The receivers slated to get selected in May's draft worked out at the combine Sunday, setting the stage for what should be an interesting few months leading up to draft day May 8.
Expect the San Francisco 49ers to address the position in the early rounds - perhaps using their first pick - despite the pending contract extension with Anquan Boldin as reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN here.
Sunday provided our first look at the group at receiver that's as deep as any in recent memory, featuring players with diverse skill sets and physical abilities. The 49ers are armed with at least 12 picks this year, including a projected six in the first three rounds, which should leave them with enough ammunition to snag a receiver of their choosing should they decide to trade up. But obviously cracking the top 5 or 10 will cost significantly more than moving closer toward the mid-way point of the first round or even the early 20s.
But there's enough depth at the position for San Francisco to feel comfortable about standing pat and finding their next pass catcher to go against the rugged NFC West. And at this point, it's very likely Trent Baalke and his personnel staff have already identified who they would like at 30 and who they would be willing to trade up for. There are also a number of intriguing options that will be around in the second and third rounds.
Boldin had one of his most productive seasons since 2006 in first season with the 49ers when he registered 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven TDs in the regular season. But he will turn 34 next October and is unlikely to receive a long-term deal when he signs his extension. The 49ers think highly of Michael Crabtree, 26, but he's entering a contract year and it's not a certainty he'll be back with the 49ers given his projected value on the free agent market.
The 49ers took Quinton Patton in the fourth round last year, who showed an upward trajectory toward the end of the season when he solidified himself as the team's No. 3 wideout. But he missed a significant portion of training camp while dealing with a broken finger and then fractured his foot in the fourth game of the season. He didn't return until December. Jon Baldwin, who was acquired last August in a trade for A.J. Jenkins, also figures into the equation, but needs to improve dramatically this offseason if he wants to make the team.
In that vacuum, the receiver position becomes one that must be addressed in May's draft. The timing works out perfectly, considering the depth of the class and varying talents available. The 49ers could opt for great speed, size, or look for a combination of both.
Let's take a look at the options:
The consensus on Watkins is he will be the first receiver taken while many evaluators say they wouldn't be surprised if he went within the top 5. The combination of stature, speed, strength and ball skills are all second-to-none in this draft. He ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash Sunday, cementing his standing as the draft's most explosive playmaker at the position. In his junior season he had 101 receptions for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But the price will likely be too steep for the 49ers to move up and acquire Watkins. It would likely take a trade of the same ilk of Washington's swap with the Rams prior to the 2012 draft which sent a total of three first round picks and a second rounder for the rights to take Robert Griffin III No.2 overall. Watkins projects to be a franchise receiver going forward, but trading assets to move that far up isn't a risk the 49ers are willing to take.
Evans is a big, physical down-field threat that had the benefit of catching passes from Johnny Manziel during his two collegiate seasons with Aggies. At 6-5 and 231 pounds, Evans is the type of wideout that creates mismatches all over the field. His ability to catch back-shoulder throws and jump balls will be a hot commodity come draft time.
Evans, like Watkins, would be a great addition to San Francisco's offense given the type of defenses the 49ers are pitted against in the NFC West. But given the way he performed at the combine (4.53, 37-inch vertical), he's likely to go in the top 15. Again, if the 49ers wanted to move up here, it would be costly and tough to justify given the overall talent of the receiver class. But his size would be beneficial to have in the red zone lining up against the Seahawks big and physical secondary.
Benjamin's career will be linked with Evans given their similar size and skill sets. Evans is the more explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands while Benjamin might win more jump balls. It took time for Benjamin to realize his potential with the Seminoles before having a monster 2013 that culminated in the game-winning touchdown grab in the BCS National Title Game against Auburn. He started for just one season, making 54 grabs for 1,011 yards. His 15 touchdowns standout, thanks to his 6-5, 240-pound frame.
