In three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers’ worst result has been a loss in the conference championship. Not bad, huh? Oh, and talented young quarterback Colin Kaepernick angered his peers by inking a flexible, team-friendly, six-year contract extension that will supposedly revolutionize the way teams pay superstars. In related news, Cam Newton is working on his curveball. With all of this success, you would think everything is coming up roses in San Francisco, but not so fast. Talks have stalled on an extension for coach Harbaugh in what amounts to a dick-measuring contest between he and general manager Trent Baalke. Go figure.
The 49ers one-upped themselves in the 2014 draft with twelve total picks, after picking eleven times in 2013. All of these picks are quite a luxury as the 49ers are one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The team used several of its six picks on the first two days addressing needs with safety/corner hybrid Jimmie Ward, center Marcus Martin, and inside linebacker Chris Borland (All-Pro NaVorro Bowman will miss significant time following a gruesome knee injury). I’ll briefly discuss them along with a few other picks in the conclusion. Our feature prospects are mid-round selections Brandon Thomas and Bruce Ellington.
ROUND 3, PICK 100
Brandon Thomas, OT/OG, Clemson
At a workout for the New Orleans Saints, Brandon Thomas tore his ACL and is very likely to “redshirt” the 2014 season for the 49ers. He almost certainly would have been selected in the second round without this misfortune. Thomas played left tackle as a senior and was projected as a guard in the NFL by most draft sites. If he fully recovers, I believe he can play both tackle and guard. It’s nothing new for the 49ers to use picks on injured players; they used two of their eleven picks in 2013 on Tank Carradine (ACL tear) and Marcus Lattimore (knee explosion), both of whom missed all of last season.
For this article, I looked at Thomas in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State, along with contests against Syracuse, South Carolina, and Georgia Tech. We’ll only be looking at pass protection in the latter two games, because I watched Thomas through Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd’s tape. Always watch the left tackle, #63.
Thomas’ best game tape comes against Ohio State. He sets the key block on Clemson’s first touchdown by cracking down on the defensive tackle and then moving to the second level to shield a linebacker from the runner. Throughout the Orange Bowl, Clemson runs behind Thomas and he does not fail to deliver. Here he gets under the defensive tackle and blows him off the ball, creating a running lane. Watch him shove a linebacker deep into the second level here, and tell me this later play does not give you déjà vu.
In pass protection, Thomas often displays great feet, agility, and everything else you need from a tackle. Here is an example of perfect technique in pass protection: He quickly slides outside, creates a strong base, and stonewalls the pass rusher upon contact. You can see both his speed and strength facing Jadeveon Clowney on this play. Once again, perfect and perfect. All of these are plays you want to see consistently from an offensive tackle.
What you do not want to see is a tackle getting beaten on inside rush moves. Here we see Clowney swim right past our man with an incredible burst. Thomas does not have an answer. He has a similar result when facing Chargers second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu here, where Attaochu crashes hard inside, and Thomas is immediately beaten. Later in the game, Attaochu gets Thomas to cheat inside with a step in that direction before exploding around the edge for a near sack.
Thomas has a few other lapses in pass protection. For example, he gets no depth when dropping into his stance on this play, and the result is a safety. He barely moves off of the snap here against Syracuse, and the defensive end unloads on Boyd. Later in that game, it looks as if Clemson’s entire line is on the wrong page facing a stunt. Boyd again takes the punishment. Rather than properly kick out, Thomas lunges at the Georgia Tech defensive end here. These issues are less problematic than his proclivity to get beaten inside a few times each game.
The good news is that he can stop an inside rush, and he does tend to rally well in general. If you recall Clowney defeating Thomas inside earlier, note that Thomas reacts in time to stop him here and here. Thomas’ strength allows him to rally here, where Clowney initially gets in a strong bull rush. You don’t want a tackle allowing two or three free shots at your quarterback each game in the NFL. Thomas is not perfect in pass protection, but he has no athletic limitation to prevent him from playing tackle. With a full recovery from his ACL tear, there’s a good chance we will see him starting somewhere along the 49ers offensive line in 2015.
