With the NFL combine just five days away, the San Francisco 49ers will need to account for 335 prospects. Although many of those players will be weeded out, the Niners will still need to have a plan in place for those handful of players they feel worthy of their selection. Whether they pick for need or the “BPA” (Best Player Available), GM Trent Baalke will need to figure out which players deserve that gold helmet next to their names, on their big board. As the combine approaches, I have identified ten players the 49ers should target based on their draft position.
1. William Gholston (Michigan State)- If his surname rings a bell, it is probably because of his older cousin Vernon. In 2008, Vernon Gholston stole the show at the NFL combine, by benching 225 pounds an amazing 37 times, which tied for the highest that year. A true “workout warrior,” Gholston quickly shot up draft boards, eventually landing with the New York Jets, with the 6th overall pick. Furthermore, I expect that trend to continue for the Gholston family tree.
Like Vernon, younger cousin William is built like a house. Listed at 6-7 and 275 pounds, Gholston has muscles on muscles. In a time where the NFL combine is all about the “survival of the fittest” look, Gholston shines. Much like last year’s first-round pick Quinton Coples, Gholston has a very similar frame and will be shooting up draft boards once the combine is complete, mark my words. So with Gholston looking the part, will he succeed at the next level? My answer is yes.
In one of my latest articles titled, “Why William Gholston Makes Sense For San Francisco 49ers,” I pointed out numerous reasons why Gholston will thrive in the NFL. For one, he has the wingspan to clog passing lanes while batting balls down. Also, his ability to hold his own in pass coverage is a huge plus making him a true three-down lineman. In addition, he has the highest ceiling of any defensive end coming out this year’s draft making him a true hit or miss prospect.
2. Jesse Williams (Alabama)- The plug in the middle for Bama’s defense, Williams was very stout against the run in 2012. He is a relentless hustler with a non-stop motor, a trait Baalke covets. He has a good grasp of shedding blockers while making tackles on ball carriers in his vicinity. Williams is not a great pass rusher due to his lack of athletic ability, but again shows a non-stop motor, which in all likelihood will result in a number of sacks. Williams is built like a proto-typical zero technique, standing 6-4 and weighing 320 pounds. He would be a nice insurance policy should NT Isaac Sopoaga leave via free-agency, and would add depth to an aging defensive line. So how will he far at the NFL combine?
Due to his lack of athleticism, Williams will not garner the praise as Gholston, but make no mistake, it will be the skill drills that will be his money maker. Williams is fundamentally sound, and will show the scouts that despite his size, he is light on his feet, which will then increase his draft stock. Look for Williams to have a strong showing in the skill drills while Mike Mayock and Charles Davis praise his work ethic.
3. Alex Okafor (Texas)- This guy is vastly underrated heading into the NFL combine. He reminds me a lot of former Texas Longhorn Brian Orakpo, and has a similar build. Listed at 6-4 and 260 pounds, Orakpo is built more like a 4-3 defensive end. However, considering he is one of the best pure pass rushers in this year’s draft, makes him just as valuable as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Okafor did not have a stellar 2012 campaign but showed enough body of work to warrant a first round grade. A trait no one else possesses, Okafor also has heavy hands, and when I say heavy, I mean violent. He has an array of pass rush moves and uses his hands to his advantage, by disengaging blockers on his way to the quarterback. The knock on Okafor is his pass coverage skills, as he doesn’t turn his hips fluidly while lacking short area quickness. However, those deficiencies do not matter, if San Francisco solely drafts him as a pass rush specialist, much like last year’s Bruce Irvin of the Seattle Seahawks.
4. Kawaan Short (Purdue)- The surprise of the NFL combine may in fact be Kawaan Short. A player that had a strong Senior Bowl, Short is banking on continuing that momentum at the combine. A very capable zero-technique, Short has the explosiveness and fundamentals to succeed at the next level. In 2012, Short enjoyed another stellar season, consistently beating double teams while making plays in the backfield. A true 3-4 nose tackle in my opinion, and will undoubtedly make a big impact which ever teams selects him.