Benjamin is another player who fits the archetype of the big, physical receiver the 49ers need in the red zone to combat the division's tough secondaries. He isn't the most fluid athlete in the class, but moves well for his size and has perhaps the best ability to high-point the ball of any player coming out. Benjamin will need to become more consistent with his approach overall if he wants to develop into a true No. 1 receiver down the road. He likely won't be around when San Francisco picks at the back end of the first round, but will certainly be in range should the team want to move up. How he fared in the interview process could be the deciding factor.
--Could be Around at 30--
Cooks, a native of Stockton, Calif., has seen his stock rise drastically in recent weeks leading up to the combine. His workout Sunday did not disappoint, as he ran a 4.33 in the 40 to compliment his impressive body of work he put on tape with the Beavers. His 40 time was the fastest of any receiver at the combine. His instincts, hands and toughness to match his speed make him a very intriguing prospect. Prior to the combine, he was viewed as a fringe-first rounder.
The knock on Cooks will be his height. He measured in at 5-10 and with arms just 30 3/4 inches, giving him the smallest catch radius of any receiver projected to go in the first round. Still, his height didn't prevent him from winning the Biletnikoff Award or earning a first-team All-American selection. He set single-season records in the Pac 12 with 128 grabs for 1,730 yards in his final year at Oregon State.
Finding a role on the 49ers' offense wouldn't be easy for Cooks initially, as he would likely be used in a volume of isolation plays like speed reverses or bubble screens, which won't take long for good NFL defenses to figure out. There isn't much precedent for success for wideouts less than 6-feet tall taken in the first round. But as a pure play maker, he could be an option for San Francisco.
If it seems like there is a Marqise Lee in every draft - a first-round talent with speed, elusiveness, good ball skills while lacking elite size. Lee is this year's version, although he adds a unique value as a special teams force that might set him apart from other players in the draft.
Lee was a consensus All-American in 2012 with Matt Barkley at quarterback, amassing 1,721 receiving yards on 118 receptions and 14 scores. That production dropped this season in part to a three-game absence due to a knee injury paired with a Trojan offense that was in flux causing head coach Lane Kiffin to get fired at the end of September.
On tape Lee possesses great speed, but it didn't translate at the combine where he ran a 4.52. It remains to be seen if that will alter his draft status or not, but it could lead to him being available when the 49ers pick at 30. Right away, Lee would offer a Ted Ginn-type skill set in the return game and as a reserve receiver. But Lee might not excel against physical secondaries in press coverage, which might not bode well for his chances of coming to San Francisco.
Beckham is a similar player to Lee in the sense he lacks great size (5-11, 208), but he tested better than Lee, running a 4.43. He only benched 225 pounds seven times, but did well in positional drills. Beckham doesn't have the same value on special teams as a returner.
Still, Beckham's explosiveness, competitiveness and play-making ability with the ball in his hands gives him value early on in the draft. But if he's only going to be a No. 3 receiver with minimal use on special teams, is he worth taking in the first round? Some believe his combine elevated his draft status to the first half of the first round. But without a ton of production in school or elite size, Beckham might be the biggest wild card of receivers early in the draft.
Jarvis Landry, LSU
Playing opposite Beckham, Landry is more of a physical receiver less reliant on big-play speed than his counterpart. The bad news for Landry is what he did at the combine, running a 4.77 in the 40 with a 28.5-inch vertical. He reportedly suffered a strained calf in the process after just one run and didn't partake in any other positional drills Sunday.
Landry's skill set is similar to that of Michael Crabtree. He doesn't possess any elite physical gifts, but he has a knack for making tough catches in traffic and is more known as a possession receiver. Unfortunately for him, his combine might cause his stock to drop and given the volume of other receivers available, he could fall well into the second round. That being said, the 49ers might value Landry there and look to take him with one of their two second-round selections should they go with another position with their first pick.
Landry had 77 receptions for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns in his junior season with the Tigers. He could be a good value for a team looking for a dependable set of hands that can make catches in traffic.
Matthews played in the SEC for four seasons, finishing as the conferences all-time leader in receptions and yardage, which is no small feet. He had a great day at the combine Sunday, running a better-than-expected 4.46 40 and putting up 21 reps in the bench press, tied for second among wideouts.
