The better part of a month is left before the 2017 NFL Draft and there is no more prospect-related analysis to be had. The season’s been up. The combine is over. And college pro days are all wrapped. There’s nothing new for teams to evaluate when it comes to deciding who best fits their franchise.
Given all the data available, we, as outsiders, can now take a step back, eye what the team lacks, what’s out there and who may be a match at their respective draft slot. For the 49ers, we’re looking at No. 2 overall—which is essentially the first pick with some entertainment value this year since it’s all but a lock that Texas A&M devastator Myles Garrett goes No. 1 to Cleveland.
This is a team with holes up and down the roster. Even most of the vets are replaceable.
But even with all that, we can form a solid big board for the 49ers.
The board ahead considers: player value and overall rarity, what San Francisco has invested in recently and what it hasn’t had in quite some time, Kyle Shanahan’s wizardry, the 49ers’ direct competition in the NFC West, league evolution (particularly on the offensive side of the football), and obviously a little of the author’s taste and discretion.
The board is based on the 49ers picking at No. 2 or trading back and still selecting within the top-10 in 2017.
5. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Tight end on the whole hasn’t been a big part of Shanahan’s offensive strategy, but the coach has the dexterity to adapt; it’s what’s made him such a progressive thinker and riser in the NFL community. While he’s worked with such talents as a rookie Jordan Reed, Gary Barnidge and Jordan Cameron, it’s been a tight end by committee approach for the most part, especially in his final year in Atlanta.
And just because Shanahan hasn’t featured a premier tight end doesn’t mean he can’t or doesn’t desire to.
Right away a player like Howard changes the way defenses game plan for the 49ers offense, much like the affect Vernon Davis had as a rookie and forever after. And not only is he a ridiculous playmaker in his own right, but Howard will enable the players Shanahan does tend to use more in the passing game—receivers and backs—to get free and make plays simply because of his presence.
The attention he’ll command is that significant.
Howard stands tall and broad at 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, as big as Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. And with a 4.51 40-time, he’s faster than physical star wideouts Allen Robinson (6-2, 220) and DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 214) were coming out. Howard was also a top performer at his position in 5 of 7 drills at the NFL combine (40-yard dash, bench press, 3-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle).
Now, admittedly, Christian McCaffrey was in the running for this fifth spot on the board, but it’s possible he can be had in the 20s. Howard, meanwhile, is a top-10 prospect and a super rare athlete that’s going to be a nightmare in the league with his size, speed and overall package of athleticism. He’s that generational talent that 31 other teams are going to immediately hate.
And the fact is, the 49ers are not going to find a tight end like this again. He is up there with Myles Garrett as a pass rusher and Malik Hooker as a safety—those three are the unicorns of the 2017 draft, which is why Howard belongs on the 49ers’ top-five big board. And the team, despite the contract extension of Vance McDonald, still does not have a threatening starting tight end.
4. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
Three-straight seasons of at least 1,400 receiving yards and 12 touchdown grabs, it’s size, technical proficiency and production that define Davis. He is as pro-ready as it gets and he has spectacular upside. If you were to ask yourself if you’d spend a top-five pick on Demaryius Thomas or Julio Jones, you likely wouldn’t hesitate, and that’s why Davis is here at No. 4 on the board. That’s the mold.
And the 49ers have also been without a franchise wide receiver for well over a decade now, which is just a never-ending headache, especially in today’s NFL that thrives in the air.
Upon his hypothetical selection, Davis slots in as WR1 the first week of training camp; which in turn allows free-agent signee Pierre Garcon to flourish as a second possession option. The two immediately form a viable tandem for whoever is behind center, and it takes pressure off enigmatic talent Carlos Hyde for the first time in his career. Fundamentally it gives balance to the offense.
Davis is a freak of nature, too, that is just going to break loose in and out of Shanahan’s system.
Shaking corners with crisp route running in and out of his breaks; extending for the ball and displaying pure, confident hands catching; high pointing and providing that levying Dez-like red zone threat; and earning yards after the catch by weaving and running hard, getting the offense down the field; this is the picture that accurately depicts who Davis is and what he’ll bring from Day 1.
3. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
One of the few non-quarterback prospects that needs no introduction, Williams could be the prize of this year’s wide receiver group.
A long 6-4, 218-pound frame, I see a lot of Larry Fitzgerald in the Clemson product.
While he’ll beat your average cornerback off the line, even in situations where the DB is draped all over him, Williams still wins. On routes, he’s a strong runner and doesn’t easily allow himself to be redirected. His frame and lower body are dense. He’s going to get to his spots right when the quarterback expects him to.
And then when the ball is up in the air, it’s his 9 out of 10 times. What more can you ask for in a receiver?
Williams, while not a flawless prospect, is basically open wherever he stands, and he’s got great leaping ability and timing. More often than not he’s going to beat the cornerback to the football. The 49ers can plug him in this year, grab their franchise quarterback in 2018, and along with Hyde, potentially have a young corps with top-10 scoring ability.
2. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
The 49ers have a lot of scattered and undefined talent on the defensive side of the ball.
They’ve spent so many high picks on defense in recent years; DeForest Buckner, Jaquiski Tartt, Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid remain, but the heart of the team, NaVorro Bowman, isn’t entirely the player he once was and hasn’t been there 100 percent of the time to help tie it together and keep this unit in forward motion. The 49ers need another centerpiece.
Foster can rally this unit and make it as brutal and bone-rattling as Alabama’s.
The 49ers in 2016 ranked dead last in defense, which is just unreal given where they were only a few years prior. And the hardest part to see it all fall apart was against the run; that’s where San Francisco’s defense built its reputation. They allowed a 100-yard rusher once in a blue moon. In the 2016 season, they were hemorrhaging 100-yard rushers every single week—it didn’t matter who the back was.
Foster comes in and says, “Well, enough of that.”
It would resemble the addition of Patrick Willis in 2007. The 49ers weren’t good, but at least they made the step toward not being disrespected anymore. And that was a foundation in itself. They built on that, adding players, raising the level of play around Willis and Justin Smith, and then Jim Harbaugh was able to line everything up in 2011.
The 49ers have their coach; they need to get mean and nasty on defense again, and Foster is the one to guide that leap.
1. Malik Hooker, FS, Ohio State
We might as well call him Neo, because Malik Hooker is the one.
As we mentioned, the 49ers have been investing in defense, but they’ve added a lot of big bodies and blunt force trauma. There is not a fly-around playmaker with elite athleticism and ball skills. There isn’t even half that on the 49ers right now. But they can procure this rare package of ability in 2017.
The Ohio State product is a rangy freak that’s a perfect fit for San Francisco’s new Cover 3 defense set to by run by Robert Saleh.
He can play centerfield, while Rashard Robinson and Jimmie Ward (or a cornerback to be named later) man the boundary. The 49ers can shore up a secondary that looked like a football follies reel in 2016. Hooker is that type of talent—and not just with his ability alone, but a player of his caliber plugging in as that missing piece kind of brings everything together and helps others.
For instance, Robinson could take the next leap with his game, and between the two of them, the 49ers could have an intimidating defensive backfield. Both have the potential to grow into defenders quarterbacks have to spotlight, and will likely not want to challenge. The ripple effect of this is what’s not been talked about, and it all stems with the selection of Hooker.
His presence likely has the biggest impact team-wide and perhaps franchise-wide.
Hero image courtesy ProCanes