49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

May 11, 2014
49ers draft thoughts: Dr. Jekyll & Aaron Lynch ...

When it was reported last month that Aaron Lynch visited the 49ers, I put on one of Lynch's games last year at South Florida. I wasn't impressed. Yes, he got off the line of scrimmage quickly from his defensive line spot. But all he had was an outside move, and even that wasn't all that great. He was stonewalled whenever he tried to loop inside. He spent a lot of time on the ground. His stat line from that game against Michigan State: two tackles, no sacks. Meh. I didn't need to see more. This guy stinks.

But if you watch Lynch two years earlier against the same team, Michigan State, he looks like a morph between Aldon Smith and Jason Taylor. But angrier and more disruptive. Mike Mayock, who was doing the play-by-play in that game, couldn't stop gushing about Lynch, a true freshman for Notre Dame at the time, and deservedly so. Lynch played on the inside of the line and routinely brought pressure up the middle of the Spartans' pocket. In the second half, the Spartans double teamed him and chipped him with a running back, and still he came. He was unstoppable.

In short, he was a different person. At South Florida, he looked skinny and fatigued. He was bigger, nastier, more ferocious at Notre Dame. He did a lot of the inside stunting that Smith has done so well for the 49ers. The 49ers did a lot of research on Lynch, and they must believe he can return to his Notre Dame form. If he does -- and I realize this sounds a lot like draft-time hyperbole, so be it -- the 49ers hit a home run in the bottom of the fifth.

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If the 49ers had traded up for a wide receiver in the first round - something GM Trent Baalke acknowledged contemplating - I was prepared to write the sentence: The 49ers' move ahead for _________ may signal that they don't intend to sign Michael Crabtree to a long-term extension. Crabtree, of course, is entering the final year of his rookie deal. The 49ers didn't trade up. In fact, they didn't draft a wideout until the fourth round (Bruce Ellington). But they traded for veteran Stevie Johnson, who is signed through the next three seasons at salaries that are lower - perhaps significantly lower - than what Crabtree will want. The bottom line: The 49ers' trade for Johnson may signal that they don't intend to sign Michael Crabtree to a long-term extension.

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Another player whose long-term extension seems more unlikely today than it did a week ago? Mike Iupati's. The 49ers drafted two interior linemen, Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas (Thomas played tackle but is projected to guard) who were among the best at their positions. Thomas likely won't play this year after suffering a torn ACL last month. But he will be ready next season when Iupati is set to hit the free-agent market. With Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney and perhaps even Jonathan Martin contending for spots on the interior offensive line, the 49ers should find at least one candidate to play left guard should Iupati depart.

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How will Ellington fare against the type of press coverage he'll see in the NFL and he'll see A LOT OF in the NFC West? No one knows. It's a great lament of NFL general managers that college defenses rarely employ press coverage. "That's one of the problems when you're watching receivers," Baalke said. "You don't see them get pressed. So when people say, 'Well how's he going to do against press?' You tell me." Baalke said he and his evaluators tried to find examples of press coverage in all the receivers they scouted. One player had 20 examples. But that was the most. Examples of other receivers against press coverage were in the single digits

ellington.jpg

So evaluators project. A receiver who can overcome press coverage must have strength, quickness and instincts. What the 49ers liked about Ellington is that he tested well in short-area quickness -- the shuttle drills -- at the combine. And, of course, he also played point guard in the SEC, which demands quickness. "And one thing about basketball players - good basketball players understand spacing and they've got great instincts," Baalke said. "They've got great body awareness and great feel for creating space for themselves because that's what good basketball players have to do. On defense, you've got to take that space away. On offense, you've got to figure out a way to create it, and he's a guy that's able to do that on both ends of the court."

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In March Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers' offense could use a down-field receiver. Then in April, the team brought in two true burners -- Paul Richardson and Martavis Bryant -- for visits. That set the expectation that the team would find a stretch-the-field type receiver in the draft. Did they? Ellington ran his 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, which certainly isn't shabby. But he's seen more of a gritty slot receiver than a home-run threat. Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd add real depth and experience to the 49ers' receiving corps but neither is known for putting pressure on free safeties, something that is seen as key to beating teams like -- oh, I'll pick one at random -- Seattle. Meanwhile, Richardson was drafted by ... wait for it ... the Seahawks.

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Then again ... while the rest of the league has gone with finesse, the 49ers have stuck with power. This not only allows them to take advantage of defenses unaccustomed to a strong rushing game, it has a benefit in the draft. Twelve years ago, a runner with speed and power like Carlos Hyde would have been taken in the first round. This year, the first running back off the board lasted until the 54th pick, midway through the second round, and the 49ers didn't take Hyde until pick No. 57. Going against the grain, it seems, has its perks.

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Baalke insisted Hyde's acquisition had nothing to do with any hiccups in Marcus Lattimore's recovery from his 2012 knee injury. Still, it signals the 49ers are not counting on Lattimore to be the heir to Frank Gore's workhorse role. Everyone is hoping for a fairytale ending for the well-liked Lattimore. The reality is he tore three ligaments in the joint, a devastating and rare injury in the NFL, and at least some doubt remains he can overcome it.

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Baalke didn't think much of the cornerback class this year and decided to address the position - perhaps the team's biggest need - with numbers. The 49ers drafted three cornerbacks Saturday. This after using a first-round pick on safety Jimmie Ward, who is expected to begin his career as the team's slot cornerback.

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The 49ers have four cornerbacks - FOUR! - that have been arrested since 2011. With that in mind, it was nice to see the 49ers use a draft pick on N.C. State cornerback Dontae Johnson, who is squeaky clean, who was a good enough student to attend Stanford four years ago and who double majored - sports management and business administration - in college. "Very smart football player and an A-plus-plus character guy," Baalke said.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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