5. Larry Warford (Kentucky)- The 49ers absolutely need depth along the offensive line, and Warford fits perfectly into Greg Roman’s offense. Mainly a drive blocker, Warford also has the quickness to get out in space on traps and counters. A consumate team player evidenced by making blocks downfield, Warford does have his flaws. His weight for one, is a huge red flag for most scouts, as he tends to be top heavy at times. At the next level, Warford will need to adapt to the defensive lineman, as they will dive at his feet every chance they get, to take him out of plays. Not known for his athleticism, Warford surprisingly has quick feet for a guy his size, which could benefit him moving forward. A border line first-round pick, the NFL combine will surely make or break Warford’s draft status.
6. Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech)- Like Gholston, I highlighted Quinton Patton as one of my “Prospects of the Day.” A true sleeper in my opinion, Patton enjoyed a stellar year at Louisiana Tech. A true deep-threat Patton would provide what A.J. Jenkins could not. Look for him to “wow” scouts in the gauntlet, while making a name for himself in the short shuttle.
7. Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International University)- In my opinion, Cyprien is the true wild-card here. A player that had a strong Senior Bowl, it will be interesting to see how Cyprien performs at the combine. Regarded as one of the hardest hitting safeties in this year’s draft, Cyprien also has the range to cover most receivers. His willingness to attack ball carriers with no regard for his own body, is a trait every NFL scout can appreciate. A sure tackler, Cyprien would provide the 49ers at the very minimum another special teams stud. All eyes will be on Cyprien as NFL analyst Charles Davis seems to absolutely love his potential.
8. Eric Reid (LSU)- The team captain and arguably the heart and soul of the defense, Reid was relatively consistent. A hard worker, Reid patrolled LSU’s defensive backfield the last two seasons. Like Cyprien, Reid is a heavy hitter and lays the wood often. A great player in run support, Reid flashes the potential to be a great box defender while possessing the skill set to become a ball-hawking safety. Besides Kenny Vacarro (Texas), Reid is the next best all-around safety in this year’s draft. Reid’s combination of size, athleticism, intelligence, and toughness is what separates him from the rest of his peers.
9. Tyrann Mathieu (LSU)- The player known as the “Honey Badger” may be this year’s Janoris Jenkins (St. Louis Rams). A player with first-round talent but slid because of off-field issues, the Honey Badger now finds himself in the same predicament. The Honey Badger is very instinctive and can sniff out a play like no other. He has the intangibles needed to succeed at the next level including the innate ability to read and react. He is a very feisty player, and will not give up on a play. A very physically gifted athlete, Mathieu brings much more than just a physical cornerback presence.
His special teams return ability is off the charts. He often makes the first tackler miss and has great vision to cut across the grain. A trait scouts covet, Mathieu adds significant value to his name, as a return specialist. In 2011, the Honey Badger ranked fourth in the country in punt return average, boasting a 16.2 yard average. A stat that can not be overlooked. Whether NFL teams shy away from Mathieu or not, you can not deny his first-round talent.
10. Xavier Rhodes (Florida State)- The most polished cornerback of the bunch, Rhodes brings the physical traits scouts die for. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, Rhodes is a hot commodity. The perfect corner for a cover-2 scheme, Rhodes loves to be physical at or near the line of scrimmage. Despite his big bodied frame, his downfall may be his poor tackling techniques. Rhodes loves to lay the big hit but sometimes is unable to cash in, based on his inability to wrap up receivers. A flaw that is cause for serious concern at the next level. However, the NFL combine should provide some general feedback as to whether Rhodes can keep up with quicker receivers in the slot, as his back pedal is a little stiff, coming in and out of his breaks. Rhodes is projected to be a mid to late first-round draft pick and a strong combine showing will only solidify that status.