Host: May I first say that you look fantastic?
Me: Thanks. You know, drinking plenty of water, getting eight hours of sack time. Trying to hit the gym as much as possible.
Host: Whatever you're doing, it's working. Bravo. Am I right, ladies?
Studio audience enthusiastically applauds.
Host: Of course, we're here today for your annual draft crush. Carl Nicks, Percy Harvin, Von Miller, Tank Carradine - you've hit on some interesting names in the past. Who wins it this year? Who gets the rose?
Me: Well, picking at No. 30 is not easy, Oprah. There are no obvious choices that far down the draft. The player has to have enough question marks to slip 30 spots but must be special enough to warrant the selection. That player this year is ....
Host: ... drum roll, please ...
Me: ... Cody Latimer, wide receiver out of Indiana. Here's why: He's big. He's fast. He's got excellent hands. And he has the right, blue-collar, gritty attitude for the 49ers and for the NFC West. This is a guy who was the team's top skill player last year but still lined up on special teams. And not as a returner. He was on Indiana's kick coverage unit, finishing with eight tackles and recovering a fumble.
Latimer led all receivers at the scouting combine with 23 bench-press repetitions of 225 pounds. That not only indicates he has the strength to fight through press coverage from Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and other twice-a-year opponents but that he was dedicated to his craft at Indiana. That he recovered from a broken bone in his foot in January in time to run a 40-yard dash in the low 4.4-second range in March also indicates he has the necessary work ethic.
Latimer is one of several receivers in the draft who played basketball in high school, something that general manager Trent Baalke said last week gives pass catchers an advantage in understanding and creating space and in making plays while someone is draped on your back. Indeed, one of the aspects that stands out about Latimer is his hands. It's hard to find a cut-up of him dropping a pass last year, including on contested passes. He also has an outstanding vertical leap (see below), which he takes from his basketball background and which should be an asset in the red zone.
Is Latimer the down-field receiver the 49ers offense needs to stretch defenses? No, probably not, although he's far faster than either Anquan Boldin or Michael Crabtree. His strength appears to be in the short to intermediate game. He was very good on slants, for example, at Indiana. In that way, he'd serve as a possible replacement for Crabtree (signed through this season) or Boldin (signed through next season).
Latimer enters the draft as a 21-year-old junior. He's had exactly one year as a featured receiver, and he did so at a school not known for football and on an offense that rotated its quarterbacks last year. That is, there are plenty of unknowns with Latimer that would make him a bit of a risk. But that also leaves plenty of room for development, an upside that may not be there in similar-size prospects like Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews or Penn State's Allen Robinson. The fact that there is no impetus for him to start this year and, perhaps most important, that he will have two years to learn from Boldin, the godfather of wide receivers, makes it a gamble worth taking.
Prospect: Cody Latimer Year: junior height: 6-2 ½ weight: 215 arm: 32 5/8 hand: 9 5/8 40-yard: 4.44 seconds vertical: 39 inches Wonderlic: 23. Of the top WRs, best score was Matthews' 29. 2013: stats: 72 catches, 1,096 yards, 9 Tds. red flags: Foot injury kept him from running at combine but he's since recovered. No off-field issues. Interviewed well with teams, according to team source.
Here's where I cover my butt ...
WR Odell Beckham, Jr. LSU
Beckham would solve a lot of issues for the 49ers. He's a great route runner, he made an awful lot of stretch-the-field plays in the nation's toughest conference (19.5-yard per-catch average last year) and though he doesn't have great size he's a good leaper who fights for the ball at its highest point. He also returns punts and kicks, a major plus should LaMichael James not be on the roster in September.
The reason he misses out on draft-crush status is that he's unlikely to be around with the 30th pick. Pittsburgh, the Jets, Baltimore, Carolina - they all need receivers and they are picking ahead of the 49ers. San Francisco certainly could trade ahead in the draft to pick Beckham, and the Ravens make a lot of sense as a trade partner. That's a quite-plausible scenario considering the 49ers traded up last year to nab another LSU product, Eric Reid. But where's the fun/challenge/sport in the draft-crush process if you were allowed to pick any player with the caveat, 'well, they could trade ahead'? If that were the case, I'd take Sammy Watkins and sleep like a baby. Draft crush is hard. If it wasn't, anyone could do it.
Farther down the draft, draft crushes...
CB Pierre Desir, Lindenwood He's tall, long-limbed and physical - just the type of cornerback Baalke has been seeking in recent years. He's also a family man, someone unlikely to bring off-the-field trouble to a position group that has seen three players - Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Eric Wright - arrested in recent years. Desir's biggest knock is that he played against inferior quarterbacks and receivers. But he held up well in the Senior Bowl, and with Ed Donatell's tutelage, his upside seems very big.
OLB Marcus Smith, Louisville Given all the question marks surrounding Aldon Smith, the 49ers may have to give themselves some insurance by drafting a pass rusher. Marcus Smith is not as powerful as Aldon Smith is, but he's smart, quick and had a knack for disrupting quarterbacks. He finished second in the nation last year with 14 ½ sacks. What's best is that he's still learning the position. Smith is a former quarterback who only played his current position for two seasons. Like Latimer and Desir, 'upside' is the key word here.
WR Josh Huff, Oregon. He might get the award for least buzz/best prospect in this draft. Huff doesn't have elite speed. But he's solidly built, runs through tackles and is a very good blocker. He had 62 catches for 1,140 yards, averaged 18.4 yards per catch and scored 12 touchdowns last year. Some team will get a steal on the third day of the draft.
CB Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State A former wrestler (how often do you read that about a defensive back?), Reynolds was a team leader for the Beavers last year. He doesn't have elite size or speed, but he's got nice toughness and instincts and had 11 interceptions in the last two seasons. He's also smart and seems to be a good fit as a slot cornerback.
And finally an explanation about WR Brandin Cooks ...
After I wrote about Cooks in February, many of you assumed he'd get the rose. Don't get me wrong. I love Cooks. He's got 'winner' written all over him. He's confident without being cocky. He succeeded in life despite tough conditions growing up in Stockton. He's got a chip on his shoulder. He's a huge man in a smaller man's body. I think he's going to be a great player in the NFL. But not for the 49ers. I don't think they'd feature him to take advantage of his gifts. I think Cooks would be better off on an AFC team that doesn't have to play in the rough-and-tumble NFC West and that will manufacture ways of getting him the ball. If Cooks goes to the Patriots, pick him up on your Fantasy Team.