Slide that Butkus Award to the back of the trophy case, Von Miller. You might want to clear some space for your latest honor, one that puts you in the heady company of Carl Nicks (class of '08), Percy Harvin ('09) and C.J. Spiller ('10). Yes, after months of deep thought and deliberation, I am getting down on one knee (one knee, you pervs) and making it official: Miller, the Texas A&M linebacker, is my 2011 Draft Crush.
There were many worthy candidates this year (see below). But as you know there can only be one true draft crush, and I extend the rose - the Bar-rose? - to Miller for the following reasons:
First and foremost, he fills a need. The 49ers have been without a consistent pass rusher for more than a decade now, and Miller has shown he can do one thing very well: sack the quarterback. He has 27 Â½ sacks in the last two seasons, and he likely would have had more had it not been for an ankle injury that slowed him early in his senior season.
But what makes Miller special is his potential for versatility. He seems like the ideal fit for a new defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, who wants an aggressive, blitzing, creative defense. Miller appears to be the rare pass rusher who can be moved all over the field. He's the queen in the chess set - a guy who can rush from the corner, who can stunt through the middle, who can drop into pass coverage and who can makes plays in the open field. One of the themes from the recent combine was that NFL offenses - the best NFL offenses - are following the college game by becoming faster and more spread out. To counter that, defenses need players who are cat-quick, can change directions, can run down ball carriers all over the field and - most important - can disrupt the passing game.
Detractors might look at Miller's weight and say, 'Wait - didn't the 49ers already burn a first-round pick on a light-in-the-fanny outside linebacker?' It's a valid question after Manny Lawson has struggled to consistently put pressure on the quarterback after the 49ers used the 22nd overall pick on him in 2006. But in one month, Miller already has put on nine pounds - he was 246 at the combine - and NFL scouts believe he will have no problem reaching and playing at 250 pounds. Lawson has been shooting for 250 for years.
With Miller - who ran his 40 in a furious 4.51 seconds -- the amount of speed the 49ers would have at linebacker would be eye-opening. The future would include him, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman at three of the four positions. The fourth? Fangio would have to decide among returnees Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and Thaddeus Gibson as well as free agents Manny Lawson and Travis LaBoy.
Robert Quinn, DE/LB UNC: Maybe it was because he played at UNC, which in my mind jockies back and forth with Duke for least-favorite-university status. Maybe it was because he was busted by the NCAA and missed the 2010 season. Whatever the reason, I admit going into the combine thinking that I would not like Quinn. I was wrong. During his interview session, Quinn came off as 100 percent genuine, which is rare among hyper-polished draft prospects. I and the rest of the reporters who attended came away impressed. At 265 pounds, he's certainly bigger and perhaps more explosive than Miller and better at setting the edge in the running game. And the 49ers may be convinced that his pass-rush skills are better - more NFL-ready - than Miller's and that pass-rush skills trump all else. However, Quinn also has question marks, including his 2010 suspension for accepting gifts from an agent. He also was diagnosed in high school with a benign brain tumor, something he has checked every six months. That will make teams at least a little bit nervous.
Patrick Peterson, CB LSU: Peterson had just as impressive a combine performance - on the field, on the podium - as Miller and Quinn. Many draft gurus have him rated as their top player, and he only bolstered his backing in Indianapolis. So why isn't he crush-worthy? The main reason is that I don't think he'll be around when the 49ers are on the clock. If he is, it would be hard for them to pass on a 219-pound cornerback who ran a 4.32-second 40 and who returns punts and kicks to boot. Peterson likened himself to Charles Woodson at the combine, a comparison that Fangio likely sees as well.
Farther down the draft:
Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada: He's got the strongest arm of anyone in the draft. He's tall, he can run, he's smart, he's squeaky clean and he's infinitely coach-able. Why, again, is Ryan Mallett a potential first rounder but Kaepernick is not?
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama: He's the afterthought QB - the type of guy who gets overshadowed by flashier players with bigger arms but who ends up the better pro because he's smart and he's a leader. I got a strong Shaun Hill vibe from McElroy at the Senior Bowl and combine.
Sione Fua, NT, Stanford: The underrated Fua is another guy who made good showings at the Senior Bowl and scouting combine. He's smart, strong and he already knows Fangio's system. You have to believe the 49ers are keeping an eye on him in the mid rounds.
-- Matt Barrows