The Nothing But Niners draft team will be producing Need to Know pieces as we build towards the draft. As it’s Senior Bowl week, we bring to you a bumper Need to Know piece, giving an insight into players at positions of need for the 49ers who will be on show in Mobile this week. We will be splitting this segment up into two pieces — offense and defense. So, be sure to check out both so you’re all set for the Senior Bowl!
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DEFENSIVE INTERIOR – Mike Messner
Justin Jones: The 6’2, 312 lbs. defensive tackle has more tackles than all players except one for NC State this year. The previous year, he was still a top-10 tackler for the Wolfpack, and was an honorable mention All-ACC performer. He can work in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, and can get into the backfield quickly as soon as the ball is snapped. If he can stay healthy, he could be a great complement to DeForest Buckner, but my sense is that he won’t draw a ton of attention in a Senior Bowl that already has plenty of standout talent. The 49ers might want to consider him as an UDFA, unless Jerry Tillery (whom I have written about on this space before) is off the table in the later rounds.
Harrison Phillips: Okay, it’s not fair for me to be talking about him, since he is a member of the Pac-12 North champion Stanford Cardinal and I have a prejudice in favor of Stanford from birth. But…at 6’4 and 295 lbs, he has just enough size to make life difficult for a lumbering offensive guard. He earned his way onto the All-Pac-12 first team, has been named a Lott IMPACT player twice in the past year, and hauled down the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week in late October. He was also a captain at Stanford, which means he has some leadership experience that other rookies aren’t likely to have. Plus, he is a collegiate wrestler to boot, which means he will be unusually flexible in the trenches. I’m predicting he will go in the second round of the draft. If San Francisco wants to get a familiar counterpart to Solomon Thomas, Philips is the guy.
Nathan Shepherd: Here’s something you don’t see every day: a 6’2, 289 lbs Canadian Division II school defensive tackle, from a college I had honestly never heard of (Fort Hays State? Come on, you’d never heard of it either). He has been named to the All-America First and Second Teams, was named the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, and finished this year with 38 tackles and four sacks. But there’s just not much information out there on him, so we have to see what he does in the Senior Bowl, and what kind of press he gets from his performance at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl (where he was also invited). I’m not predicting he goes high in the draft, and he may be overshadowed as an UDFA as well.
B.J. Hill: Another NC State grad in the making, Hill is 6’4 and 315 lbs, so he has the stature for a good NFL competitor. He is a workhorse — he’s started 31 games in college, which is more than any other Wolfpack defensive player. He had 54 tackles as a senior, and forced a fumble in the NC State win over Arizona in the Sun Bowl. At a position where the players rarely get much press, Hill actually won an award as a junior for “a vital contribution in an unsung role.” I can see Hill going in Rounds 3 or 4, because he hasn’t been on the cover of anyone’s real or metaphorical sports magazine in the past couple of years. But whatever team gets him, they will be drawing a diamond in the rough. Hill is a depth player who might be able to crack a starting position within 2-3 years if he stays healthy.
Christian LaCouture: The SEC bores me to death because of their unbreakable grip on the NCAA and the national championship, but here goes. LaCouture tore an ACL and missed the entire 2016 season, but he came back this past year to score 66 tackles, 6 sacks, five pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. When he came to LSU as a freshman, the scouts said he needed to add more bulk, and he did, packing 33 pounds of muscle onto his 6’5 frame (he now tips the scales at an even 300 lbs). He is nothing if not durable, and he is as capable as any defensive insider I have seen, at least on paper. I would love to see this kid go in the first round, even if it’s not with the Niners (as long as he isn’t taken by the Raiders, the Rams or New-by-God England).
Greg Gilmore: A teammate of Christian LaCouture, Gilmore (6’4, 311 lbs) has gotten 104 tackles, 10 sacks, and 2 passes defended in four years of play at LSU. This past year, as a redshirt senior, he got 10 tackles for loss, and got sacks against both Texas A&M and Notre Dame, the latter in the Citrus Bowl. While his draft stock has gone down a little in recent weeks, the larger problem for him as a Niner prospect is that he’s essentially a pure nose tackle, which means he won’t be the first thing the Saleh defense looks for. I’ll take a deep breath and say Gilmore goes in the 5th round, and it won’t be to San Francisco.
