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MNF Review: Football speed

12/24/2013


If the 49ers don't host a playoff game and Monday night marked the end of the Candlestick era, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate ending than a dramatic win that put them into the playoffs. Here are a couple of things that came to mind watching the Monday night finale.

Inside linebacker Patrick Willis has been slowed by injuries and his production has suffered because of it, but he's still one of the best in the league, and he turned in his best performance of the year when his team needed it most, racking up 15 solo tackles.

We gave Willis a 95 coming out of Ole Miss and thought highly of San Francisco taking him with the 11th overall pick in 2007. He was an instinctive run defender who located the ball quickly, took sound angles and tackled well. While he didn't show the same kind of awareness in coverage as Carolina inside linebacker Luke Kuechly did coming out of Boston College, Willis clearly had the tools to be an every down linebacker in the NFL.

Two inside linebackers have come off the board in the top 10 since San Francisco drafted Willis. Carolina got Kuechly ninth overall in 2012 and Oakland took Rolando McClain out of Alabama with the eighth overall pick in 2010. Kuechly has been as good as advertised. McClain is no longer in the league.

Alabama's C.J. Mosley is the sixth overall prospect on our board, and while he goes 11th overall in Todd McShay's first mock draft, he could be the third inside linebacker to be drafted in the top 10 over the past five years. Mosley is a disciplined run defender who covers more ground than his timed top-end speed would suggest, and he can make one-on-one plays in space. In addition, he doesn't have to come off the field because he has outstanding third-down capabilities.

Taking Mosley that early isn't without its risks, though. At 6-2 3/8 and 228 pounds, he's light and doesn't show great power taking on blocks in a phone booth. More importantly, his injury history -- dislocated elbow, dislocated hip and shoulder surgery -- raises a red flag in terms of trying to project his long term durability in the NFL.

The second thing that jumped out during the Falcons-Niners game is how timed top-end speed is overvalued when it comes to receivers. A slow 40-time doesn't prevent receivers who can get open, catch the ball well and produce after the catch from succeeding at the NFL level; look no further than the 49ers for proof.

This year, Anquan Boldin eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the sixth time during his notable 11-year career, and former 49er Jerry Rice is widely considered the greatest receiver of all time. Neither ran well for teams coming out of college. While the 49ers were smart enough to trade up and select Rice with the 16th overall pick in 1985, receivers who don't run well can also turn out to be steals.

Boldin slipped to the 54th overall pick in 2003. That same year, Detroit took a receiver with the second-overall pick who boasted an excellent size-speed combination in Michigan State's Charles Rogers. Boldin has 848 career catches for 11,195 yards and 64 touchdowns. Rogers washed out of the league after three seasons.

More recently, Keenan Allen fell to the 76th pick this year. Allen was dealing with a knee injury and he likely would have ran better at his pro day had he been healthy, but he didn't show great top-end speed on tape, either. We still gave him an early second-round grade because he ran good routes, caught the ball well and picked up yards after the catch. Allen's off to a strong start this year and he could make teams that passed on him because of his speed pay for it for a long time.

Jordan Matthews, a 2014 prospect out of Vanderbilt, graded out as an early second-round pick heading into the 2013 season. (And an interesting side note: Matthews is related to Rice.) While we don't have an official 40-time on Matthews, it will be interesting to see how he tests.

Matthews' game isn't predicated on speed when you throw on the tape. At 6-2 7/8 and 206 pounds, he is a fluid route runner who can separate from underneath man and exploit seams in zone looks. He has the toughness to make plays over the middle and pick up yards after contact after the catch. Plus, he can make plays downfield despite his top-end speed because he has the strength and body control to win 50-50 balls when he doesn't get behind the coverage.