It was notable that the 49ers had three picks in quick succession late in the sixth round and used them on quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Kelvin Taylor and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge.
They were the only three skill players drafted by the 49ers, who wound up with 11 picks, even though the 49ers scored the fewest points in the league last year, ranked 31st in total yards, and have numerous questions at quarterback, receiver and – except for starter Carlos Hyde – running back.
Why go this route? Because of Chip Kelly. The 49ers expect Kelly to squeeze a lot more out of the skill positions than his predecessors. A broad way of looking at the 49ers is Kelly is in charge of the offense and general manager Trent Baalke is tasked with rebuilding the defense.
Baalke has been considerably more successful drafting defensive players than offensive players, especially skill players. So it’s no surprise four of his top five draft picks were defensive players and the first three offensive players he took were offensive linemen.
The riskiest of Baalke’s 11 picks may not be guard Joshua Garnett, for whom the 49ers jumped nine spots to select, but LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson at No. 133.
Baalke and his evaluators obviously think Robinson has great potential as a cover cornerback, and as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is fond of saying, “No risk it, no biscuit.” But look at who was picked immediately after Robinson:
▪ No. 134: Running back Kenneth Dixon, Ravens. The 49ers thought enough of Dixon, the hard-running tailback from Louisiana Tech, to have him in for a pre-draft visit. That he was taken by Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, who drafts in a similar fashion to Baalke and who, over the years, has indirectly supplied a lot of players to the 49ers’ roster, is interesting.
▪ No. 135: Quarterback Dak Prescott, Cowboys. A lot of observers thought the 49ers would like Prescott, who rated highly for his leadership and athletic ability. But the 49ers showed only minimal interest in Prescott – and most quarterbacks – before the draft.
▪ No. 136: Running back Devontae Booker, Broncos. Booker, who starred at Sacramento’s Grant High School and American River College, was considered one of the most complete runners in the draft. A meniscus tear prevented him from taking part in the combine and certainly lowered his draft stock. While Hyde has starter ability, he also has had trouble staying healthy in two seasons.
Robinson has the height (6-foot-1) and long frame some of the best cover corners in the league share. But he also hasn’t played for a year and a half after being suspended midway through LSU’s 2014 season.
In draft reports, Robinson is cited for his defense against big Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans in 2013. Evans, who was a first-round pick the following year, had just four catches for 51 yards in that game.
But Evans also tossed Robinson around like he was stuffed with straw. Robinson weighed just 171 pounds at the combine – though he said he’s gained 10 pounds since – and his ability to hold up against the run and against bigger-bodied receivers is a question mark.
The 49ers’ most intriguing pick might be fifth-rounder Ronald Blair.
The Appalachian State defensive lineman was extremely popular –- he was a two-year team captain for the Mountaineers – and extremely productive in leading the Sun Belt Conference with 19 tackles for loss last season. Watching him on film, Blair is a tenacious player who makes tackles all over the field, constantly running down the line of scrimmage to deny running backs their cut-back lanes. He shows great balance, rarely getting knocked to the ground.
Why did he last until the fifth round? It might be that his level of competition at Appalachian State gave NFL teams pause. More likely is that his size – 6-2, 284 pounds – left teams wondering what position he should play. He might be a little slow for defensive end and a little small to play on the interior. Still, his 32 bench-press reps at the combine, better than every other defensive lineman but one, suggests he has the strength to hold up in the trenches. Baalke said Blair could get some rookie snaps in the team’s nickel defense.
Another reason Robinson’s selection was a bit puzzling: The 49ers drafted cornerback Will Redmond one round earlier. Perhaps the 49ers envision Redmond as a nickel cornerback and Robinson as a perimeter cornerback.
“We’ll probably start him on the inside, but like I always say, that’s for the coaches to decide,” Baalke said. “… A guy that can run, can jump, can play the ball. Physical and fits into what we were looking for from a character standpoint. He’s a quality, quality young man that on his visit here, impressed everybody that he came in contact with. So, we were excited to get him.”
The 49ers drafted two offensive tackles, John Theus from Georgia and Fahn Cooper from Mississippi, who had similar grades from evaluators. The idea seems to be to give Trent Brown as much competition as possible for the right tackle spot. Theus and Fahn have played right and left tackle in the SEC. In that way, both also are competing for the role of swing tackle. Veteran Erik Pears also is part of the mix at right tackle. He started 14 games at that spot last season before giving way to Brown.
The biggest mark A.J. Jenkins left on the 49ers: Ever since he was taken with a first-round pick in 2012, the 49ers have not drafted a wide receiver before the fourth round. That pattern continued this year when the team took Michigan State’s Burbridge in the sixth round.
Burbridge doesn’t have great size or speed, which is why he lasted that long. Still, it’s a solid pick if you consider when he was taken. Burbridge was Connor Cook’s favorite target last year and he caught 85 passes for 1,258 yards.
Burbridge said he hardly ever played out of the slot at Michigan State but said NFL teams seemed interested in him in that role.
“So, I guess I’m a slot receiver,” he said. “I can do both.”
The 49ers’ top receiver the last few seasons, Anquan Boldin, is a free agent and is expected to sign with another team. Baalke suggested undrafted rookie Devon Cajuste could be used at the slot position too.
How does a guy like Western Kentucky cornerback Prince Charles Iworah, the last of the 49ers’ 11 draft picks, come across your radar, Baalke was asked?
“He runs a 4.3 (second) 40,” he said. “That’s how he comes across. He happened to be at one of the All Star games, that’s where we first noticed him. Then we went to the (Western Kentucky) pro day and saw him work out and he posted very good numbers at the pro day. I think his bench press, 25 reps at his weight, which is incredible. He’s a talented young man that can really run. He’s going to come in here just like the rest of them and compete. He has blue traits in his body, physically; run, jump, change direction, he can do all those things.”