The 49ers are using this week as preparation for the NFL Draft. Kyle Shanahan and his staff are coaching the South Team at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where they’ll have a chance to get hands on with several prospects who could be wearing red and gold come spring.
This time last year, BYU’s Fred Warner proved to the NFL community he could play inside linebacker after working in a hybrid position that played more like a strong safety in college. The 49ers’ brass liked what they saw from Warner in Mobile and drafted him in the third round to become a starter and building block for the young defense.
Are there anymore Fred Warners in this year’s group of Senior Bowl participants? That remains to be seen, but here are five (OK, six) players the 49ers should keep a close eye on this week.
Montez Sweat (6-6, 252), DE, Mississippi State
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The 49ers could use a pass rusher along the edge, and Sweat fits the bill to a T. The former high school tight end had 22.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss over the past two seasons with the Bulldogs. And his fire-hose 35 5/8-inch arms are even longer than Aldon Smith’s. But some believe Sweat might lack the flexibility to become a dependable double-digit sack artist at the next level. The 49ers should have a good idea of Sweat’s ceiling after spending the week under the team’s pass rush specialist, Chris Kiffin. For now, it looks like Sweat is a likely first-round prospect who would make sense for San Francisco if Shanahan and general manager John Lynch decide to trade back from their No. 2 pick.
Nasir Adderley (6-0, 195), FS, Delaware
Adderley is a small-school prospect who should gain buzz as the draft process unfolds. He might end up as the first free safety off the board, and the 49ers might be in the market for a game-changer on the back end of the secondary if they miss out on coveted free agent Earl Thomas. Adderley, who had 10 interceptions the past three seasons, spent time at cornerback, which should help his coverage skills at the next level, and there are no concerns about his physical play in the running game or making plays over the middle. Adderley could be in play when the 49ers pick early in the second round at No. 36 overall.
Jaylon Ferguson (6-4, 256), DE, Louisiana Tech
The 49ers could decide to address the pass rush with their first two picks in the draft, making Ferguson a candidate early in Round 2 if he lasts. The Louisiana Tech star had 45 sacks with 67.5 tackles for loss over four seasons, including 17.5 sacks in 2018 to lead the nation. Ferguson isn’t expected to be an explosive player around the edge, but he’ll be coveted for his physical play and ability to beat blockers with his hands. He might be the ideal “Leo” defensive end to complement someone like Kentucky’s Josh Allen, a possible “Sam” linebacker that could go second overall.
Deebo Samuel (5-11, 216), WR (South Carolina)
Shanahan has said he prefers receivers who can beat man-to-man coverage over slower players who might have more size. That means he covets route running and quickness more than pure speed, particularly at the “X” receiver spot where Pierre Garçon plays. Someone like Samuel could make sense in the middle rounds after the 49ers finished last in the NFL in red-zone efficiency. Samuel used his massive 10 1/8-inch hands to catch 11 touchdowns last season. He’s also known for being a strong runner after the catch, which also has value in Shanahan’s offense that has a knack for getting receivers open in space. A player like Samuel would make sense while Garçon’s future is far from certain.
Isaiah Johnson (6-2, 207), CB, Houston
Lonnie Johnson (6-2, 210), CB, Kentucky
Both on South Team
These cornerbacks share the same name (no relation) and similar traits that matter for San Francisco. They are tall and have long arms - Isaiah: 33 5/8 inches, Lonnie: 32 1/4 - which means they fit the parameters for cornerbacks in their Cover 3-heavy scheme. The 49ers have used third-round picks on corners in the last two drafts (Ahkello Witherspoon in 2017 and Tarvarius Moore in 2018) but still have to consider life without Richard Sherman beyond next season. Isaiah Johnson had four interceptions and 12 pass break-ups over the past two seasons. Lonnie Johnson had one pick and nine break-ups over that span. Both appear to be mid-round picks the 49ers could develop into possible starters down the road while driving up the competition level with Witherspoon and Moore in the meantime.