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Why these four undrafted free agents will make the 49ers

Al Sacco
Jun 14, 2017 at 8:33 AM0


In many ways, the current state of the San Francisco 49ers roster is the perfect storm for overlooked college prospects who may have been snubbed on draft day. Every year teams whiff on securing the services of some very talented prospects because an injury, poor workout, or some other short-sighted reason clouds their judgment. While it's frustrating not to hear your name get called, sometimes it acts as more of a blessing in the sense that now, the player can dictate where he is headed, and choose a team that gives him the best chance of sticking around. In the case of the rebuilding Niners, there were so many position groups in need of help, that it's not out of the question that multiple undrafted free agents could end up making the squad. Here's a look at four players who will do just that this season.

FS Lorenzo Jerome


While a lackluster combine may have initially hurt Lorenzo Jerome's draft stock, that hasn't stopped expectations from being sky high for the former Saint Francis University defensive back. You see, some guys are just football players, and you can't measure their true ability with stop watches or how far they can jump. The buzz that surrounds Jerome isn't from a 40-yard dash time or some other superficial drill, it's from making plays at every given opportunity. With 18 career interceptions, Jerome was a first-team All-Northeast Conference selection for four straight seasons, and was also named a first-team FCS All-American by the Associated Press his senior year. When the lights got brighter, so did Jerome's game, as he shined at the Senior Bowl, recoding two interceptions, a forced fumble, and three tackles (one for a loss).

Transitions to the NFL will obviously present Jerome with a steep learning curve, but his dedication to football and willingness to keep his nose in the playbook will go a long way in helping him adjust. While Jimmie Ward is entrenched as the starting free safety, Jerome has every opportunity to stick around as Ward's backup. In an interesting development, Jerome was actually given reps at nickel corner at minicamp, which could mean that the 49ers see him as a long-term roster option, and want to see what else he can do in the secondary. He'll be a name to watch all summer.

TE Cole Hikutini


The competition at tight end might be the most wide open of any position, and your guess is as good as mine as to who will even make the team, let alone see significant playing time. If there's one thing that's for certain, though, it's that the new regime doesn't seem too high on any of the holdovers. Vance McDonald was the on trading block, which gives the impression he'll be jettisoned sooner rather than later, and there's been no indication that Garrett Celek or Blake Bell have any long-term future in San Francisco either. Logan Paulsen, who has experience in head coach Kyle Shanahan's system, was brought in as a free agent, and Iowa's George Kittle was drafted for a reason. Both of them, at least in the early going, seem to be on more secure footing than any of the incumbents at the moment. There are still roster spots to be had after Paulsen and Kittle, though, and it's possible that someone else could step up and seize the moment. Maybe an undrafted tight end out of Louisville?

Cole Hikutini looked to be on his way to a mid-to-late round selection before an injury slowed his progress. Ultimately, he slipped out of the draft altogether, despite being one of the better pass catchers available at the position. While he does struggle as a blocker, Hikutini has natural hands, the ability to separate, and the size (6'5") to be a difficult matchup in the passing game. He probably won't ever be an every down contributor, but his length can help him carve out a niche as a role player and give the 49ers a redzone threat who can win 50/50 balls. Hikutini's upside makes him intriguing, and for a rebuilding team that may be more worthwhile than keeping a Celek or Bell whose ceilings have already been established.

RB Matt Breida


Right now, the only ball carrier the Niners are committed to past 2017 is fourth-round pick Joe Williams out of Utah. Sure, Carlos Hyde is extremely talented but the fact that he's in the final year of his contract and San Francisco appears to be in no rush to extend him is telling. Unless Hyde has a transcendent type season, odds are he'll be playing elsewhere come 2018. So with only Williams locked in, Shanahan may be thinking of keeping the runners who he sees as being in his system for the foreseeable future, versus stopgaps on one-year deals such as Tim Hightower, Kapri Bibbs, and (possibly) Hyde. That's why former Georgia Southern standout Matt Breida has a strong chance to stick around.

Breida was dominant in 2014-15, carrying the ball 374 times for 3,094 yards and 35 total touchdowns. With the arrow pointed up and the NFL within his sights, Breida took a step back in 2016, however, and limped to 646 yards on 168 attempts. The subpar campaign seemed to take Breida off the map altogether, so much so that he didn't even get invited to the Combine. Still, an impressive pro day showing, and what they saw on tape previous to 2016, was enough to make the 49ers shell out $30,000 to secure Breida's services. Shanahan and new running backs coach Bobby Turner have a history of turning unheralded runners like Breida into productive players, and you can rest assured he'll have every chance to win a spot on the roster.

WR B.J. Johnson


While the wide receiver group in San Francisco has more than it's share of question marks, it's probably safe to say that the top five spots on the roster are pretty much set. Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Jeremy Kerley, Aldrick Robinson and Trent Taylor all look like locks to make the squad, which, assuming the team keeps six wide outs, leaves room for one more player to sneak in. Many figured that person would have been K.D. Cannon, the former Baylor standout who the 49ers gave the most guaranteed money of any undrafted free agent ($45,000), but he was cut before OTAs even got started. Why would the team have let a player it committed that sum to just walk away? Apparently the main reason was the play of B.J. Johnson, a former Georgia Southern product who was invited to try out for the Niners at rookie minicamp.

On the surface, Johnson's collegiate numbers don't jump out at you. His best season was his senior year, during which he caught 42 balls for 600 yards in a run-based offense, but his toughness, size (6'1", 210 lbs), and hands impressed the San Francisco coaching staff. While all of those traits are important, size is something the unit needs, as none of the other previously mentioned receivers are over 6' tall. In fact, other than Garçon, no other wide out stands over 5'10". Johnson probably wouldn't see much action, but again, he's a developmental option the Niners should be more willing to keep around should his upside exceed that of an Aaron Burbridge or DeAndre Smelter.

Al Sacco has been covering the 49ers since 2013 and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. In addition to his writing duties, Al is also the co-host of the No Huddle podcast presented by 49ers Webzone. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via Twitter @AlSacco49
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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