Combine sets the stage for 49ers' first pick

The 49ers own their highest draft pick since taking Aldon Smith with the seventh selection in 2011. With the scouting combine in the rear view, we have a better idea of where the they could go with the 15th pick come April.

The 49ers are not a team that overvalues draft prospects’ workouts at the scouting combine. Rather, the week in Indianapolis serves more value in getting to know players through their individual meetings and medical examinations.

The rest of the evaluating is done by watching game film. In fact, the 49ers keep the majority of their scouting department in the Bay Area to digest tape while general manager Trent Baalke, director of college scouting Matt Malaspina and coaches get to know prospects on a face-to-face basis at the combine.

So, what is there to glean from the combine relating to the 49ers, who are picking 15th overall? In concrete, not much.

But as the unofficial start to the draft season (a very long one at that), it’s time to start putting together some thoughts on which direction San Francisco can go in the first round with the 15th pick. Like every year, things will change dramatically as the process wears on before the draft’s first night April 30.

Outside speed

There is speed to be had in the group of receivers, particularly in the early going of the first round. The 49ers might have to move up significantly, perhaps into the top 6, if they want either of the two top receiving prospects in this class.

West Virginia’s Kevin White (6-3, 215) ran an impressive 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, flashing an elite combination of size and speed that might be enough to vault him past Alabama’s Amari Cooper (6-1, 211), who ran a not-so-slow 4.42. Cooper entered the weekend viewed by many as the top receiver available. But White’s physicality and speed may have changed that over the weekend.

It might be a matter of taste for either the Raiders, Washington, or Jets at the 4-6 spots when it comes to choosing White or Cooper. Both could step into a significant role on the 49ers from the jump, but moving that high has not been something Baalke has been willing to do since he started calling the shots in the draft room in 2010.

Luckily for San Francisco, the 2015 class is deep yet again after the team decided not to draft a wideout until the fourth round (Bruce Ellington) last spring. Last year’s class of receivers is turning out to be one of the best in recent history. This year, the 49ers could have their choice between Louisville’s DeVante Parker (4.45), Arizona State’s Jaelan Strong (4.44) or Ohio State’s Devin Smith (4.42) at 15 without having to sacrifice additional picks to trade up.

They could move into the later stages of the first round or wait until the second to find their receiver, if they don’t address the position with a trade or free agency. Players like Miami’s Phillip Dorsett (4.33, second fastest among receivers) and Georgia’s Chris Conley (4.35) could be had later, allowing the 49ers to use their 15th pick on a cornerback, edge pass rusher, or defensive lineman.

Dorsett is an interesting player. He doesn’t have the size of prototypical of a franchise receiver. He stands 5-10 and 185 pounds, but projects the ability to stretch the field, which has been San Francisco’s glaring weakness in recent seasons. The 49ers can use the example of Cardinals’ receiver John Brown, who used his speed to score twice against San Francisco in their win last September. Brown (5-10, 179) ran a 4.34 in last year’s combine before Arizona took him in the third round.

Parker, Strong and Smith more closely resemble franchise-type receivers that would be on the field on all downs, not just in three or four-receiver sets. If the 49ers lose Michael Crabtree to free agency, they might be more inclined to find a bigger, more physical receiver than Dorsett that projects as a full-time starter. It’s also important to keep in mind Anquan Boldin, 34, is entering the last year of his contract. And the team would like to give Stevie Johnson healthy competition for a prominent role in training camp if he returns with his $6.025 cap hit.

The wild card is former Missouri and Oklahoma receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who we took a look at last week.

Defensive stoppers

There’s one player projected to go in the first round of the draft that might have been built by Baalke himself, with one caveat. Oregon’s defensive lineman Arik Armstead (6-8, 290) has all the tools Baalke loves in a defensive end for the team’s 3-4 scheme. He’s strong, long, athletic, and projects to be one of the most physically gifted players of the draft. The big players that do their work in the trenches seem to be in Baalke’s wheelhouse. Armstead has the makings of someone that could play for a long time in the role of Ray McDonald or Justin Smith, who is mulling retirement.

However, Armstead’s production during college doesn’t stand out. The Sacramento area native notched just four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss during his three seasons with the Ducks. But he showed versatility, lining up at all three defensive line positions at various times throughout his career with a knack of pushing linemen into the backfield. As he matures, many believe he will become a dominant player.

