SANTA CLARA -- The last time 49ers general manager Trent Baalke took a wide receiver early in the draft, he struck out. A.J. Jenkins, selected 30th overall two years ago, is now with the Chiefs after going without a catch in his lone year with the team.
Baalke again will pick at No. 30 this year, and judging from the list of players he flew to Santa Clara for interviews last month, he’s preparing to take another swing at the position early in the draft. The list includes tall receivers like Clemson’s Martavis Bryant, skinny ones such as Colorado’s Paul Richardson, big-bodied receivers like Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin and little ones such as Georgia State’s Albert Wilson.
The common thread is that each was known for making plays deep downfield last season.
Bryant, for example, averaged nearly 20 yards a reception in 2013, a field-stretching ability that theoretically would complement the gritty, move-the-chains style of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree and one that coach Jim Harbaugh said in March was a needed element in the team’s offense.
Baalke’s task is finding a receiver with speed but also the steely makeup to handle the NFC West, easily the roughest division for wideouts.
“They’ve got a little bit of an air about them, a little swagger, if you want to call it that,” Baalke said last month. “You’re looking for confidence. You’re looking for a guy where the stage isn’t too big. You’re looking for strong men, both in how they play and how they come across. It’s a battle out there. When you’re at that position and to try to get yourself freed up in the land of the giants, it’s a battle and you have to be prepared for it, mentally and physically.”
Wide receiver, of course, isn’t the 49ers’ only need, and with 11 picks, they should be able to fill the holes on this year’s roster as well as anticipate weaknesses in future years.
Teams are allowed to bring in 30 players for predraft visits, a list San Francisco at one time released a week or so before the draft. The 49ers, along with most teams, have become more cloak-and-dagger in their operations, but 20 of the visitors have slipped into the public realm.
The list shows the 49ers are interested in big, every-down running backs such as Central Florida’s Storm Johnson. Starting running back Frank Gore is entering the final year of his contract and turns 31 next week, while Marcus Lattimore, a possible replacement, must prove he has recovered from the grisly knee injury he suffered in 2012.
The 49ers also have hosted two 260-pound blocking tight ends (C.J. Fiedorowicz of Iowa and Nic Jacobs of McNeese State), a possibility late in the draft, as well as a bevy of pass rushers. The team expects its top pass rusher, Aldon Smith, to miss part of the season because of his court case.
The 49ers tend to schedule visits with underclassmen – more than half of the known visitors are juniors or redshirt sophomores – because their files are not as complete as the seniors’. Baalke also likes to bring in players with red flags next to their names.
Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, for example, is one of the better pass rushers in this year’s draft class but was suspended three times by the Broncos. Cornerback Bradley Roby, meanwhile, had two run-ins with police while at Ohio State, including one just before his meeting with the 49ers last month.
Baalke said he wasn’t digging any deeper than usual into prospects’ backgrounds following a spate of police blotter incidents involving 49ers this year. He noted that some of the team’s best players – and model citizens – had red flags attached to their names before their respective drafts.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, for example, was a first-round talent who lasted until the third round in 2010 because of off-the-field incidents while he was at Penn State. Concerns over alcohol abuse caused right guard Alex Boone to go undrafted in 2009.
“It’s a risk-reward business,” Baalke said. “ ... It’s not always the guys that come into the league with a checkered past that leave the league with a checkered past. It can be the opposite. And if anybody in here has the answer about who is going to end up doing what, give it to me. I could use it.”
Prospects who have visited 49ers headquarters
|WR||Kelvin Benjamin*||Florida State|
|ILB/OLB||Carl Bradford*||Arizona State|
|OL||Laurent Duvernay-Tardif||McGill (Canada)|
|TE||Nic Jacobs*||McNeese State|
|RB||Storm Johnson*||Central Florida|
|DE||Demarcus Lawrence*||Boise State|
|DE||Aaron Lynch*||South Florida|
|OL||Matt Patchan||Boston College|
|CB||Bradley Roby*||Ohio State|
|DT||Kona Schwenke||Notre Dame|
|DT||Stephon Tuitt||Notre Dame|
|WR||Albert Wilson||Georgia State|
Read Matthew Barrows’ blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.