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49ers draft interviews include dynamic defensive tackle, prolific edge rusher, potential Taysom Hill copycat [reports]

© Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, John Lynch gave a sort of abbreviated state of the union of the 49ers. The team is working from home and conferencing via Zoom daily in order to share information for free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft. He’s watching tape much the way we all are, albeit with a slightly nicer setup than most.

Per Matt Barrows of The Athletic, the 49ers have formally interviewed a number of prospects, all via some sort of video conference, mainly with position coaches. The names to be interviewed are as follows, with notes based on evaluation of game film:

Kenny Willekes, DE, Michigan State

Height: 6’3 1/2″ 

Weight: 264 pounds

40-yard dash: 4.87 seconds

Bench press: 32 reps

Best college season (senior): 78 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 10.0 sacks, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD

Projected draft position: 3rd/4th round

Pros: Has the requisite athleticism and eye placement to adjust on option plays or delayed handoffs. Displayed versatility playing on either side of the line along with closing speed to cut down run plays from the back side. His pre-snap anticipation allowed him to utilize a quick get-off and shoot through gaps before tackles could set up and you’ll almost never see him give up on a play. Has the speed and flexibility to beat tackles on the outside, but needs to improve technically to raise the value of those attributes.

Cons: His size is a concern, probably needs to put on more weight to body up to NFL tackles. May be a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker because of that, along with doubts about his ability to play as a 3rd-down edge. Struggled against some of the larger tackles he faced like Wisconsin’s Cole Van Lanen (second-team All Big-Ten, returned to school for senior year). Was stood up, prevented from doing any damage on pass-rushing downs. Fractured his fibula in 2018. Desperately needs to develop another move outside of his swipe, perhaps something like a club rip or a spin to stunt inside as tackles try to force him to beat them outside.

49ers fit: Willekes is sort of a confounding prospect. He had prodigious results in the Big 10. Aside from his post on Twitter (above), it’s confounding from watching his tape to fathom why he’s criticized for a presupposed lack of athleticism. He swallows up the run and has the speed and flexibility to adjust, but his size is an issue. He actually seems very similar to Ronald Blair in that he’ll surprise people with his pass rush ability, but is a staunch run defender.

The main question with him is whether you’re going to get the guy who dominated on tape in games like Ohio State in 2018 or the one who was stood up against Wisconsin last year. The other question for the 49ers is whether he’d actually be a better fit in a 3-4 scheme and if, given the need to put on size, his skillset warrants selecting him with an early fourth or third-round pick.

Lynn Bowden, ATH (QB/RB/WR), Kentucky

Height: 5’10 5/8″ 

Weight: 204 pounds 

Hands: 9 3/4″

Wingspan: 74″

40-yard dash: N/A

Bench press: 13 reps

Best college season (junior): 1,468 rushing yards, 13 TD, 30 receptions, 348 yards, 1 TD (had 67/745/5 split in sophomore year), 35-of-74, 403 pass yards, 3 TD, 3 INT

Projected draft position: Fifth round on

Pros: Strength, speed, vision, patience. He’s probably as versatile a ball-carrier as you’ll find. Also has the requisite arm strength and throwing experience to pull off variants of the Emmanuel Sanders reverse-to-throw from last season. Could be a wildcat nightmare in red zone situations and trick defenses who thrive at maintaining gap integrity collapsing holes on run downs. Strong hands and physicality to fit in, most likely, as a slot receiving option. Excels most at stop-on-a-dime routes like curls or comebacks. Has the requisite speed and shiftiness to beat defensive backs deep.

