San Francisco can use Day 2 of the draft to work on its Larry Fitzgerald problem
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald was his typical outstanding self in 2016, and was particularly successful against division rival San Francisco. In Arizona’s two games against the 49ers, Fitzgerald torched their defense for 18 catches on 26 targets, 213 yards and two scores. The year before he was just as dominant, as posted 21 receptions on 24 targets for 200 yards and another two scores.
It didn’t matter who San Francisco tried to match him up against; he torched them all: CB Trumaine Brock yielded two catches on two targets for a total of 50 yards and two scores. Safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea each gave up three grabs, and slot CB Jimmie Ward surrendered six receptions to the future Hall of Famer.
Picking second overall, San Francisco of course has a multitude of needs. Clearly the 49ers would do well to select multiple secondary players from this talented and deep class, and some are projecting them to take Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore with that No. 2 pick. However, Fitzgerald did much of his damage in 2016 when aligned inside at the slot (63 percent of his routes came from inside, as did 63 of his 107 catches), and Lattimore ventured inside just 10 times for the Buckeyes last season.
This isn’t to suggest Lattimore can’t help San Francisco, or that he is incapable of manning the slot. The bigger point is that with this being such a deep cornerback class, the 49ers will be to get significantly better value by waiting on the position until Day 2, and selecting a different player on Thursday night.
A Rocky Mountain High-grade solution
Consider Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie. At 6-foot-0 and 202 pounds with a 4.43 40-yard dash time to his name, he certainly possesses the prerequisite combination of size and athleticism it takes to challenge a star NFL receiver like Fitzgerald. Better yet, his play over the course of the past three seasons for the Buffaloes was outstanding. He gave up completions on just 58.3 percent of passes into his area between 2014 and 2016, and over the past two seasons he broke up or intercepted an impressive 17 throws.
Unlike Lattimore, Awuzie has ample experience inside. While he played 478 snaps at left or right CB, he also lined up from the slot another 307 plays, and an additional 103 snaps from a linebacker position. Colorado used him like a chess piece not only because he was just as comfortable and productive in coverage inside as he was on the perimeter.
He was targeted 27 times in 2016 when lined up in the slot, and gave up just 15 grabs and a QB rating against of 77.2. A better measure of his every-down success inside is the fact he was targeted just once every 13.6 snaps from an inside alignment, which was the fight-highest mark among all 2017 CB draft prospects, and best among those ranked in our top 25.
This isn’t to say the expectation would be that Awuzie should immediately be able to shut down Fitzgerald as a rookie; Fitzgerald is a future Hall of Famer, and is a difficult matchup for anyone in the NFL, even at this stage in his career. But in terms of improving the overall talent on the roster while keeping the division in mind, the 49ers would do well to target Awuzie on Day 2 of the draft, and should be in position to do so with the 34th overall pick.