This is not a column telling Trent Baalke what to do in the upcoming draft. We know what he has to do. He knows what he has to do. This is a column predicting how he will do it.
What we know: The 49ers have two major needs. Just two. Wide receiver and cornerback. Michael Crabtree will be a free agent after next season. Anquan Boldin turns 34 in October. Brandon Lloyd – the Niners recently signed him – turns 33 in June, and didn’t play in the NFL last season. Those are the Niners’ receivers.
At cornerback, the 49ers have Tramaine Brock – gave up six touchdown catches last season – and Chris Culliver – gave up a 110.9 passer rating in 2012, tore his ACL during the 2013 training camp. This offseason, he was arrested and charged with hit-and-run on a bicyclist. The Niners can’t depend on Culliver on or off the field.
The good news: The 49ers have 11 draft picks and cannot use all of them – half wouldn’t make the final 53-man roster. Rather than waste those picks, Baalke probably will use some of them to trade up and get a wide receiver or a cornerback who can make a big impact, even start right away if the Niners need him to.
Based on Baalke’s draft-day tendencies, here’s what he might do:
Baalke targets a specific player in the first round. He said it himself at this year’s Combine: “The No. 1 thing is targeting the players you want, indentify those and find a way to go get them.” Last year, Baalke targeted Eric Reid, traded up 11 spots to get him. In 2010, Baalke traded up to get Anthony Davis.
This year, there are three cornerback prospects Baalke probably is targeting: Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller. Those three could start right away for the Niners. Ideally, Baalke would trade up for one of them.
Baalke values on-field play over combine stats, and Dennard was the best cornerback in college football last season.
Baalke likes freak athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith, and Justin Gilbert has a freakish combination of size and speed.
Baalke wants players who fit his coach’s system. “That’s why our players tend to look similar at positions,” Baalke said at his recent pre-draft interview. Fuller is almost identical to Carlos Rogers, the 49ers’ former No. 1 cornerback the past three seasons.
The rest of the cornerback prospects in the draft need to develop and probably would not win a starting job as a rookie on the Niners.
Baalke can trade his first-round pick – No. 30 – and his first third-round pick – No. 77 – to the Jets for their first-round pick – No.18. At least one of Dennard, Gilbert and Fuller will be available at pick No.18.
The Jets probably would say “yes” to this trade because their No. 1 need is wide receiver – the deepest position in the draft. Fifteen receivers could make an impact next season. The Jets could trade down and still get an excellent receiver.
The Niners need a receiver, too. Baalke could take advantage of the deep receiver class, take a receiver in the second or third round. But, I doubt that’s Baalke’s plan. Remember, he targets a player and gets him. Baalke is not passive, does not risk another team stealing his target.
So, which receiver is Baalke targeting? Let’s narrow it down.
We know Baalke drafts players based on their best college season, not their most recent one. Eric Reid and Aldon Smith did not play particularly well during their final college season, but dominated their second-to-last season.
We know Baalke wants players who play in spite of injuries. Aldon Smith played on a broken leg for a few games at the University of Missouri.
We know Baalke wants to add a deep-threat receiver to the Niners’ offense. That’s why he drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round two years ago.
Is there an explosive receiver in this draft who had a monster season two years ago, and has played through injury?
Absolutely. His name is Marqise Lee.
If the NCAA had allowed him to enter the NFL Draft after his sophomore season at USC, during which he caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns, he would have been a top-15 pick. But he injured his knee during his junior season and caught just 57 passes and 4 touchdowns. Now, draft gurus say he will not get drafted until the end of the first round, the late 20s. Perfect for the Niners.
Baalke can trade both of his second-round picks – Nos. 56 and 61 – to the Browns for pick No. 26. And then Baalke can draft Lee. Baalke still would have two third-round picks, one fourth-rounder, one fifth-rounder, one sixth-rounder and three seventh-rounders to fill out the Niners’ roster.
Baalke’s clever. He may have a different way to get an impact corner and an impact receiver in this draft. Fine. As long as he gets one of each, the Niners will become Super Bowl favorites.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.