Cons: Obviously not an out-and-out quarterback prospect, nor a straight-up running back prospect. He has to be looked at first as a wide receiver, where there is limited tape due to the fact that he filled in as a quarterback there last year following an injury to the starter. Route-running isn’t all that crisp, especially on any in-cutting route. Not a huge frame

49ers fit: If Kyle Shanahan is looking to throw a Taysom Hill wrinkle into the offense, Bowden is the guy. He bounced off tackles constantly in the SEC and his ball deceptions skills were second-to-none. With him it’s a question of whether he’s viable solely as a wide receiver, or if he’s impressive enough in a multitude of areas where you think you can find enough value from him on special teams and trick play situations to warrant selecting him. If you’re high on him solely as a wide receiving prospect, the other stuff is a monumental bonus. If he’s there in the late sixth or seventh round, it would constitute a fantastic swing-for-the-fences value pick. You’d have to imagine Kyle Shanahan would be salivating over the opportunity to use a multi-skilled player like this, if he’s available late.

Ross Blacklock, DT, TCU

The following is from KNBR’s breakdown of interior defensive line prospects:

Height: 6’3 1/8″ 

Weight: 290 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.67 seconds

Bench press: N/A

Best college season (junior year): 40 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks

Projected draft position: End of 1st, start of 2nd round

Pros: Has a really eye-popping swim move that he can use from either a nose or 3-technique position. If asked to, he’ll blow up the point of attack and leave a heap of bodies on the floor. Used on frequent stunts, so has proven positional flexibility. Can really swallow up space and take on blockers without being overpowered.

Cons: Doesn’t shed blocks on run downs well, and needs improvement in adjusting to the ball. His awareness isn’t poor, but it could use improvement.

49ers fit: In my opinion, he’s the next-most dynamic interior player outside of Javon Kinlaw and Derrick Brown, right up there with Neville Gallimore from Oklahoma. His get-off is rapid, pushing him immediately into, or through the line of scrimmage. He adjusts well on delayed handoffs or options, and would provide a different look from D.J. Jones in terms of explosiveness and adaptability.

Ezra Cleveland, OT, Boise State

Height: 6’6″

Weight: 311 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.46 seconds

40-yard dash: 4.93 seconds

Bench press: 30 reps

Projected draft position: 2nd/3rd round

Pros: Stands out as one of the most athletic tackles in a draft which has a healthy dose of athletic tackles. Moves well laterally, keeps his feet moving, fails to lock them in a disadvantageous position. He tracks down a fumble recoverer against Florida State at the 47-second mark above. Clears space like a Mack truck, especially when sealing inside on run plays.

Cons: Tends to fire his hands out in pass protection too soon, which will result in him being manhandled by swim and rip moves at the next level. When firing those hands, his placement can land too high, leaving him forced to readjust, and often being pushed back on the first wave. His athleticism and footwork allows him to recover, but it will become a consistent issue if uncorrected in the NFL.

49ers fit: If the 49ers are looking for a Joe Staley replacement in two years, Cleveland is a fantastic option. Would be able to learn from an NFL great on technique with an offensive line coach in Jon Benton who has earned tremendous respect from his players through patient, but astute teaching, in which he provides on-the-fly corrections.

The technical downside to Cleveland’s game is correctable, but his athleticism and footwork is already enticing. He’s a projected second- or third-rounder, though, which is probably too high a price to pay given the 49ers’ more immediate needs at defensive tackle, wide receiver, corner (Sherman, Witherspoon, Williams and Moseley – RFA – all expire next season) and guard, and the success Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill had last season (Shon Coleman is back, too, and he turned heads in training camp). But if John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan think he’d be too perfect a replacement for Staley, it’s not an unreasonable selection if he were to fall into the start of Round 4.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State

Height: 6’1 1/2″ 

Weight: 224 pounds

40-yard dash: N/A

Bench press: 21 reps

Best college season (senior): 101 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 5.0 sacks, 1 INT, 8 PBU

Projected draft position: 3rd/4th round

Pros: Watch the clip at the 55 second mark. His bend and closing speed, for a true linebacker, is remarkable. Four steps, he’s already behind the pulling left guard, and then plants his feet, gets low, and curves his body around the guard for an inch-perfect tackle. That’s Von Miller-esque. Skip ahead to the 3:36 mark. He does the same thing. That’s not teachable, and it’s not a skill many NFL players, let alone those in this draft class, possess.

