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Five players 49ers fans should look for in National Championship

© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports


We are still about three-and-a-half months out from the NFL Draft, but Monday night’s College Football Championship represents the last opportunity we have to watch real-life college football this year. As usual, Alabama and Ohio State’s programs are packed with elite, NFL-ready talent.

One caveat here is that Ohio State is reportedly coming in with some COVID-19 issues, and because we’re dealing with college, there’s been no official reporting on who is out. One Ohio State blog has reported that staunch defensive tackle Tommy Togiai and defensive end Tyreke Smith are out, along with the team’s preferred kickers.

One Twitter user who writes a blog called The Post Corner said wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who has been sidelined since October 24 with a fractured ankle, will play.

That should give you an idea of what we’re going off. We know almost nothing hours before kickoff. So if any of these players are out, blame the NCAA, not us.

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Fields has been the consensus No. 2 quarterback and likely No. 2 overall pick in the draft for the majority of the season. His six-touchdown performance in the semifinal against Clemson only increased the likelihood of that scenario. With Fields, his talent is obvious.

He has the arm strength to push the ball downfield with ease, and the vision to scan through reads and identify favorable matchups pre- and post-snap. His athleticism and frame provide a significant deal of confidence; he tends far more towards being a pocket passer who can run than a so-called scrambler. Despite injuries sustained late this season, that 6’3″, 228-pound frame is encouraging for his long-term health in dealing with hits.

The main concerns with Fields are that he can be too deliberate, or a perfectionist. And that’s not a criticism disguised as a compliment. Against Indiana and Northwestern, he didn’t trust his reads and frequently took off too early, or forced the ball into tight windows. At times, he simply does not deliver the ball quick enough. The bright side, though, is that those are correctable issues, and his ability to make pre-snap identifications are encouraging for his long-term development. He’s a stud, it’s just a question of getting him into the right system.

Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

Surtain is almost assuredly the first corner off the board. The son of former NFL corner Patrick Surtain Sr. has the ability to flip his hips and the technique to stay with speedier receivers despite lacking elite speed. He shows the intelligence and closing aggression to keep shorter passes in front of him. For a player with that efficiency of movement and technical ability, he’s also a generally smart tackler.

He’s physical at the line of scrimmage and plays a lot more man coverage than most college prospects. There’s also demonstrated flexibility; he’s played plenty of nickel corner in addition to staying outside.

There are always concerns about whether someone who’s a better man coverage fit will have issues shifting to mostly zone. That could be a worry from the 49ers’ perspective, but they are also likely to switch defensive coordinators when Robert Saleh leaves, which could promote man coverage. Saleh also showed a willingness to play more split-field coverage looks incorporating man coverage with Jason Verrett, and concerns about scheme fit are often overblown.

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Jones is much more of an enigma than Fields. He’s one of those classic Alabama quarterbacks who has ridiculous talent surrounding him, leaving it difficult to evaluate whether he is a product of the system and its pieces or actively improving it. He’s not a first-rounder like Fields, and is firmly outside that top-four group, but a stellar performance on Monday could be an intriguing wrinkle as far as his draft stock.

He has something of a funky delivery, but his arm talent is decent. He’s not pushing the ball down the field on a rope, but has shown he can make intermediate-to-deep throws regularly.

He is way more of a traditional pocket passing quarterback and doesn’t have the consistent accuracy that generally couples that, leaving questions as to whether it’s even worth investing in a player like him for anything other than a backup role. Still, he’s a system guy who follows the system and lord knows Kyle Shanahan has fawned over guys like that (Kirk Cousins), so excluding him entirely would be foolish. He also finished third in the Heisman voting this season in which he threw for 4,036 yards, 36 TDs and just 4 INTs, so he’s not exactly a scrub.

Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State

Wade is one of those tricky corner prospects to evaluate because he flashes so much talent, but so much inconsistency (cough cough Ahkello Witherspoon). Some have suggested that he’s a better nickel corner prospect or even safety rather than an outside corner, which begs the question whether he’d be worth taking a shot on before Day 3.

Some of the concerns about his game are slow feet at the line of scrimmage because he relies too much on trying to press or jam players. If and when he does whiff, he’s already a few steps late on quick, in-cutting patterns. It’s a question of whether he relies on physicality because it’s what he’s comfortable with or because he’s not able to keep up on faster receivers running vertical routes.

His teammate, Sevyn Banks, has had a more reliably productive season, but has flown under the radar. He capped off the semifinal by intercepting Trevor Lawrence. Especially if Waddle plays, the dichotomy between Wade and Banks will be interesting to watch.

Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State

Aside from Florida’s Kyle Pitts, who, let’s be honest, is basically a wide receiver, it’s not an especially deep tight end draft, though that’s something that probably gets said every year. One of the main knocks on Ruckert is a lack of production, but that’s largely because of how Ohio State has chosen to use its tight ends in the passing game this year: sparingly. When he does touch the ball, it’s usually in the end zone. Five of his 12 catches this year (112 yards) have been for touchdowns, including a one-hander.

The 49ers did not hit on Charlie Woerner, and Ross Dwelley is an egregiously poor blocker. Jordan Reed’s contract is expiring and it’s unclear if he’ll return, or continue playing. Regardless, there needs to be an influx of talent behind George Kittle, because Woerner is not the guy.

Ruckert’s foundation is as a blocker, which Kyle Shanahan loves. For a guy who hasn’t been targeted much, Ruckert has made some outstanding catches, and finds space, especially vertically. For a 6’5″, 253-pound tight end whose production has been limited, he’s flashed more than enough reason, especially with his deadly touchdown efficiency, to take a shot on in the middle rounds.

 

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