If you had a chance to draft Patrick Willis again, would you take it? If you answered, "duh?", you've also answered why Myles Jack is the winner of this year's "Draft Crush" honor. (Avoid incoming roses; make false-humble bowing gesture to crowd; wait for applause to subside).
It wasn't an easy choice because of Jack's one, obvious flaw: his knee. The UCLA linebacker suffered a meniscus tear last year that ended his season. The worry among teams isn't so much that specific injury. The guy recorded a 40-inch vertical jump last month, highest of any linebacker at this year's combine and better than all but three of the wide receivers, which strongly suggests the joint will be fine for the start of the 2016 season.
The concern is what the injury portends. Some teams feel Jack's knees are built in a way that makes them prone to similar issues in the future. The Philadelphia Daily News cited a source who wondered if Jack only would have six or seven healthy years of football.
Well, Willis had exactly seven injury-free years before retiring last year. He was the only thing worth watching during the 49ers' dark days from 2007-2010. He twice led the NFL in tackles. He was at the center of the team's fantastic defenses that propelled the 49ers to the NFC Championship game 2011-13. If you were to name the greatest 49er since Jerry Rice, Willis would make the short list of candidates.
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Jack is similar in a lot of ways, from his size -- 6-1, 245 -- to his ferocity in chasing down ball carriers to his ability to cover pass catchers, an essential skill for linebackers in the modern NFL
Watch two of Jack's games from last season. Against Virginia, a traditional offense that often used two tight ends and ran the ball 34 times in the game, he routinely took on pulling guards and stopped them dead in their tracks despite a 60-, 70-pound disadvantage in mass. Two weeks later against BYU's multiple-receiver formations, Jack essentially was a defensive back playing against receivers 50 pounds lighter than him. He came up with the game-clinching interception in that game.
The point: Like Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Jack never needs to come off the field. If the 49ers’ defense were a chess set, he’d be the queen.
Watch him as a running back. He's such a good athlete that UCLA gave him 68 carries in a little over two seasons. He averaged 5.7 yards a run and scored 11 touchdowns. He was very good in short yardage because he's got great balance and refused to go down. Which is to say, he's not just athletic. He has desire. (Some would argue that if the 49ers drafted Jack, he would be both their best linebacker and their second-best running back).
The 49ers certainly must do plenty of work -- especially along their defensive line -- to rebuild their once-great defense. But the hallmark of those units were their two fast, tough and excellent inside linebackers.
One of them, Bowman, is closer than ever to his previous form after sitting out 2014 with his own knee injury. In Jack, the 49ers would have a chance not just for a good player next to Bowman, but a great player.
Draft Crush typically denotes not the best player in the draft but rather the best player, best fit and biggest need within striking distance of the 49ers' selection. This year, Jack could very well be the best player overall. But it's his injury that might get him to No. 7 ... or maybe even beyond.
Minority report: Jack's right knee isn't the only thing the 49ers have to worry about. The Jaguars, with pick No. 5, also have taken a long look at Jack in the run-up to the draft. If they grab him, the 49ers' selection could come down to Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner or Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley. Either would be a good choice and Buckner, who was recruited at Oregon by Chip Kelly and 49ers defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, would be a particularly natural fit. That scenario also would eliminate the angst of drafting someone with a knee injury.
Draft Crush Memory Lane
2015: WR DeVante Parker. Injuries limited Parker to just eight games as a rookie with the Dolphins. But in those games he had 26 catches for 494 yards. Arrow up.
2014: WR Cody Latimer. Somehow I managed to choose the one receiver from the 2014 draft who has not become prolific. At least he'll have Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian throwing to him this year. (Sad tuba notes here).
2013: DL Tank Carradine. Noteworthy that I envisioned him as an Aldon Smith-like outside rusher while the 49ers forced him to become a 300-pound Justin Smith type. The team now sees the error of its ways, but Carradine has just a year left on his contract. Oops.
2012: TE Coby Fleener. Four-year total in Indianapolis: 183 catches, 2,154 yards, 17 touchdowns, which is a teense better than A.J. Jenkins' numbers over that span. Fleener, Drew Brees and the Saints visit the 49ers Nov. 6.
2011: OLB Von Miller. Trying to confirm rumor that Miller removed 2011 Draft Crush Award from trophy case to make room for Super Bowl 50 MVP honor. Probably false.
2010: RB C.J. Spiller. He's averaged nearly five yards a carry and 7.5 yards a catch in six seasons but was not prolific last year in New Orleans. His longest run in 2015: 11 yards.
2009: Percy Harvin. Retired after eight mostly injury filled seasons. Would he have been a better pick than Michael Crabtree? Six of one, half a dozen missed games for the other?
2008: Carl Nicks. Was once the NFL's best guard. Played in only nine games in 2012-13 after dealing with nasty MRSA infection and is no longer in the league. 49ers went with Kentwan Balmer in this spot, begging the question: Worse pick, Balmer or Jenkins?