Poona Ford: Ford, a UT senior, did great at the Shrine Game, according to some sports analysts (from what I heard, it wasn’t an especially exciting game, but never mind). Since 2015, Ford has gotten over 20 tackles for loss every season. He’s got good hands and quick feet, and his 5’9 frame hasn’t seemed to be an obstacle for him. Ford was named Big 12 Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2017, and to the All-Big 12 first team that same year. The man’s accolades as a player go on for pages and pages, and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t a first or second round pick. Whether he brings anything to the table that D.J. Jones doesn’t remains to be seen, so I’d say it’s a toss-up at best that the Niners take a second glance.
Andrew Brown: The 6’4, 280 lbs UVA student hasn’t had one single standout game, but he’s racked up tackles and forced fumbles gradually in the past 2 seasons. Particularly notable is that he made four tackles against Navy in the Military Bowl this year. As a junior, he led UVA with 13.0 tackles for a loss and was second on the team with 6.0 sacks. He is a quick, explosive defender who bring some amazing skills as a pass rusher, and that’s something the 49ers haven’t had enough of, even with Elvis Dumervil in their ranks. As a run defender, he needs some work, and there are also some questions about whether his heart is in football or in his music (he’s apparently a talented musician and producer). If he’s committed to the gridiron, he should be a second-round prize; if not, he’ll be a fearsome guy in a studio.
EDGE – Scott Geelan
Marcus Davenport: Davenport is a legitimate physical freak, standing at around 6’7 and weighing around 250lbs, while still possessing the ability to turn the corner. He projects to be an absolute force on the edge at the next level, but can win from anywhere along the line, from a two- or three-point stance. The LEO role is ideal for him as it somewhat masks his technical deficiencies against the run, given it should largely keep him away from the point of attack. Is staggeringly strong and with NFL coaching could be the next superstar defensive end. A first round talent.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: An explosive, twitchy athlete who can pack a punch, Okoronkwo projects as a legitimate pass rushing defensive end who can play on run downs straight out of college. Has an arsenal of pass rushing weapons that should ease the transition to the NFL but is perhaps a little stiff and appears to lack balance, as he can be easily redirected by a well-timed punch from an offensive lineman. Could play the LEO role in the 49ers’ defense. Perhaps a late first/early second rounder but likely a second round guy at this point.
Da’Shawn Hand: Looks like an absolute monster of a defensive end who certainly can find a place in the NFL, even if his college career hasn’t lived up to expectations. Hand is capable of playing on the edge or inside and would fit in San Francisco as a strong side defensive end. Can take on double teams and shows the power to convert from a run-stopper to a pass rusher on play action. Probably a mid-rounder
Chad Thomas: Shone at East-West Shrine Game, where he reportedly met with 49ers representatives. Has an exceptional physique, and showed the ability to play inside and outside at Miami. However, unless he wins with pure athleticism he lacks a backup plan as a rusher. Probably a pure defensive end at the next level and likely going off the board in the mid-rounds. A developmental option at strong side end if Tank Carradine is allowed to leave who can contribute as a sub-package rusher as a rookie. One gapping should suit his athletic traits.
Kemoko Turay: A versatile edge player, who projects nicely as a SAM linebacker for the 49ers. Explosive as a pass rusher where he flashes decent hand usage, but arguably more impressive is his ability to set the edge against the run (where he cannot be blocked by a tight end) as well as drop into coverage. A mid-rounder.
Jalyn Holmes: Primarily a defensive end, Holmes offered to play defensive tackle earlier in the season when injuries decimated the Ohio State defensive interior, and continued to perform at a good level. A bit of a tweener with few outstanding qualities showing up on tape, Holmes looks like a late round developmental prospect, who flashes occasional explosiveness but effective play strength. A strong side end type for the 49ers.
