Aldon Smith? He’s “just scratching the surface of his potential.”
Colin Kaepernick? An excellent second-round value who needs polishing.
Chris Culliver? A raw cornerback with spectacular athletic ability.
CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang views each of the Niners’ top three draft picks as “ascending talents” who have an asterisk attached: They will need some intense tutoring to get NFL ready. (Unfortunately for the 49ers, it appears school won’t be in session soon.)
“Obviously with (Jim) Harbaugh’s staff, they are confident in their abilities,” Rang said. “And they are a group of players, these initial three, who do need coaching up. So it’s like the 49ers scouts are now putting it on the shoulders of the coaching staff and saying ‘OK, you’re going to have coach these guys up and you’re going to have to earn your money.’ They got three legitimately talented players at three obvious areas of concern.”
Here are Rang’s thoughts on Smith, Kaepernick and Culliver. (Since this got a bit lengthy, I’ll follow up with a blog on Rang talking Kendall Hunter and Ronald Johnson):
ALDON SMITH, DE/LB, MISSOURI
Smith, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds at 21 years old, figures to get bigger. And just how big can he get and still be an effective 3-4 outside linebacker? He’s already in the same weight class of some of his heavier peers in New England’s Adalius Thomas (6-2, 270), Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley (6-2, 265) and Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (6-4, 262).
“I love the physical potential of him, but in my conversations with people around the league, and they certainly echo my belief, is that he was a better fit as a 4-3 defensive end,” Rang said. “Whatever he is — 267 pounds? — he is just naturally going to grow into a bigger player considering his very young age and the rangy build he has. He is just going to continue to grow and there are just not a lot of successful 280-pound outside linebackers.”
• Rang noted Smith’s stiffness — a quality general manger Trent Baalke acknowledged during his film-session review of the draftees with the media (Baalke said such stiffness was not uncommon).
“He’s not as fluid as I would like as far as an outside linebacker,” Rang said. “He’s an explosive player that has good burst upfield. And when he sees the quarterback or a ball carrier he does have a great burst to close, which is absolutely critical for being a successful pass rusher. So I like that.
“I don’t know that he has a lot of bend to him. So when he’s trying to go around an offensive tackle, for example, and he’s got to turn his body to go around the edge, he doesn’t have that great flexibility — what we call ‘dip and rip’ past the offensive tackle.”
I thought the dip-and-rip comment was interesting. Baalke believes Smith’s stiffness will really only show up when he drops into coverage – a duty he’s expected to perform sparingly in the NFL.
Rang did say Smith could compensate for some of his lack of fluidity with his remarkably long arms – he possesses an 83 7/8-inch wing span.
• Parting thoughts: “Physically, he’s a pretty extraordinary athlete and he showed the ability to be productive immediately in college,” Rang said. “I do think he’s an ascending player who is just scratching the surface of his potential, but, again, I really thought his best bet was as a 4-3 defensive end.”
COLIN KAEPERNICK, QB, NEVADA
Kapernick, then, appears to be the anti-Ponder: A not-ready-for-prime-time project with plenty of room for growth.
“I do like the value 49ers got there,” Rang said. “I do think Kaepernick is a very nice fit for them in terms of he is a player they’ll need to polish just because of the throwing motion and he’s making that transition from the Pistol offense. But I think that’s something the 49ers can afford to do, especially with Jim Harbaugh there.”
• The only quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000. The only quarterback in NCAA history to rush for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. The only quarterback to blah, blah, blah …
Rang says Kaepernick’s stats are impressive. And somewhat irrelevant given the system he played in and the competition he faced.
“You’ve got to throw (the stats) out the window,” Rang said. “I assure you that whoever the quarterback is at Nevada next year, his numbers won’t be as good certainly, but he’s going to put up impressive numbers as well. It’s just that (Nevada coach) Chris Ault is a marvel.”
CHRIS CULLIVER, CB, SOUTH CAROLINA
Culliver started two seasons at safety in college before making seven starts at cornerback in an injury shortened senior season. He earned second-team all-SEC honors as a junior and was a preseason All-American entering his final season. His 4.4-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was tied for the third-fastest among cornerbacks and his vertical jump (38 5/8 inches) was tied for the second-best mark.
“He’s a player that I think can play corner and he can play safety and I’m not sure where he’s going to play best at. But he showed the skill set to be a quality player at either position,” Rang said. “… He’s a spectacular athlete and he did it against elite competition. If you want to play him as a press corner then he’s a little raw, certainly, but he has the traits you’re looking for. And as a safety he has those traits as well. The proof is in the pudding with him — he’s already done it at a high level as a free safety.”
• ESPN’s Mel Kiper said he graded Culliver as a sixth-round pick moments after he was selected, but Rang says other teams were waiting to grab Culliver if the Niners had passed with the 80th overall pick.
“I can tell you from talking to some other clubs that in the next, say 10 picks or so, he was very much on the radar,” Rang said. “That was about where he was going to go.”