The 49ers have had a very interesting offseason. Not content to rest on their laurels, they have added some serious explosiveness to their offense through free agency. Their draft strategy was no different. While the 49ers certainly made some surprising picks and maybe a few reaches here and there, they had a successful draft overall because they added to dynamic playmakers in A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James. Alex Smith could put up big numbers in 2012.
Round 1 (30th Overall)
A.J. Jenkins, Wide Receiver, Illinois
Jenkins was projected to go in the second round by the majority of scouts. While many would view at this as an indictment of the pick, I certainly do not. Jenkins is an explosive receiver with top-end speed. He may not be the best route runner out there, but the 49ers had more of a need for a burner than a possession receiver. Jenkins has very good hands and catches the ball away from his body, allowing him to come down with a lot of contested balls downfield. The biggest weakness in Jenkins game is his inability to beat bump and run coverage. Since he’s not adept at getting off jams, defenses at the next level will be sure to employ a lot of press coverage on him. With his sub-40 speed, however, this coverage strategy does come with some risk. Jenkins needs to polish his game more to become an impact player at the next level. While I wouldn’t count on him ever becoming a star, I would be surprised if he didn’t develop into an effective deep threat for the 49ers. I really like that the 49ers have not been content this offseason to sit around and hope that there offense becomes more dynamic. The Jenkins pick may have been surprising to a lot of people, but I can see where the 49ers were coming from with this one. With the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and now A.J. Jenkins to the receiving core this offseason, Alex Smith should be pretty excited. Expect the 49ers offense to look completely different next season.
Round 2 (61st Overall)
LaMichael James, Running Back, Oregon
The LaMichael James pick has gotten a wide variety of different grades from analysts. Depending on who you talk to, the selection of James was either a late second-round steal or a highly questionable pick. The main reason the pick has been criticized is because the team already had three capable running backs on the roster in Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and free agent acquisition Brandon Jacobs. Was running back a need going into the draft this year for the 49ers? Not at all, but to dwell on that would be to miss the point. If there is one thing the 49ers offense lacked last season, it was explosiveness. James will never be a workhorse in the NFL, but the 49ers already have one in Frank Gore anyway. James will provide a lot of yards after the catch and big runs out of what would be short gains for many running backs. That being said, James does have flaws in his game apart from his obvious lack of size and durability. James lost a total of 165 yards in 2010 and 2011 after being tackled for a loss. This will not fly in the NFL, and James needs to work on his ability to get north and south quicker. He possesses the acceleration necessary to hit the smallest of holes, but he has a tendency to dance too much in the backfield. Still, James’ rare combination of speed, acceleration, and agility should result in more explosive plays for the 49ers offense next year. James is dangerous in space, and the 49ers lacked those kinds of players last year. In today’s NFL, you simply cannot have enough quality running backs. Those that have criticized this pick are simply missing that key point. At the very least, the 49ers acquired an above-average third down back in James.
Round 4 (117th Overall)
Joe Looney, Guard, Wake Forest
Many analysts expected the 49ers to take a guard early. Instead, they waited till the fourth round to address one of their biggest needs heading into the draft. I don’t really have a huge problem with this, as the 49ers selected two difference makers in the first two rounds of the draft. They could have gotten guard Brandon Brooks instead of James in the second round, but they were probably hoping that Brooks might fall to them in the fourth. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding who still start at the right guard sport next season, and Looney now has a decent shot. Looney’s strength and size make him an effective run blocker. He got a lot of pancakes pulling out on sweeps in college. Looney is also known as a bright kid with good leadership ability. His biggest weakness is clearly in pass protection, where he can be either bull-rushed or beaten by quicker linebackers. If Looney can improve in this area of his game, however, he could start this year and play for a long-time. The surprising thing about this pick is that Looney was actually projected to go in the sixth or seventh round. His stock dropped significantly before the draft due to a foot injury suffered at the Senior Bowl. Looney might not have been the guard the 49ers were looking for and also may have been a slight reach in the 4th round, but he has the potential to fill a need next season.
