Not many people pay much attention to undrafted free agents, but undrafted players can make impacts.
The San Francisco 49ers hope to find a gem in their class of undrafted free agents. The 49ers got some players who did well in college, like MarQueis Gray out of Minnesota and Lawrence Okoye, a discus-thrower who has the raw tools to be a dominant defensive lineman. However, undrafted free agents are often projects.
San Francisco is loaded with depth and talent, and there doesn’t appear to be a position up for grabs at this point. Eric Reid will likely seize the reins at safety and assist Donte Whitner in the secondary, which would fill a small hole. Otherwise, though, the 49ers appear to be fine.
The defensive line had some trouble down the stretch, but Ray McDonald and Justin Smith (who was hurt in Week 16) are both stellar defensive lineman, and Glenn Dorsey has the size to be a solid defensive lineman as well. Okoye could see some playing time in the future, but he has no experience playing the game and will take time to get used to the physicality and intensity of the NFL.
In other words, 49er fans will have to wait to see him on the field.
However, Okoye is in a good situation because he could fill a need position. Gray is well-known, but he’s not going to take Colin Kaepernick’s job or Frank Gore’s job. Gray put up solid numbers as a running back and wide receiver, but he will be buried on San Francisco’s depth chart. You don’t often see undrafted players high on the depth chart, but with the remarkable depth the 49ers have, it would be an unexpected bonus if an undrafted free agent contributed.
Alex Debniak forced two fumbles in 2012 as an outside linebacker for Stanford, but he’s likely going to play fullback for the 49ers. Bruce Miller is the current starter there, so fullback isn’t a position of need, but Debniak, who rushed for 91 yards on four carries in Stanford’s 2009 spring game, could potentially see action.
Debniak isn’t extremely big, as he is 6’2″ and weighs 240 pounds. However, Miller is only eight pounds heavier, so the two have very similar bodies. Miller was also a pass-rusher who was converted to fullback, so the two are similar in a lot of ways. It remains to be seen whether Debniak can transition, but if Miller was able to do so he should be able to as well.
San Francisco rounded out its undrafted free agent class by adding three offensive lineman and two defensive backs, but again, neither will see much playing time. Joe Staley, Alex Boone, Jonathan Goodwin, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis round out a spectacular offensive line, one that appears to need no help right now. Goodwin is a free agent after this year, however, so center Sherman Carter could see some action in the future.
However, unless Goodwin leaves and the 49ers can’t find anyone better, Carter won’t be playing much at all.
At this point, it looks like Okoye is going to be the recipient of the most playing time. There are a few positions where the 49ers could use a minor upgrade, but they’re likely not going to get it from this undrafted class. Okoye has the raw tools to become a starter on the defensive line, and as Justin Smith ages he could work his way into San Francisco’s rotation.
He has never played organized football, but there have been players who started late and became dominant due to their physical tools. Okoye has the height to bat down passes and the size to penetrate and get to the quarterback. Based on his size, Okoye could likely play anywhere on the defensive line, and that’s one of the main things that makes him such an intriguing prospect.
While Gray is also versatile, he’s not going to find playing time in a crowded receiving corps and a running back group loaded with depth and talent. Defensive line is one of San Francisco’s biggest need positions, especially with Smith aging. Okoye is in a nice situation in San Francisco, and the discus record-setter will be interesting to watch.
In other words, Okoye is going to have the biggest long-term impact out of San Francisco’s undrafted free agent class.