Kylie Fitts: Oft-injured, Fitts needs a good week to ramp up his draft stock. Is not particularly explosive, particularly strong or particularly technically gifted and projects as a later round option, especially when his injury history is taken into account.
LINEBACKERS – Zach Hernandez
Darius Leonard: The 6’3, 235lbs. South Carolina State ILB Darius Leonard totaled a whopping 113 tackles in 2017! Paired with 8 TFL’s, 8 sacks, 1 batted pass, two interceptions, and 1 FF — all in 2017 — and it’s easy to see why Leonard got a Senior Bowl invitation. Leonard is long-armed defender with a knack of getting them up in passing lanes. He does a relatively good job at dropping back into coverage, but still allows a high number of passes to be caught. Leonard is all over the field, and his presence is felt more often than not, but he just appears to be a tad bit raw, for lack of a better term. He needs some polishing and to be selected by the right coaching staff, but he just might be a gem in the rounds 2-4 of the 2018 NFL Draft. The type of production he brings would be greatly appreciated by the 49ers, who are just begging for someone to separate themselves on defense.
Skai Moore: Skai Moore (6’2, 218lbs.) out of South Carolina is an above average linebacker that is mainly reliant on his instincts. He has good vision, but due to his smaller frame, Moore is often unable to shed blocks to make the play. He hopes to be in the next wave of hybrid linebacker/safety players, and he’ll cause quite the stir when it comes to where some think he’ll be used. Moore also has some issues staying healthy, as he has missed some time due to injury. He also needs to work on finishing the tackle, as the ball-carrier is often able to slip away. Could be used primarily as a pass-rusher or a coverage linebacker, as he is not that great against the run, and for that I could see a team using a 3-5 rounder on him.
Mike McCray: Michigan hybrid defender (OLB/ILB) Mike McCray is an intriguing prospect. The 6’4, 240lbs, long-armed defender is an efficient blitzer, a solid tackler & can even line up over the slot in coverage. Michigan used McCray’s athleticism to their full advantage, as a QB Spy a good amount of the time. He’s constantly got his arms up in passing lanes and batts down a fair amount of passes. He keeps an eye on the QB’s eyes, which can work in both good & bad ways. McCray also does a good job at setting the edge. I’m just not sure he’d be a fit on this 49ers team. With that being said, I could still see a team using a 3-4 rounder on him in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Micah Kiser: Virginia ILB Micah Kiser (6’2, 240lbs.) totaled 145 tackles & 5 sacks in 2017. He is known as a tackling machine and a stat sheet stuffer (which is what will likely ultimately get him drafted in rounds 3-5), but my honest opinion is that Kiser is a very, very undisciplined player that still has a lot of maturing left to do. After watching him commit two late hits (that were both called) within a 15-minute period, I was amazed this guy was still on the field. He plays the game violently, however that might be a tad bit too violently. He’d probably fit best as a 3-4 ILB with a speedier LB by his side. I hope the best for Kiser, but I just hope his future is not with the San Francisco 49ers.
