SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The time honored tradition continues this spring as fans and pundits alike peg the San Francisco 49ers with a wide receiver early in the upcoming draft.
After whiffing on A.J. Jenkins with his first-round pick in 2012, general manager Trent Baalke will continue to feel added pressure until he makes up for one of his worst draft decisions by adding a young, talented wideout that sticks around in next’s week draft.
Baalke will have that chance after waiting until the fourth round to find a receiver in each of the last two drafts, landing Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington, who have yet to emerge as consistent producers early in their careers, mostly due to a lack of opportunity. And with Anquan Boldin likely entering the last year of his contract, the 49ers could need a new starter as early as next season with Patton and Ellington yet to prove they deserve such designations.
"It’s the deepest position in the draft and I definitely think they need a receiver in the first three rounds," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said in a conference call. "Torrey Smith is an explosive deep threat ... Anquan Boldin is 34. After that, you’re hoping."
The 2015 receiver class doesn’t project to have quite the quality or depth of last season’s where 12 were taken in the first two rounds. But there are options within the first three rounds next week that could net Baalke the eventual starter he’s looking for.
The consensus is the three best receivers in this draft - Amari Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker - will be taken before San Francisco selects at 15. That puts Baalke in a spot to either trade up, trade back, or wait until the second or third rounds to address the position. That’s a big variance in potential scenarios.
For the second time, Baalke turned to a former Ravens receiver in Smith, who inked a five-year, $40 million deal, becoming the most expensive free agent on Baalke’s resume. He rejoins Boldin, who came via trade from Baltimore in 2013, after the duo helped beat San Francisco in Super Bowl 47. Baalke also signed athletic free agent Jerome Simpson and lost Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson to the Raiders and Chargers, respectively.
Let’s take a look at the potential scenarios Baalke will look at during the early rounds of next week’s draft:
Truth be told, picking at 15 isn’t a great spot for this year’s draft, barring any drastic shift in players’ stock leading up to next Thursday night. The 49ers are picking too late to get one of three ‘elite’ receivers, and 15 might be too early to start looking at the second tier. To be sure, they would be ecstatic if Parker’s injury questions cause him to fall to 15, but that appears unlikely with so many teams needing receivers picking ahead of them (Bears, Rams, Vikings, Browns, Dolphins, among others).
The second tier of receivers - Jaelen Strong, Devin Smith, Phillip Dorsett, Dorial Green-Beckham, Breshad Perriman - aren’t likely viewed as top-15 players in this draft, and may be a reach. Baalke will look to get as much value as a possible with this pick, which could mean trading back into the 20s and landing a player like Strong or Smith while adding an additional third-rounder to use on the team’s growing list of needs. Or, Baalke could use the 15th pick on another position, like cornerback or the defensive line. We’ll get into those positions late this week.
Bottom line: there doesn't appear to be a value match at 15 if the top three receivers are off the board, leaving Baalke a tough decision if finding a receiver in the first round is his mandate. But he would have his pick of second-tier receivers, which could be a good thing. Or, he could use 15 on another position and wait on a receiver.
Given all the teams with holes at receiver picking ahead of the 49ers, Baalke might have to pay a pretty penny to get in range for Cooper, White or Parker, with the bounty being as high as next year’s first-round pick for Cooper or White. Baalke’s far more likely to stockpile picks for flexibility, rather than do the opposite and convert multiple picks into one with a trade into the top-5. Giving up value like that isn't his style.
But Baalke is might be willing to make a marginal trade to move up and land his guy. He moved a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins in 2010 to move up two spots, from 13 to 11, for right tackle Anthony Davis. Should Parker slide past the Browns at 12, Baalke could find a way to get to 13 - one spot ahead of Miami, who could use a wideout - at a similar cost to getting Davis. If he wanted to move ahead of Cleveland, it would likely take a second or third-round pick, at the least. And he might not be the only bidder.
Bottom line: Consider Cooper and White likely out of Baalke’s trade range, with Parker being a possibility should he be available as late as No. 9, where a trade could make sense with the New York Giants, who pick one spot ahead of the receiver-needy, division rival, St. Louis Rams. That could cost as much as a second-round pick, or multiple mid-round selections, along with pick 15. Moving to 9 is likely the highest Baalke would go.
