Senior Bowl practices began Tuesday in Mobile, Ala. where Evaluators from the NFL, the CFL and private scouting services have taken over the small coastal town that houses the University of South Alabama Jackrabbits. Players from all levels of competition are put through a grueling week of interviews, meetings and practices with NFL decision makers.

For the 49ers, their needs this offseason are clear. The lack of a pass-rushing specialist is apparent. A receiver with size as a red zone target could drastically improve an offense that settled for field goals far too often. A starting cornerback opposite of Ahkello Witherspoon will round out a young but developing defensive back group.

The ideal corner for the press Cover-3 scheme is a tall, big-bodied player that can excel at the line of scrimmage and has zone recognition skills to match route concepts down the field.

The 49ers are expected to have over $114 million in cap space and could consider signing a free agent cornerback, like Rams’ free agent Trumaine Johnson.

However, the smart play may be to invest in a stop-gap corner and find multiple players in the NFL draft that can develop into long-term contributors. If so, Day-3 targets could offer 49ers general manager John Lynch the best value in terms of taking high-upside prospects that will need coaching and development.

Cornerbacks Michael Joseph of Div. III Dubuque and Jacksonville State’s Siran Neal stood out early in practices as potential targets for any team in need of size at the position.

Joseph (6-0, 186) received an invite after an impressive senior season in which he tallied eight interceptions. He bounced between boundary corner and slot at Tuesday’s practice, showcasing the versatility NFL teams covet when filling out their rosters.

Joseph immediately answered questions about whether he has the athleticism to compete this week. He held up well in one-on-ones and distinguished himself on the first day of drills. If Johnson can continue to compete, he’ll play his way onto more than a few NFL draft boards.

Where Joseph is quiet and reserved, Neal is the exact opposite. In media sessions Tuesday morning, it was clear Neal is enjoying his time. The 6-foot, 206-pound defensive back had no trouble interacting with media while enjoying the opportunity to compete against top-tier college football talent.

Neal’s built like a safety, which may be ideal for the 49ers. The desired traits of Robert Saleh’s cornerbacks often mirror that of a traditional safety, including size, strength on contact and zone instincts. San Francisco met with Neal Tuesday, according to Walter Football’s Charlie Campbell, and likely has him on the radar as a Day 3 developmental player that can make an impact given prototypical physical skills.

The 23-year old Alabama native’s playing style is aggressive and he’s comfortable admitting it. When asked about his preference of technique, Neal said he likes to, “get up in somebody’s junk real fast and get in their head.”

The 49ers had a cornerback of a similar attitude, Rashard Robinson, whom they traded midseason to the New York Jets. Robinson failed to back up his talk on the field and lacked the strength to handle receivers at the line of scrimmage. In his first practice with the South team, Neal seemed to have no problem competing with talented receivers like Oklahoma State’s Marcell Ateman and James Washington.

Full pads will come on Wednesday, meaning physicality and competitiveness will increase. The cornerback group in Mobile originally looked underwhelming, but the encouraging play of Neal and Joseph has quieted the concern about how small-school prospects would fare. And the 49ers should be paying attention. 

–Reported from Mobile

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