San Francisco 49ers: 5 Late-Round Sleepers To Target In 2017 NFL Draft

The San Francisco 49ers will target big name prospects as they enter the 2017 NFL Draft, but they should also circle these names as they enter Day 3.

As fans, we all have our draft crush that we hope the team chooses at the top of the draft. But this is a deep draft with the potential to find contributors late into Day 3. The San Francisco 49ers need to ensure they target these five players as are late-round sleepers.

While drafting star power is important, ensuring that they have necessary depth is vital to a rebuilding team. 49ers general manager John Lynch is blessed with a plethora of seven Day 3 picks. More than enough to restock the shelf for rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Shanahan will need all the talent possible and finding late-round gems is just as important as hitting at the top of the draft. These following guys are the right type of talents to target later in the draft.

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Nov 21, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive back Johnathan Ford (23) runs an interception for a touchdown past Idaho Vandals defense during the second quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

5. Johnathan Ford, S – Auburn

There has been a lot of draft chatter that the 49ers need to draft former Ohio State University’s Malik Hooker. Hooker is a tremendously talented safety who displays incredible instincts and ball skills rarely seen in a safety prospect. Unfortunately, the 49ers need to draft a premier edge rusher or cornerback at the top of the draft.

Even better, the 49ers already possess a fantastic player in Jimmy Ward who has demonstrated incredible potential to play the safety position. What the team needs is an athletic player with range that can back up Ward while learning to play the safety position.

Enter Johnathan Ford. Ford played safety and the slot cornerback positions for Auburn. While playing for the Tigers, he displayed the athletic traits which when paired with his a aggressive hitting attitude make him an ideal late-round target. What dropped Ford down is his inconsistency in 2016 after two standout years in 2014 and 2015.

Nevertheless, standing at 6-0 and weighing in at 205 pounds, Ford has ideal size to play the free safety position and would be a handful at the slot.

Here’s what CBSSports Rob Rang had to say about Ford heading into his 2016 season:

He has a low, tight back pedal with light feet and fluid hips, helping him change direction easily. Ford accelerates smoothly, showing the straight-line speed to handle deep coverage responsibilities and has shown steady improvement in terms of route awareness.

As his 216 career tackles suggest, Ford is a generally reliable open-field tackler who is also a standout on special teams coverage units. He locates the football quickly, pursues with passion and flashes some explosiveness as a hitter while typically wrapping his arms securely for the reliable open-field tackle.

Ford can provide competition at the slot while Ward transitions to the deep safety spot. He also brings depth to the safety position. In addition, he can also contribute immediately as a kick returner in his rookie year. Check out this highlight reel of Ford’s best work:

Though still in need of refinement, the potential for Ford is obvious throughout that reel.

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October 22, 2016; Pasadena, CA, USA; Utah Utes defensive back Brian Allen (14) intercepts a pass intended for UCLA Bruins wide receiver Theo Howard (14) during the second half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

4. Brian Allen, CB – Utah

Brian Allen played cornerback for the Utah Utes, turning enough heads to get an invite to the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. Many scouts were mildly interested in his production (four interceptions) and his size (6-3), but were-less-than thrilled about his penchant to allow deep passes to be caught.

However, at the combine, Allen displayed the type of speed rarely seen in cornerbacks his size posting a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash, per NFL.com. For teams looking for long, press corners Allen provides a lot to work with from an athletic stand point.

He has long 34-inch arms with big ten-inch hands which makes it easy for him to press and pluck balls out of the air.

More exciting is that Allen has only scratched the surface of his full potential. Allen was originally recruited as a wide receiver before being tried as a safety. Eventually he ended up as an outside corner where he steadily improved each season.

The 49ers are in the market for a cornerback across from Rashard Robinson and Allen could be the guy in a few years. Maybe, just maybe, could he even be the next Richard Sherman? Like Sherman, Allen is also a converted wide receiver.

If nothing else, Allen is an intriguing late-round prospect.

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Oct 8, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) is defended by Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon (23) during a NCAA football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

3. Ahkello Witherspoon, CB – Colorado

This is one player who is rising quickly. Ahkello Witherspoon is part of a talented Colorado defensive backfield which had left him a bit unnoticed. Scouts weren’t too thrilled with his unwillingness to help in the run game.

However, it is hard to ignore his 13 passes broken up on the year, per Pro Football Focus. Witherspoon then went on to impress with his speed at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine by posting a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, per NFL.com.

