Talent, Questions Loom Over Draft Class

Anthony Davis. Mike Iupati. Taylor Mays. The concept of taking the best athlete at each position – character red flags be damned – is hardly a new one for football fans in the Bay Area. We're used to hearing the snickers and jibes of the national media both during the draft weekend and in the days after.

The snarky comments about drafting track athletes instead of football players. The implication of picking players based on their Scouting Combine numbers instead of their game film. We hear the pity in the analysts' voices when they talk about the organization's chief decision maker living twenty years in the past, totally oblivious about how the game has passed him by.

It's just that usually these observations are made about the Oakland Raiders and their octogenarian emperor Al Davis.

The 49ers draft, any way you look at it, is filled with question marks. Of course the argument could be made that every pick from every team is a mystery; that we have no way of knowing here in early May how any of them will pan out, but the Niners in particular really took some chances with their picks. They swung for the fences, shot for the moon, pushed all their chips in – pick your metaphor. The common denominator for all these guys is that they're boom-or-bust types.

Take the first pick, tackle Anthony Davis from Rutgers, whom the Niners sacrificed their fourth round pick to ensure they would get with the 11th overall pick . Critics say that he's lazy, unfocused. They point out that he's had problems keeping his weight down and that he was benched at some point during his senior season.

San Francisco's chief decision makers, Director of Player Personnel Trent Baalke and Head Coach Mike Singletary (reverse that order if you like), didn't see those negatives in Davis. No, what they saw was a kid – and at 20-years old that's what Davis is, a kid – who, when he was right, was the most dominant pass blocker in the country. They saw a 6'5, 323 pound behemoth who had feet like Muhammad Ali and power like George Foreman.

Let's be clear, physically, there are no concerns with Davis. He's got the body and the athleticism to be a Pro Bowl tackle in the league for many years. The questions with him are with his head. Obviously the team needed a tackle, but why not draft someone like Iowa's Bryan Bulaga, a safer pick with no character concerns?

Because Bulaga is limited, that's why. You know he'll show up to work every day, that he'll give maximum effort both in the classroom and in the weight room, but he's a guy 32-inch arms (compared to Davis' 34) and a ceiling, which he may have already have reached at Iowa. Bulaga will be a solid pro, but he'll never be special. Davis has the tools to be an elite player, and Singletary is confident he can coax him into playing to his supreme potential.

Iupati is a question mark on a different level. With him effort or dedication will not be an issue, and in fact he might have the most unquestioned character of anyone in the entire draft class. There's no cause for concern with him physically either – at 6'5, 331 pounds, the man is a hulking beast (Singletary referred to Davis and Iupati, lined up on either side of him during their introductory press conference with the media, as a pair of "shadows"). What makes you wonder with Iupati is that he played at a small school in Idaho, and against inferior competition in the WAC. When lined up opposite fellow draft prospects at the Senior Bowl, Iupati struggled, though he was playing right tackle instead of left guard, where he lined up all year.

Again the critics were chirping. If you wanted an interior lineman, why not take Florida's Maurkice Pouncey, a guy who got it done against the best of the best in the SEC? Because Singletary's convinced Iupati will be better; that because of his unique background and where he came from, that he'll want it more. We'll see.

Second round pick Mays might just be the best athlete of the whole draft class. The guy is built like a linebacker but runs like Chris Johnson. Yet, for all his wondrous physical gifts, he only had five interceptions in four years at USC. Stiff hips people say. No instincts for coverage. He takes awful angles. He has no ball skills.

The 49ers are convinced Mays wasn't used or instructed properly in college. Their coaches are confident he's got the drive to improve and the ability to be a complete safety that can make plays all over the field. They see a player who might have been a risky pick in the top-15 but one who'll be motivated like crazy after falling deep into the second round. In Mays they've got a talented lump of clay. Can they mold him into a star, or is he forever destined to be just a guy who looks good in a uniform?

The rest of the picks are in the same vein. Guys who've had hardships to overcome in life, some of their own making but in most cases not. Linebacker Navorro Bowman has been arrested. Running back Anthony Dixon had a DUI and has been homeless. Tight end Nate Byham was raised by his grandfather.

Singletary understands the perception about the picks, but he makes no apologies for them. "I don't have anybody on this list who has thrown anybody out of a window," he said. "I don't have anybody on this list who has stomped anybody. I don't have anybody who had a gun in a place. I don't have anybody here like that. I may have a DUI here. I may have a guy [where somebody] said, ‘The guy's a little overweight.' But, that's about all I see."

Still, the man has a vision, and the voices from outside of the building don't matter to him. "I want speed, I want quickness, I want power and I'd like that with an attitude because I believe that at the end of the day that's what wins," he said. "I think the team that's going to hit the hardest, the team that's going to run the fastest, the team that perseveres, that's where the toughness comes in. Everybody goes through setbacks and everything else, but it's that team that sticks together and stays together and fights together. That's the team that's going to come out at the end of the day. That's what we're trying to build."

The foundation is already in place. The team's architects are convinced they've got the blueprint and the right pile of new bricks and mortar to build a gleaming mansion. Only time will tell.


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