One thing that Robert Saleh talks about is eye positioning; Davis-Gaither’s is elite. He tracks the ball and adjusts with consistency, and does so from a variety of positions. He was utilized as the edge in 3-4 sets, as a nickel, and as a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, both on the strong and weak sides. As a coverage linebacker, he tracks the quarterback’s eyes and sticks to his assignment, displaying an instinct for when to close on the ball.

Cons: He’s not a true rusher in terms of ability to beat a tackle’s pass block. That’s not really a problem for the 49ers, but viewing him as an edge is a mistake. He struggles to consistently shed blocks due to a lack of strength, and can be manhandled by tackles at times. That’s in large part due to his thinner frame, which is becoming less and less of a problem in an NFL that’s valuing speed, coverage skills and versatility from the linebacker position more and more. Still, his lack of a stockier frame is concerning in terms of being bullied by larger backs, and with regards to injuries.

49ers fit: Any linebacker the 49ers draft would be projecting, at best, to be the fourth in the pecking order. It would probably project as a development and depth pick with special teams ability prioritized. With Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw all ahead on the depth chart, it’s hard to justify drafting a linebacker in any of the first three rounds. Yet Davis-Gaither’s positional flexibility (can play stand-up edge, traditional OLB spot, slot corner, and could probably function as a strong safety if needed) would provide comfort at a position which desperately missed a healthy Kwon Alexander in the playoffs. The 49ers have a pair of fifth-round picks and Davis-Gaither doesn’t project to fall further than the fourth round, so if the team is enamored with him, they may have to make move up.

Cordel Iwuagwu, OG, TCU

Height: 6’2 7/8″ 

Weight: 309 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.87 seconds

40-yard dash: 5.22 seconds

Bench press: 25

Projected draft position: Late Day 3 or undrafted

Pros: Very strong hands, coupled with the hand quickness to counter moves on pass-rushing downs. On rushing downs when he’s not asked to be a puller, he clears his space with consistency. Runs to his side tend to be successful if dependent on his block. Keeps his feet moving at all times, rarely, if ever, loses his ground. If he gets his hands on you, he will move you out of his way with consistency.

Cons: Because he’s not very agile, he has trouble adjusting and actually getting to linebackers at the second level. Has a tendency to sort of lunge forward to try and get there, leaving himself vulnerable and losing leverage. Pull blocks are a serious issue, as demonstrated at the 2:55 mark above, which presents issues in an outside-zone heavy scheme. Doesn’t even get close.

49ers fit: The bonus for the 49ers is that he’s a late Day 3 or undrafted guy. So in terms of opportunity cost, there’s not much risk there. His athleticism provides cause for some concern in zone running game which requires bucket-step precision in footwork and immediate explosiveness for backside pull blocks. But his hand and base strength jumps off the tape. Even if the 49ers are confident in Brunskill at right guard, Iwuagwu could be a cheap Laken Tomlinson understudy with very high upside.

Daniel Thomas, SS, Auburn

Height: 5’10” 

Weight: 215 pounds 

40-yard dash: 4.51 seconds

Bench press: 24 reps

Best college season (junior): 74 tackles (had same in senior season), 2.0 for loss, 2 INT, 1 TD, 1 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR

Projected draft position: Undrafted

Pros: Consistent, powerful tackler because he gets low and explodes at the point of attack. Has the strength to shed blocks by fullbacks and tight ends, and closes ground rapidly in the run game.

Cons: Has concerns with the angles he takes towards the ball, which is something the 49ers have found with most of their late-round safety selections. Gets stuck backpedaling and fails to flip his hips quickly when in coverage. His eye positioning is inconsistent. Does not jump off the tape.