Round 5 (165th Overall)
Darius Fleming, Outside Linebacker, Notre Dame
I really liked this pick for several reasons. The first is that the 49ers were in desperate need for more depth at the outside linebacker position, which Fleming should be able to provide instantly. Last season the 49ers luckily were able to get by with only three outside linebackers on the roster. Although they managed to avoid injuries, they would have been foolish to try their luck with only three outside linebackers on the roster again. Fleming will instantly be given a chance to compete for the first backup spot behind Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. Though he has no chance of starting next season, Fleming will likely be used in a situational pass rushing role. Fleming could also be a terror on special teams with his top-end speed. He clocked out as the third fastest linebacker in the draft this year with two sub-4.6 40s at Pro Day. Although Fleming never put up huge numbers at Notre Dame, his best attributes as a football player may be hard to capture on the stat sheet. Fleming was extremely effective at setting the edge against the run throughout his college career, always displaying strong assignment discipline. Fleming was also a high-motor guy that made plays sideline to sideline. One would think Fleming’s speed would make him a very good edge rusher, but he doesn’t have a very impressive pass rushing repertoire. He also frequently looked lost in pass coverage at Notre Dame. If he can get coached up in these respects, however, Fleming has the strength and speed to be an impact player at the next level.
Round 6 (180th Overall)
Trent Robinson, Safety, Michigan State
There’s a lot to like in Trent Robinson as a football player. In his senior season, Robinson logged an impressive 80 tackles and 4 interceptions. He also surprised people with his 4.52 40 time at his pro day. The biggest concern over Robinson’s potential at the next level stem from his lack of size. At 5’10” and 195 pounds, it’s unclear whether he will be able to provide adequate run support in the NFL. Though this was never a weakness of his in college, it’s unlikely that the 49ers would ever try to employ Robinson in the box a great deal unless he put on a lot of weight. One would think that his short stature would be a detriment in jump ball situations downfield, but Robinson more than made up for this in college with his long arms and leaping ability. Robinson is also a solid open field tackler. Most of the negative things you can say about Robinson relate to his lack of size, which he was definitely able to overcome in college. Whether or not he can do this in the NFL is a completely different story, but my guess is that Robinson will be a solid career backup at the very least. With Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson already slated in as the starting safeties, the 49ers likely won’t ask much more than that from Robinson for a number of years.
Round 7 (199th Overall)
Jason Slowey, Center, Western Oregon
Though Slowey has a lot of weaknesses in his game, he could be worked in as the long-term answer at Center. This would take a lot of development, but the 49ers needed a backup center and Slowey could be that guy. The transition from Division II to the NFL is never easy, but the 49ers were smart to use the pick on a player that could potentially have some value for them down the road. If Slowey ever makes it off the practice squad, this pick will already have been a success.
Round 7 (237th Overall)
Cam Johnson, Outside Linebacker/Defensive End, Virginia
The reason I like this pick so much is because Johnson embodies everything I think you look for in a seventh round pick. He would have been drafted much higher had it not been for his sickle cell trait, which will probably always keep him from being an every down type of player. There’s no such thing as a risky seventh round pick however, and Johnson’s potential as a 3-4 outside linebacker is very attractive. He was graded higher than almost every other seventh round pick, and there’s really no telling where Johnson would have landed had it not been for the sickle cell trait. Johnson is a bit raw but could develop into a strong pass rushing specialist. He possesses the size to overpower smaller offensive tackles coming off the edge. It will be interesting to see whether or not both Johnson and Fleming will make the roster. Both players would be used in similar situations on the field, so it seems a little unlikely that the 49ers would yield two roster spots to both late round picks. I like that the 49ers drafted two pass rushers in the late rounds because it increases the chances that at least one of the two will pan out.
49ers Final Draft Grade: B
There’s no doubting that the 49ers offense will be fun to watch next season. The grades of a B and an A- in the first two rounds assured the 49ers at least a passing grade for me. They also did some good things the rest of the way as well given that they didn’t have a third round pick. I could be wrong about this draft, as there are certainly a whole plethora of question marks surrounding both A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, but I like the attitude the 49ers have displayed through their moves this offseason. This was definitely one of the tougher teams to sort out grade wise, as I had to reconcile my own opinions with fact that a lot of the 49ers picks have been highly criticized. If the 49ers get more big plays next season thanks due to the additions of Jenkins and James, and one of those late-round pass rushers turns out to be a solid situational player, then you’ll know I was right.