San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Team has deep (as in, go deep) thoughts about NFL Draft

San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke is feeling the need for speed.
San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke is feeling the need for speed. The Associated Press

Earlier this month, adidas announced that the three fastest participants at the NFL scouting combine would win custom-made Porsche 911s that had a super-size cheetah emblazoned on the back.

If you can stomach the commercialization of an already over-hyped event like the combine’s 40-yard dash, you have to admit the combination of fast athletes, fast cars and the world’s fastest land mammal was a pretty cool concept.

Alas, the cheetah-Porsches remain in the garage. The idea was scuttled due to the NFL’s existing partnership with General Motors. (Apparently, painting a cheetah on the back panel of a Buick didn’t have the same appeal).

The NFL’s annual track meet, however, will go on as planned Saturday, and the 49ers will pay close attention.

Earlier this week, general manager Trent Baalke spoke at length about the team’s desire to retain running back Frank Gore and to see defensive end Justin Smith play another season. But one of his most significant comments involved someone not currently on the team.

“I think it’s no mystery we’re looking for guys that can run and get down the field,” said Baalke, channeling his inner Al Davis, when asked about wide receivers.

The remark was noteworthy because neither Baalke nor the general manager before him, Scot McCloughan, has made speed a top criterion.

The 49ers have employed a might-is-right philosophy over the past decade, typically preferring size, bulk and power over fluidity, finesse and pep. The team’s top two receivers last year, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, are known for toughness and their ability to catch passes in traffic. They are more rhino than cheetah – neither scares defenses with their ability to get down field. When the 49ers needed a deep threat last year, they turned to 33-year-old Brandon Lloyd, who wasn’t even known for his straight-line speed when he was 10 years younger.

The need for speed signals a change ahead.

The 49ers were effective running the ball last season – they ranked fourth in rushing yards – but the plan this year is to pair that with more play-action passing, something they veered away from in 2014.

For that to work, the team needs to add players who can fly down the field.

Baalke this week said the 49ers will hold onto tight end Vernon Davis, whose big salary, coupled with his meager 2014 statistics, seemed to make him a candidate to be cut. One reason for keeping him – Davis is just as fast as he was as a rookie and is one of the 49ers’ few offensive players who can make opposing safeties take a step or two backward before the snap.

It would be understandable if Baalke were hesitant when it comes to 40-yard dash standouts.

His first two picks in the 2012 draft, receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James, were among the fastest players at their positions that year. Three years after they blazed in Indianapolis, however, neither is on the 49ers and Jenkins is looking for a job after being waived by the Chiefs this week.

Last year, Baalke mostly shied away from what was considered the best wide-receiver draft class in recent memory, waiting until the fourth round to tap a wideout, South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington. He’s fast. Ellington ran his 40-yard dash last year in a very respectable 4.45 seconds. Still, the 49ers mostly used him on underneath routes or even as a running back.

But Baalke and the 49ers seem prepared to plunge back into the wide-receiver pool in May. The draft class is not considered quite as deep as last year’s, but it still has plenty of talent.

How much talent? Baalke and the NFL’s other evaluators will learn a little more Saturday when that group – along with the running backs and quarterbacks – run the 40-yard dash.

There’s no longer a Porsche 911 at stake. But adidas still will dole out $100,000 each to the three fastest participants.

Who says cheetahs never prosper?

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