49ers fit: Jaquiski Tartt is a free agent next season, and the 49ers may not be able to afford to keep him, especially with Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley (RFA) all free agents next year. Hence, looking at a strong safety now, especially considering how poor the backups have been (Marcell Harris, Adrian Colbert) in coverage when Tartt has been hurt. Thomas is projected to go undrafted, so regardless of his downside, he’d likely be worth a look in training camp.

The 49ers also interviewed two University of Washington players in Hunter Bryant and Salvon Ahmed, per NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco.

Hunter Bryant

Height: 6’2 1/4″ 

Weight: 248 pounds

40-yard dash: 4.74 seconds

Bench press: 23 reps

Best college season (junior): 52 catches, 825 yards, 3 TD

Projected draft position: 3rd/4th round

Pros: Was used as a wide receiver, and displays surprisingly clean route-running chops. He has a shiftiness to him, and breaks on in-cutting routes with a decisive first step. For a tight end prospect, he has wide receiver-type athleticism and the strength to create yards-after-catch possibility on every play. Stiff arms, confident hands and breakaway speed show up consistently as evidenced by the first play above. Makes catches in traffic on a consistent basis.

Cons: Needs to bulk up for the tight end position, and given that he was used as a wide receiver far more often than as a tight end, it’s difficult to tell where he stands as a blocker. In the few reps available on tape, he looks like he doesn’t consistently drive through the player he’s blocking, and gets too high with his arms and upper body. Gets eaten alive at the 30 second mark on a crucial 3rd and 1 here against Oregon. If he makes his block, it’s a first down.

49ers fit: Has run dozens of the same routes that George Kittle has and would very clearly be a capable receiving complement to him. Would immediately be one an appealing pass-catching tight end threat based on his speed and route-running capability. Whereas the 49ers have traditionally exploited talented blocking tight ends with physical upside to project their pass-catching value, they now need another catching threat from a tight end, of which Bryant projects to be solid. Catches the ball in stride and shoots his hips upfield, much like Kittle. The main question with him is how consistent he can be as a blocker. He didn’t show much willingness or ability at Washington, and obviously needs to put on weight. Given the emphasis the tight end room puts on blocking, and the fact that tight end coach Jon Embree is assertive in having his tight ends hit the sleds before practice daily, any tight end the 49ers bring in won’t have a choice but to become an excellent blocker. The risk with taking a guy like this is that they simply aren’t willing to put in the effort to improve there; that’s where interviews help.

Salvon Ahmed

Height: 5’10 7/8″ 

Weight: 197 pounds

40-yard dash: 4.62 seconds

Bench press: N/A

Best college season (junior): 188 attempts, 1,020 yards, 11 TD, 16 receptions, 84 yards

Projected draft position: Late Day 3/undrafted

Pros: Is a patient, astute runner who reads blocks and shoots the hole when it opens. Had the 52nd-most rushing yards in the country last year, and 40th-most TDs for a reason. Gets low and drives his legs forward through contact. That low center of gravity, coupled with some horizontal elusiveness makes him tough to tackle if you don’t go low. Willing to put his body on the line as a blocker.

Cons: Doesn’t have anywhere near the elite speed of the 49ers’ current backs. Sometimes too patient, tries to do too much side-to-side instead of pushing through whatever gap there might be.

49ers fit: As Raheem Mostert spoke to after the NFC Championship game in which he ran for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns, the key to running the outside zone is vision. With Ahmed, the first thing you see is patience and vision. He’s more of bowling ball than any of the 49ers’ current backs. While his initial speed doesn’t compare much with what the 49ers currently have, he explodes in the second level and does possess breakaway speed. His deceptive qualities also mean that when he gets space, he almost appears out of thin air, shooting through gaps in the defense. He’s projected to go undrafted, so he could be especially useful as a potential practice squad option if/when the 49ers move on from one of Tevin Coleman or Matt Breida or Jerick McKinnon.


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