ROUND 4, PICK 106
Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina
Don’t let Bruce Ellington’s 5’9″ stature fool you; he plays much taller. It’s all in his 39.5″ vertical. After all, we are talking about a basketball player here. In the four games I watched– Wisconsin, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Missouri– Ellington dropped exactly one ball. As we’ll see shortly, this is rather spectacular, given the degree of difficulty on many of his receptions. His ability to concentrate and make the tough catches is nearly unparalleled in this draft class. The only negative plays other than the one drop all came in blocking, and he is not a poor blocker overall. Sit back and enjoy the show.
As with Brandon Thomas, Bruce Ellington saved his best game for last with six receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Oh, he also threw a touchdown pass. On the first play of the game, Ellington runs a post from the slot and shows toughness in bringing the ball down through contact. Here he simply runs a deep post for a touchdown, showing off that 4.45 speed. Look at the adjustment he makes on this ball for a catch around his feet. Speaking of spectacular catches, take a look at him tipping a ball to himself here. Keep the tape rolling to see a touchdown on the next play.
Missouri featured one of the top defenses in college football in 2013. Nobody told Bruce Ellington:
- He catches this ball in traffic even though he bobbles it initially.
- Does this look incomplete? Initially, yes. The replay shows his incredible field awareness and concentration, and, yep, it’s a touchdown.
- Fourth quarter. Three minutes remaining. Down a touchdown. A diving catch over the middle. Overtime? Please. Touchdown.
In the Arkansas game, Ellington catches two touchdowns and this deep ball. Neither touchdown is particularly special. Both occur near the end zone and Arkansas decides not to cover him. Facing Vanderbilt he makes this pretty over-the-shoulder deep catch from the slot. Double coverage? No problem, Ellington splits them and makes a very difficult catch through contact for a touchdown. All he does is make plays.
I suspect he will find a way to get on the field even with Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and newly acquired receiver Stevie Johnson (among others) battling for receptions. If nothing else, I expect Ellington to be a preseason sensation, and to make his mark in 2015. I didn’t show any problems with his game because he didn’t show any in what he was asked to do. The only issue, I suppose, is that he’s limited to primarily playing in the slot, and he isn’t six feet tall. His fearlessness in traffic and great hands remind me a lot of Anquan Boldin. And he’s out to take his job.
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
As I said earlier, the 49ers addressed some needs with their first several picks. Jimmie Ward is a safety who can be pressed into service at cornerback and should provide the 49ers with a formidable safety duo for years and years with pro bowler Eric Reid (both were born in 1991). Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde was my highest graded runner in the draft and his selection could very well mean the end of Frank Gore’s long tenure in San Francisco. Wisconsin middle linebacker Chris Borland has big shoes to fill as he’s the likeliest candidate to step into NaVorro Bowman’s role until he returns. The good news is that he’s an experienced player; the bad is that he isn’t NaVorro Bowman. Zone Reads video analyst and contributor Needle made a video on each Carlos Hyde and Chris Borland; I recommend checking out both.
Third-round pick Marcus Martin will almost certainly be the opening day starter at center. Thirty-five year old Jonathan Goodwin had been the starter at center the past three years, but the team let him leave in free agency. Fourth-round cornerback Dontae Johnson is 6’2″ and ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine. He flashes ability in coverage here and there, and given the lack of depth at the position will likely make the team (or, you know, get claimed by Seattle). Defensive end Aaron Lynch will face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster, but he does have some ability. I have not seen tape on the remainder of the 49ers’ draft class.
The 49ers have done a masterful job of both developing young players and retaining their star veterans. Look at this list: Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid. All of them were drafted by the 49ers. (It’s a completely different story down the street in Oakland.) Unless Blaine Gabbert is pressed into action (the horror, the horror), the 49ers have the talent to make another run at the Super Bowl.