Matthews production in school made him a fringe first-round pick in the class, but his size (6-3, 212 pounds) to pair with his speed might have elevated him to the back end of the first round. His arms (33 1/4 inches) and hands (10 3/8 inches) give him the physical measurables Baalke likes. His speed was a question mark on tape, but his stock will rise with his 40 time at the combine. With his time, Matthews is one of the more balanced size-speed combos atop the receiving class.
Over his last two seasons, Matthews combined to make 206 receptions for 2,800 yards. A cousin of Jerry Rice, the reports on his character and intangibles read a lot like those of Eric Reid this time last year, which makes him a very real possibility for the 49ers in the back end of the first round. He might not have the size of Evans or Benjamin - nor the speed of Beckham or Cooks - but he's a well-rounded wideout with a ton of film against good competition on his side. And with Crabtree and Boldin's futures up in the air, Matthews could be a long-term, every-down replacement down the road.
Adams' collegiate production is very similar, if not slightly more impressive than Matthews. But Matthews has the edge in the measurables. Adams is 6-foot-1, 212 pounds with 32 5/8-inch arms and 9-inch hands. He ran a 4.56 40, which is just about average for wideout expected to go early in the draft. His 39.5-inch vertical jump was four inches higher than Matthews, which might give him the edge in some teams' eyes.
Adams is coming off a ridiculous season from a numbers standpoint, amassing 131 catches for 1,719 yards and 24 TDs for the Bulldogs in Mountain West Conference. Adams might be a better down-field threat and better with the ball in his hands. He rarely drops passes and is a natural pass catcher akin to Crabtree.
The 49ers might have the choice between Adams or Matthews when they pick at 30. Adams might have more upside while Matthews projects to contribute more in the short-term given his four years of experience against better competition. The decision will come down to the interview process and tape. Seeing where these two get selected will be an interesting story come draft day. They're evaluation grades have been so similar that it could come down to a team's taste in receivers.
--Options A Little Later--
Donte Moncrief, Mississippi
San Francisco could go a number of different directions in the first round, which means they might look at receivers with their two second-round picks towards the back end of the round. Here, they could take a look at Ole' Miss' Moncrief, who was one of the stars of the group at the combine workout. Moncrief ran a 4.4 flat at 6-2 and 221 pounds.
Moncrief's explosive and projects very well to the pros. But his college production wasn't at the super-high level of some of the players set to go earlier. Still, Moncrief will be a guy that could go early in the second round and see his stock rise as time goes on. The 49ers might be inclined to trade into the early portion of the second round if Moncrief is their man.
At 6-foot-6, Coleman is a raw, intriguing option who isn't in the top tier of receivers in this class. Consistency is the No. 1 issue regarding Coleman as a prospect, but his size and potential are tough to ignore.
He needs to improve his hands and having time to learn behind players like Boldin and Crabtree could bode well for development. Some believe he would have been better off staying in school for another year which could have elevated his draft stock for 2015. That being said, if a team is willing to be patient with Coleman, he could be a good value pick down if taken in the middle rounds and given time to develop.
A first-team Big 10 selection, Robinson has good size (6-2, 220) and is a physical wideout capable of good things against press coverages, which will certainly garner attention from the 49ers. He made 97 catches for 1,432 yards and six TDs, after having 11 his second season for the Nittany Lions. He's a strong and fluid pass catcher that could be around in the second or third rounds. Robinson didn't run a great time of 4.60, but he made up for it with a 39-inch vertical jump and 127 inch broad jump. Should he continue to develop, he projects well as a future No. 2 wideout. He's similar to Matthews and Adams as a strong, physical pass catcher that lacks blazing speed down field.
Martavis Bryant, Clemson
Playing opposite Watkins, Bryant wasn't super productive at Clemson, setting a career-high with 42 receptions in his final season with the Tigers. But he ran a 4.42 in the 40 at 6-foot-4. He's a burner on the outside who looks and plays a lot like a poor man's Jacoby Jones. He dealt with academic issues and a suspension for making a throat-slash gesture in his last two seasons. But his combination of size and speed make him an interesting prospect that could take the top off defenses.
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