Dorian O’Daniel: Clemson ILB Dorian O’Daniel looks to be an almost full package heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. He’s got good size — 6’1, 220lbs, and he seized the leadership role on the Clemson defense after ILB Ben Boulware left for the NFL this season, and it was a seamless transition for the Tigers. O’Daniel has shown his speediness and versatility, as he’s able to do things from blitzing the passer to dropping back in coverage over slot receivers. The 49ers could desperately use another explosive, versatile linebacker to play next to Reuben Foster & O’Daniel could be just the guy. He’s the type of player that is always around the ball — even if he didn’t make the play, it’s likely he played a part in it. O’Daniel has long arms, and they’re always up in the passing lanes. He plays the game very smartly and most importantly, maturely. Which is exactly why again he might be the perfect linebacker to play with Foster. The Crimson Tide alumni was explosive in his rookie season, yet a bit reckless — often unable to finish games due to injuries. I’d say O’Daniel likely goes in rounds 4-6 in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Nick DeLuca: After missing the entire 2016 season due to a shoulder injury, Nick DeLuca returned in 2017 to total 74 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 2 FFs, 1 INT & 2 batted passes. DeLuca is a player I think could make an NFL roster based on pure effort alone. Sure, he’ll probably stick due to playing special teams at first, but eventually I could see him cracking a starting lineup. DeLuca is a hard hitter that is also able to drop back into coverage. He’s a bit undersized (6’3, 236lbs), as evident by the amount of times he’s taken out of the play with a block. His smaller frame allows him to have good speed, I watched him chase a back down from behind a few times. If he’s able to show scouts in Mobile that he’s improved his coverage ability, his draft stock might rise even higher in the next few weeks. I’d say DeLuca is likely to go in rounds 4-6 in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Myles Pierce: When watching tape ahead of the Senior Bowl, Citadel ILB Myles Pierce jumped off the screen at me. Pierce is known as a fastastic tackler, as evident by him leading the team in 2017 in the category. He was constantly showcasing his ability to not only correctly read the plays, but also blow up the running back behind the line of scrimmage for a big loss. I counted more than six times when Pierce flew past the offensive lineman to make the play untouched. Even though he’s just over 6 feet tall (6’0, 225lbs), Pierce is still a very hard hitter, and he’s not sacrificing any tackles while going for the big hit. Overall, he is a very solid player and plays with an infectious energy that any team would want to have. He’s likely to go in rounds 5-7.
Tre’ Williams: Texas A&M ILB Tre’ Williams has true sideline-to-sideline speed, I’ve watched him chase down running backs and receivers many times. He plays the game very patiently, and although he’s one of the bigger linebackers on this list (6’2, 238lbs), he still plays a tad bit undersized, which leads to him being blocked by larger players often. With that being said, he still does a good job most of the time at disengaging from blocks. His smaller frame also leads to opposing players being able to shed tackles or power through them completely. I’d say Williams is likely to go in rounds 5-7 like Pierce.
DEFENSIVE BACKS – Eric Crocker
Anthony Averett (CB): It is often difficult to evaluate Alabama defensive backs because of that dominant front seven. Averett possesses some really good qualities. He’s a thin-framed corner listed at 6’0, 185 lbs. He’s extremely quick-footed and plays physical for his size, however sometimes he gets boxed out by bigger receivers. Alabama played a lot of press man and Averett excelled at that, being able use great press technique by staying square at the line of scrimmage and mirroring receivers downfield. Aside from his thin frame another downfall might be that he lacks elite downfield speed. I’d say Averett goes in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Taron Johnson (CB): At 6’ 175 lbs, Weber State CB Taron Johnson is a bit on the slim side, but that doesn’t stop him from being a very aggressive corner. Johnson’s physical play is a plus. His great feet and off-coverage are highlights of his skill. In off-man coverage, he shows great technique and the ability to get in and out of breaks quickly. In zone-coverage he is quick to diagnose the play and make a play on the ball. If he was playing against better competition he would be my highest rated corner at the Senior Bowl. Johnson will likely go in the 3rd or 4th round.
Danny Johnson (CB): Southern University corner Danny Johnson possesses a knack for making plays on defensively. He’s a 4.0 GPA student who plays just as smart on the field as he is in the classroom. The Jaguars tried their luck with him on offense, where he also scored touchdowns. On defense, it often looked like he ran the routes for the receivers and when the ball was in the air, few defensive backs in the entire draft possess his ball skills. He is another guy who didn’t play FBS football but the skills and technique that he flashes on a game-to-game basis will translate to any level of football. A big showing at the Senior Bowl should move him up on draft boards. Johnson will probably go around the 3rd round.