Or, Baalke could use 15 on another position and trade up into the first round - the 20s? - to land the receiver of his choice.
Baalke typically does his best work in the middle rounds of the draft, making it a possibility the 49ers move back for an additional pick or two, while still landing a receiver they like in the first or second rounds. With there being a decent gap between the first and second tiers of wideouts, he could afford to move a few spots back and still get Strong, Smith, Perriman, Dorsett or Green-Beckham.
Two teams to keep an eye on will be the Chiefs and Browns, who pick at 18 and 19, respectively. If Cleveland finds a receiver at 12, then they could be willing to move the 19th pick in a trade. KC is a prime candidate to tap a receiver to pair with free-agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin with the next pick.
Bottom line: Baalke won’t likely trade too far back, perhaps no further than 25, where Carolina picks, if either Strong or Smith are his targets. The Panthers might want another weapon to complement last year’s first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin. And the Ravens, picking 26th, will be interested in receivers after losing Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith in free agency. In fact, NFL teams should consider doing everything they can to keep Devin Smith away from Baltimore, where he could terrorize defenses as a deep threat paired with deep-ball savant Joe Flacco.
Wait Until Round 2
If receiver isn’t the pick in the first round, either by trading up or down, or staying at 15, there could still be some intriguing options in the second round. Dorsett (speedster), Green-Beckham (first-round talent, with questions about character and productivity), Devin Smith (deep threat, much like Torrey Smith), or Perriman (ditto) could all be around.
Other options could include Nelson Agholor, Sammie Coates, Rashad Greene or Tyler Lockett, who are more likely to be around when the 49ers pick midway through the second round. Without the depth of last year’s receiving class, wideouts will be at a premium in 2015, meaning teams could be more likely to reach for the position if they didn’t get their receiver in last year’s draft. It's a passing league, after all.
Bottom line: there’s a sizable drop off from between the second and third tiers of wideouts, with players in the third tier likely going early in the second round. If the 49ers want to find their next starting receiver to eventually replace Boldin in this draft, their best chance would be to find that player at some point in the first round, either at 15 or in the 20s if Baalke looks to maximize value by trading back.
Of course, the big wild card of the class is Green-Beckham, who is viewed by some as the most intriguing talent at the position. But he also comes with the most risk. The biggest question surrounding Green-Beckham is whether or not he falls to the second round based on character concerns. He could be around for San Francisco in the second round, or he could go late in the first. After whiffing on Jenkins, will Baalke be willing to take the risk with Green-Beckham, or will he go a safer route?
Wait Until Round 3
There are third-round options that could fit with San Francisco.
Georgia’s Chris Conley (6-2, 213) had an outstanding combine, running a 4.35 forty, with an incredible 45-inch vertical jump. Some wonder if that physical ability matches up with his college tape, making him somewhat of a risky pick. But in the third round, Conley could be around for the 49ers.
You can find in-depth scouting reports of the top-21 wideouts in this class here.
Bottom line:The longer Baalke waits, the less popular his strategy becomes, and the more risk he takes on when it comes to finding a potential starter to replace Boldin.
There looks to be more mid-round depth at other positions of need - cornerback, defensive line, offensive line - than receiver. Perhaps the value might not match up, but the 49ers could have their pick of receivers at 15 outside of Cooper, White or Parker. Taking either Strong or Devin Smith at 15 might be a reach in terms of overall value, but both project as starting receivers in the post-Boldin world. The overall demand for the position could mean receivers get drafted earlier than their projected value.
Strong is more of a big-bodied and physical target, like Boldin, while Smith is the classic deep threat, like Torrey Smith. Both could help the offense immediately, with Devin Smith being a good fit as a third wideout from the jump to challenge the top of defenses. Nothing helps the running game like multiple deep threats. And suddenly the 49ers would become a dangerous play-action offense like it was from 2011 to 2013.
It’s a matter of taste. Some teams like receivers with similar skills sets for interchangeability - and some like contrasting styles to compliment each other. If Baalke wants to find a starting wideout in this year’s draft, going with either Strong or Smith at 15 would be his best bet, unless he can still land either of those two by trading back.