The caveat: Armstead reportedly has just 33-inch arms. While long, 33 inches isn’t ideal for someone as tall as Armstead. Baalke’s love for long arms has been well documented, and connected to his infatuation with Aldon Smith (35 3/8-inch arms) before he was taken seventh overall in 2011.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Baalke passing a player with as much upside as Armstead at 15, who many have pegged going in the top 10, including as early to the Atlanta Falcons at eighth overall. The 49ers reportedly met with Armstead at the combine.

Aside from Armstead, the pickings are slim along the defensive line for players projected to go early in the first round that would be a fit in the 49ers’ scheme. TexasMalcolm Brown (6-2, 320) is another versatile player who has skills to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 front. But his size indicates he would be a nose tackle in the 49ers’ scheme, which would be on the field for roughly 40 percent of snaps.

Washington’s Danny Shelton (6-1, 343), will likely be the second defensive lineman off the board after USC’s Leonard Williams (6-5, 300). Like the receivers White and Cooper, the 49ers would have to jump up significantly to land either Shelton or Williams, who could go as high as second overall to the Tennessee Titans.

Edge Pass Rushers

If the 49ers wanted to add a pass rusher to compliment Aldon Smith, Aaron Lynch, and Ahmad Brooks, if he is brought back next season, they shouldn’t have any problem finding a player with that skill set with their 15th pick.

None of the players projected to go early have the same dimensions as Lynch or Smith. Both were tall, angular defensive ends in college who transitioned to outside linebacker in the pros. But there are a few players that rushed the edge that could fit into that role with San Francisco for depth.

Florida’s Donte Fowler (6-2, 271), Clemson’s Vic Beasley (6-2, 235), Kentucky’s Bud Dupree (6-4, 269) could all be around at 15. Missouri’s Shane Ray (6-3, 245) and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory (6-6, 245) will likely go well before the 49ers pick.

Pass rusher isn’t on the list of immediate needs for San Francisco considering they have their projected starters in Smith and Lynch heading into the new year. But with the futures of Brooks and pending free agent Dan Skuta in the air, the team could afford some depth at outside linebacker to push Corey Lemonier for his roster spot after a disappointing sophomore season.

Based on their size, Fowler and Dupree appear to be the best fits at the position. But recent history would suggest the 49ers might be unwilling to use a first-round pick on a player that doesn’t have a chance to start - or play a significant role in a sub package - right away. As long as Smith and Lynch are healthy, they will play in both base and nickel sets next season.

Cornerback

For the second-straight season, the 49ers could lose two of their top three corners in free agency. Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox are both entering free agency next month, which could make cornerback a top priority come draft time. They invested in four defensive backs last season - Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser - with Johnson being the only player to finish the season healthy with a significant role. Reaser (ACL) and Acker (stress fracture) both missed their rookie seasons, becoming the latest 49ers to red shirt in their first years.

The salary cap is expected to jump from $133 to $143 million next season. But that might not help San Francisco as much as it would seem. They are facing significant raises for Colin Kaepernick ($3.7 million in 2014, $15 million next season) and Smith ($3.3 million in ’14, $9.75 million in ’15), putting them at $142.86 million before the start of free agency, according to overthecap.com.

Without getting into too many gory details, that could change in number of ways in the coming weeks, including via cuts and restructures. Bottom line: the 49ers might have a hard time finding ways to bring back both Culliver and Cox.

Picking at 15, San Francisco might be in position to take the best player at the position. After the combine, that player looks like Michigan State’s Trae Waynes (6-0, 186), who plays physically while still having the speed to keep up with some of the league’s fastest wideouts.

Waynes ran a blazing 4.31 at the combine, which would make him the fastest player on the 49ers’ roster. His lone weakness during his final standout season with the Spartans was nine penalties.

San Francisco could tap LSU in the first round again with Jalen Collins (6-1, 203), who might not be as fast was Waynes - he ran a 4.48 - but has more length. His 32 1/8-inch arms give him ideal dimensions for what Baalke typically looks for in press corners for the 49ers’ scheme. Collins is viewed as a player that relies more talent than technique, who could develop into the best corner in the draft.

Another option at 15 could be Washington’s Marcus Peters (6-0, 197), who ran a 4.53 and has talent comparable Waynes and Collins. The knock on Peters, however, is his attitude. He was suspended for a game last season for a sideline incident during a game following a personal foul penalty, before eventually getting kicked off the team for clashing with the coaching staff. Peters, a first-round talent, will likely fall to the second or third round.

A lot will change between now and draft day. And we will dive deeper into positional needs and further into the prospects leading up to the draft. The 49ers have a number of areas to address, and nine draft picks, which gives us plenty to think about before the end of April.

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Tomsula needs Smith, Gore to return to 49ers

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