may be asking yourself, a linebacker? Really? Yes, a linebacker. However, not just any linebacker, a situational pass-rushing linebacker. It is true that with three All-Pro linebackers already on the roster, the decision to select a linebacker may not be as appealing. However, I would be quick to point out that isn’t necessarily true. In a time, where pass-rushers are at a premium, you can never have enough pass rushers. The 49ers finished the regular season ranking tied for 11th in sacks with 38, which isn’t bad, but when you delve deeper into the numbers, you will find why making this decision is the correct one.
49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith set a franchise single season-sack record with 19.5; he accounted for more than 50% of the production. If he goes down to injury, where will the sacks come from? In a pass-happy league, it is imperative that the defense gets pressure on the quarterback and that is why adding Texas outside linebacker Alex Okafor makes perfect sense.
Okafor finished his Senior season with 8 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Not great stats due to teams devoting all their attention to him, after teammate Jackson Jeffcoat went down with a torn pectoral, but nonetheless respectable. He is one of the most athletically gifted athletes coming out of the draft and should provide a dynamic dimension on passing downs. He is a projected mid second to early third round draft pick, in my early mock draft.
4. CB Jordan Poyer
The San Francisco 49ers ranked fourth in pass defense and is clearly a strength, with numerous Pro-Bowlers on the back-end. However, despite all the talent in the secondary, they do not have a true shut down corner and CB Carlos Rogers isn’t getting any younger. While everyone is talking about CB Desmond Trufant, it is Jordan Poyer who is the better prospect.
Not a big corner, only standing 6-0, 190 pounds, Poyer more than makes up for his size with his coverage skills. In 2012, Poyer led the Oregon State Beavers with seven interceptions, and was consistently reliable throughout the season. His ability to hold his own on the outside during Senior Bowl practice was impressive to say the least, as he was very fluid in his cuts/breaks on dig routes. If Poyer continues to wow scouts in the evaluation process, he could go as early as the first round.
5. K Dustin Hopkins
It is no surprise that K David Akers will be on the hot seat after the Super Bowl. 49ers fans everywhere believe he has warmed out his welcome, despite his record-breaking 2011 campaign. And with a loaded back-end contract, it would be wise for the 49ers to cut ties now.
Florida State product Dustin Hopkins has been nothing short of outstanding, during his tenure in Tallahassee. He finished the 2012 season connecting on 24 of 28 field-goals including numerous field-goals of 50+ during his career. His strong leg should help him get drafted somewhere in the sixth or seventh round, as kickers are not a valued position in the draft. If this happens, the 49ers should be quick to nab him, as the need for a kicker outweighs the potential of a late-round pick.