As with everything in the football realm, there have been developments as the 2017 offseason rolls along – activity that would lead to change in opinions. Due to the volatility levels of the NFL ecosystem, opportunities are constantly in flux for teams; doors are always opening and closing.
This, as of late, has reshaped my thoughts on who may be the choice for the 49ers at No. 2 in the 2017 NFL Draft – and perhaps for good.
To lay out the recent events before discussing who makes the most sense at No. 2 overall, we first take to bullet point form:
A lot to unpack here.
First, the 49ers could very well land a veteran quarterback, whether it’s a long-term franchise player like Cousins or a savvy, competitive mentor-type like Romo. Also noteworthy, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said the 49ers have been telling teams “don’t worry, we are going to acquire one,” when it comes to quarterbacks.
Interpret that however. But this story is functioning on the basis that they'll acquire a veteran without coughing up the second pick in the draft.
With regard to Allen – medicals like that are enough where it’s possible he’ll slide to the 9-10-11 range (Cincinnati, Buffalo, New Orleans). He’s still in play at No. 2, but you have to imagine this new regime wants 100 percent health out of their first-ever selection. Allen, however minor, is unfortunately a risk in the short- and long-term. Even if he blows up the bench press at the combine.
Foster, on the other hand, is now potentially scaring teams off with his dramatic NFL Combine exit. Interviews reportedly went poorly and there was a specific incident that led to his eventual dismissal from Indianapolis. Tanking half the combine in this fashion may cause Foster to tumble come April, if only slightly outside the top five.
And if the last bullet point comes to fruition and Cleveland does boldly take Trubisky No. 1 overall, then that’s a no brainer. The 49ers quickly pick their jaws up off the floor, race their draft card to the podium and hope Warren Beatty isn't standing there with the news that the Browns actually took Garrett.
But more realistically, if Garrett is not available at No. 2, and with all these other developments taken into consideration, who do the 49ers take when they’re on the clock?
Before we tee up the chosen one, I’ll note these few things:
I haven’t considered Tennessee edge rusher Derek Barnett too heavily for the 49ers, right or wrong.
No. 2 also comes off as too high for either Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook, especially given the other players on the board and the depth of this running back class. Down in Palo Alto, Stanford’s Solomon Thomas is still a viable option, which would make for the third Pac-12 defensive lineman taken by the 49ers in the first round in consecutive years - and fourth straight Pac-12 lineman overall.
Wide receiver Mike Williams of Clemson is also a worthy candidate at two - but if the team lands the prized receiver of this free-agent class in Alshon Jeffrey, it would make a lot less sense.
Overall, none of these players make as much sense as this one…
Malik Hooker, FS, Ohio State
First, we must, must underscore the extreme rarity of this type of player, which automatically gives him a boost in stock.
Hooker is top 10 based on total ability, but he’s top five if we’re acknowledging the fact that he’s a once, maybe twice in a generation type of talent at his particular position. Defense-altering safeties with this type of playmaking ability and pro-readiness don’t come out that often – Ed Reed and Sean Taylor out of Miami, Eric Berry at Tennessee and now Hooker headline the prospects since 2002.
Hooker’s bundle of tools—size, ball skills, speed, range, instincts and confidence–make him All-Pro caliber early.
If you need evidence of his range, look no further:
And the ball skills and spatial awareness:
He’s drawn consensus rave reviews, with frequent comps to Reed, who is arguably the greatest safety and defensive playmaker in the history of the game. And along with his special athletic traits, Hooker has a pristine track record, bringing with him no character issues or off the field baggage. The safety, according to Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, did have multiple surgeries though, one for a torn labrum and one for a hernia.
And, yes, I know Jonathan Allen was (barely) crossed off this list for his labrum surgeries. But Hooker plays a slightly less physical position, so he gets the edge. The team also needs to spread out the talent on defense and invest on the back end.
And, while you can certainly make the case for an edge rusher, if Garrett is gone, San Francisco might as well wait until the second or third round for Charles Harris, Tim Williams, Takkarist McKinley or Ejuan Price later. Or maybe make an aggressive linebacker out of Haason Reddick and find the next big LEO in 2018. The gap is significant enough between Garrett and the pack, and the 49ers need a ball-hawking safety enough, where Hooker as a potential selection should be higher on the team’s board.
The addition of Hooker would instantly change the way opposing offenses prepare for the 49ers’ defense, while alleviating pressure off young, unestablished corners and making the front seven look a whole lot better. Really, the only thing not to like about Hooker as a No. 2 overall selection is that he only started one full season for Ohio State – but even then, he wowed with 7 interceptions, three of which were brought back for touchdowns, which was shockingly a school record.
Players tend to reveal themselves at different times, in different ways.
Ability and need
As mentioned, Hooker’s package of range, build and playmaking skills are off the charts. On the surface, he looks like he’s going to be a very special player at the pro level, especially if he lands with a team that utilizes the type of defense he shined in with the Buckeyes: the Cover 3. It just so happens, the 49ers under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, are likely to utilize that type of coverage predominantly.
With that, we dive into the importance of the centerfielder in Cover 3. And for dedicated followers of the 49ers, they won't need to look much further than All-Pro DB Earl Thomas in Seattle. By and large, that is the model, and the ceiling of what Hooker can become.
As a free-roaming defensive back, that player that must be able to explode to either sideline in an instant. He’s got to monitor the middle and underneath part of the field, as well, driving on the football or intended receiver on any given play. This player needs to be instinctual, yet disciplined, and support the corners in coverage. With these all-encompassing responsibilities, said player's reaction skills, judgment, acceleration and speed are all vital traits. Hooker possess all these in spades.
Again, it’s a rare combination.
Moreover, Hooker’s total ability, and inevitable week-to-week highlights on ESPN, are going to strike fear into the heart of quarterbacks around the league. They’ll learn quickly. And as a result, he’ll make passers hesitate and hold the ball, which is going to trigger mistakes and allow more time for the pass rush to get there.
It'd be a home run pick that would hit on a big need early - and one that not many are considering, since it's largely been masked in the mystery of the staff change.
In Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, the 49ers have, at most, four starting NFL safeties on the roster right now. That’s a lot. But the two that have started the past couple of years—Reid (contract) and Bethea (age)—are declining and could be gone this year or next. And then the 49ers would be left with two unproven players with 14 combined career starts at strong and free safety.
The addition of Hooker takes this murky situation and clears it right up.
Hooker plugs into the free spot and takes over as the commander of the secondary. In doing this, it puts an elite playmaker in the deep middle part of the defense, and it takes the pressure off Ward and Tartt, who will be transitioning to fulfill different roles within the scheme. The latter two will be allowed to roam and hit, man up, float around in zone, blitz, and jump routes depending on the play.
As a trio, Hooker, Ward and Tartt could evolve into a strong fixture on the back end, when the organization's last two first-round picks went to the defensive line. So, in that process, you’re looking at two strong complementary halves of the defense, and ultimately, the unit as a whole may begin to round into form and show significant progress.
Hooker as a draft pick reinvests in three of the team's past four first-round picks—DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Ward—and not to mention Tartt, who went No. 46 overall in 2015. And why not add in the potential legitimization of second-year corner Rashard Robinson, who's flirting with NFL stardom after a strong rookie season.
All told, if the 49ers are looking to make headway and cement the next generation of their defense with a surefire pick, they’ll select Malik Hooker.
Media courtesy Landof10.com, 49ers.com, Eleven Warriors, Yahoo Sports, Michael Zagaris