Darius Phillips (CB): A lot of teams are now going after the bigger cornerbacks, but there are some guys who show that size isn’t an issue. Western Michigan corner Darius Phillips isn’t the biggest of corners, but with his quickness and physicality shows the ability to play both inside and outside. He’s a pesky corner and he shows really good press technique. Stays square and makes receivers work laterally. He isn’t scared to come up and make tackles, and he had a big forced fumble and recovery for a touchdown. He’s another guy who shows big time special teams value with his ability to make big plays in the return game. Phillips is likely to go around the 4th round.
Duke Dawson (CB): Florida corner Duke Dawson is a squatty defensive back that’s probably more suited for the slot. Florida lined him up in the slot mostly in trips formations where he was able to play off and read and react quickly to plays in front of him developing in real time. When playing on the outside, he was decent as well. At times he got a little grabby to overcompensate for his lack of elite athleticism. Overall, his value is in mainly the slot. I could see Dawson going anywhere from the 3rd to 5th round.
Siran Neal (CB): Jacksonville State’s Siran Neal is an extremely physical defensive back! He packs a lot of versatility in his 6’1, 205lbs frame. Neal lined up at slot, outside corner and safety showing great range and ability at all levels. He also adds great special teams value showing off speed and running down as a gunner on punt. Like Dawson, Neal will likely go anywhere from the 3rd to the 5th round.
MJ Stewert (CB): North Carolina’s MJ Stewert may be the most complete cornerback participating in the senior bowl as far as size, versatility and ability goes. Unfortunately, his play throughout his time at UNC was up and down. Although he has decent size for a cornerback, he did not show the ability to play balls at its highest point vs bigger receivers. That’s why he’ll likely fall to the 4th-6th round.
Christian Campbell (CB): Campbell out of Penn State is a nice size corner back standing at 6’1, 194 lbs. When he’s able to use his size at the line of scrimmage he plays the best. However at Penn State, they ran a lot of off-coverage, single-high safety looks that exposed Campbell’s fluidity. While playing off he was late to a lot of comebacks, did not show great hips and at times receivers would just flat out run right by him. On top of getting beat on occasion, he did not show the ball skills you would like to see. Although he played in all four seasons at PSU, Campbell only came up with 4 career interceptions. His size might be intriguing enough for a team to take in the 4th-6th round.
Kamrin Moore (CB): Boston College corner Kamrin Moore is listed at 5’11, 200 lbs, but on film he looks much shorter than that. He gets outran by receivers who aren’t blazers, and that’s never something you want to say about a corner. He has some physicality to him, but I would really like to see how he matches up with speedy receivers at the Senior Bowl. Moore could sneak into the Draft as early as the 5th round, or he could go undrafted altogether.
D’Montre Wade (CB): D’Montre Wade out of Murray State showed an ability to read route concepts and make plays on the ball from off-coverage. The Senior Bowl will give him a chance to show just how well he can play both press and off-man coverage, which could elevate his draft stock to as high as the 5th round. However, he could also go undrafted as well.
Issac Yiadom CB: Boston College corner Issac Yiadom has great size, and he plays really physically at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes he tries too hard to muscle receivers at the line of scrimmage and stops his fit, at the next level vs receivers with better releases he will have trouble if he doesn’t work on that. A little stiff and top-heavy, not the most fluid out of cornerbacks at the Senior Bowl. I’d say Yiadom will probably go anywhere from the 6th round and later on.
Michael Joseph CB: Dubuque’s Michael Joseph might be the most intriguing cornerback at the Senior Bowl. On film he looks like a giant compared to his Division III competition — and he dominated. Lining up at both safety and cornerback, Joseph was flying around making plays as well as returning kicks for touchdowns. The play-making skills jump off the screen when watching the film, but his lack of technique is what raises my eyebrow. When playing corner at the next level, you have to be much more technically sound than you do playing Division III football. Senior Bowl practice will be good to see if he was just a good Division III player or if he actually has what it takes to play in the NFL. If Joseph is able to prove himself, he might sneak in the back end of the draft — 6th round or UDFA.
Be sure to check out the Offensive Edition — here!