Witherspoon is a tall, quick-twitch corner who uses his 6-3 frame and 33-inch arms to defend the pass extremely well. In fact, his best fit at the NFL level will be the one the 49ers will be employ under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Saleh’s scheme requires tall, press corners that can disrupt their man at the line of scrimmage and use their lengths to challenge the ball.

Here is PFF’s scouting report on Witherspoon:

Witherspoon’s quick feet and excellent balance combined with his length make him a formidable press corner. He isn’t winning with strength/physicality yet but when that element gets added to his game he can become an even better press corner. His range and length also make him effective in off coverage. Witherspoon is an outside press corner with impressive measurables, explosive athleticism and high football IQ. Witherspoon is a starting cornerback in the NFL who will likely get pushed down in the draft a bit due to the depth of the cornerback class this year.

No. 23 is an exciting late-round prospect that should definitely be on the 49ers’ draft board. Check out Witherspoon at his best:

Witherspoon may not get the same type of attention as his teammate at Colorado, Chidobe Awuzie, but he has similarly promising potential.

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Oct 3, 2015; Evanston, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Rodney Smith (24) is tackled by Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Anthony Walker (18) during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

2. Anthony Walker, LB – Northwestern

Anthony Walker was a rising linebacker in 2014 after putting up two back-to-back impressive seasons with the Northwestern Wildcats. However, after a disappointing 2016 season, Walker fell down many scouts rankings.

Walker is known for his play recognition and hard-playing style. Where scouts graded him negatively is his slow release from blocks and pass coverage ability. In 2016, Walker gained weight to increase strength. This helped improve his ability to shed blocks from opposing offensive lineman, but it came at the cost of some of his agility.

Still, Walker remained a highly productive player with the ability to make incredible plays both in the backfield. What Walker lacks, proper shedding technique, can be gained through coaching. What cannot be taught is his instinctual feel for the game. Some scouts, like NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein feel that Walker will regain his 2015 form by dropping weight and focusing on flexibility.

Here is a part of Zierlein’s scouting report on Walker:

Has packed muscle onto his frame that looks good in the uniform but might be limiting his flexibility and athletic ability. A productive, downhill linebacker who misses too many tackles and struggles as a take-on player. He checks all the desired boxes for football and personal character and can be counted on to do what it takes to improve his game. He could become a decent starting linebacker within his first few years.

Watch Big Ten Network’s series The Journey featuring Walker. In it, you will her from his family, coaches as well as see some of his highlights where his explosiveness is immediately apparent. Walker is the kind of talent you target late on Day 3.

San Francisco 49ers

Sep 12, 2015; Lubbock, TX, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders defensive safety Tevin Madison (20) attempts to run down University of Texas at El Paso running back Aaron Jones (29) in the first half at Jones AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

1. Aaron Jones, RB – UTEP

In the final weeks leading up to the draft, more draft analysts have started to place UTEP’s Aaron Jones higher on their draft rankings. Jones is a phenomenal runner that possesses great burst, balance, toughness, vision and pass-catching ability. My favorite of Jones’ skills is his stiff arm which brutally abuses would-be tacklers. There are plenty of examples of it throughout his tape.

Impressively, his biggest upside may come as a pass catcher. Jones continually shows the ability to  get behind linebackers and get yards after the catch. He also flashes an incredible high-pointing ability normally seen from big-bodied wide receivers.

Hurting Jones’ stock most of all is that he played at little-known UTEP. However, over the years, UTEP has been a program on the rise being able to recruit talented gems like Jones into their program. Thanks to players like Jones, UTEP has scheduled games against notable opponents like Texas Tech, Arkansas and Texas. All of which Jones dominated in both a running and passing standpoint.

As far as Jones’ character, there will be very few prospects that will shine more than him. He comes from a military family in which both of his parents served on active duty in the US Army. Jones has a core set of values and work ethic not normally seen from a man of his age. Not to mention, he has experienced life events that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.

Take a look at Jones’ final season highlights to see what he’s capable of:

His skills translate directly to the NFL level and it seems that the 49ers agree. Per Niners Nation, the 49ers may target Jones in the later rounds as they brought Jones in for a work out on March 30.

Jones would be an excellent late-round target. He can back up Carlos Hyde as well as bring a dangerous passing element out of the backfield befitting of a Kyle Shanahan offense.

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