Prior to the 2011 season, the San Francisco 49ers' franchise had struggled to turn draft-day success into victories on the gridiron.
But a new coaching staff led by Jim Harbaugh, as well as a couple additions through the draft and free agency, led San Francisco to a 13-3 record and a spot in the NFC Championship Game. An even more direct source of the team's return to relevancy were eight of the team's last 10 first-round selections leading the way. But with the 30th pick in this year's first round, the 49ers will need to dig a little deeper if they want to strike gold once again.
Thanks to its talent-laden roster led by former first-rounders, such as Alex Smith (No.1 in '05), Aldon Smith (No.7 in '11), Vernon Davis (No.6 in '06) and Patrick Willis (No.11 in 2007), San Francisco will have the unfamiliar luxury of zeroing in on a couple positions of need rather than snatching the best talent left on the board.
Unfortunately, the 49ers' biggest need is at wide receiver, a position that will be in high demand across the league on draft day.
With future star wideouts like Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) and Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) likely off the board by the 30th pick, let's take a sneak peek at deeper receiver options and other impact players who could suit up in San Francisco next season.
Wright would be a much needed upgrade for SF at wide receiver.
I would hope Robert Griffin III at least took his main target out to dinner after Griffin's Heisman Trophy win.
Wright's blazing speed helped him amass a total of 1,663 yards on 108 catches with 14 trips to the end zone. While you wouldn't notice by watching highlights, Baylor's star pass-catcher spent most of 2011 dealing with nagging injuries, including a bum ankle that kept him from performing in this year's Senior Bowl.
Listed at 5'10" and 190 lbs., Wright isn't a big red-zone target, something the 49ers were hoping to have this past season with Braylon Edwards, who was cut during the season. Considering the luxury of having one of the league's stingiest defenses, but somewhat disappointing production of Michael Crabtree (aside from his impressive blocking in 2011), the 49ers could select a receiver like Wright and explore free-agency options to search for a wideout with more size.
Wright's route-running could use some refining, but his breakaway acceleration and raw speed would be a welcoming sight for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and the offense. Ted Ginn is more valuable to San Francisco when he can focus solely on the return game, with his suspect hands sometimes proving to be a detriment to the offense.
Unless Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd or Alshon Jeffery slip down the draft in Randy Moss-like fashion, Wright looks like the best fit for the 49ers in what is also their most critical offseason need.
Sanu's stock is rising fast, and could now go in the first-round.
If Wright is already gone, or the 49ers decided to look at a receiver with more size, Sanu is another favorable option at the position.
At 6'2" and 218 lbs., the junior from Rutgers posted 10 or more catches in six different contests during the 2011 season, displaying his amazing hands and skill set for all of the scouts to drool over. He broke the Big East reception record with 115 catches on the year and 215 total in his three-year career for the Scarlet Knights, all as a starting wideout.
Sanu does need to improve his blocking and, with his size in mind, must step up his level of physicality on the field. But those issues are correctable, and the pass-catching abilities are clearly there.
Some experts are predicting the Texans to nab him up at No. 26, but if he is available at No.30, he may wind up a better option than Kendall Wright.
Konz would be a great long-term replacement for the aging Jonathan Goodwin
Jonathan Goodwin proved to be one of the 49ers' more underrated additions in 2010, as linemen typically are. Although he's signed through 2013 and is by all means a serviceable center, Goodwin is now 33 years old and his days of playing at a Pro Bowl level are over.
That brings Peter Konz into the discussion, who is a first-round-caliber center, something that surprisingly isn't common in NFL draft history. Konz decided to leave Wisconsin after 31 starts in his three seasons for the Badgers. He's a classy, one-of-a-kind player at the position and can make an immediate impact if Goodwin's body can't hold up.
If the top-tier receivers are off the board and the 49ers look elsewhere, the offensive line undoubtedly should be a point of focus. Aside from the Pouncey brothers, Maurkice (Steelers '10) and Mike (Dolphins '11), franchise centers just aren't that common.
It's possible Konz doesn't make it past the 20th pick, but if he slips, he's worth the risk. You can't go wrong with a Big Ten lineman, right?
While Carlos Rogers seems like a lock to return at cornerback for the 49ers and Chris Culliver was one of the better steals in the 2011 draft, secondary depth is a must for any NFL defense.
At 5'10" and 195 lbs., Dennard is the shortest cornerback in a class littered with first-round prospects. Morris Claiborne (LSU) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama) are likely top-10 selections, but if a team reaches for Janoris Jenkins or Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) ahead of Dennard, the 49ers could pounce on the Huskers' standout corner in the occasion he slips to No. 30.
Don't let his 2011 campaign fool you, this stud is worth the risk.
I do believe Jeffery is a lock as a top-20 pick, given the high demand for receivers across the NFL. With his size and skill set, it's possible he could go even higher.
With that said, if the 49ers are as desperate as they should be for a big-play wideout, who's to say we won't see a repeat of the excitement the Falcons injected into the 2011 draft by moving up for Julio Jones?
Once again, San Francisco is finally in a situation where they can afford to ditch some picks to make a big splash. This strategy may not have panned out for Atlanta in this year's playoffs, but Jones played a significant role in it at least getting there in a much improved NFC. A.J. Green also exceeded expectations in Cincinnati, so this scenario has to be on the minds of Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke.
Some say Jeffery may even fall to the latter half of the first round, partly due to a sub-par 2011 season. But that should be overlooked based on quarterback issues for South Carolina (Stephon Garcia was kicked off team) and I imagine more than a few teams would love to have this stud fall into their lap.
I can't imagine 'Niners Nation would be disappointed with a draft-day present like Jeffery suiting up in scarlet and 49ers gold next season.
Frank Gore would love to add this mauler to an already-tenacious core of run blockers.
Injuries are common among any NFL position, even kickers. With that said, not many gridiron warriors are more prone to injury than linemen.
The 49ers line play improved considerably throughout the season, and Mike Iupati made great strides at left guard. However, the other side was the problem for San Fran up front. Adam Snyder replaced Chilo Rachal and seemed to shore up some of the issues, but I don't see a place for Rachal on the roster much longer.
Glenn is a massive guard at 6'5" and 320 lbs., but he's also versatile enough to move over to tackle if the injury bug does indeed strike. You simply won't find an NFL coach who is satisfied with his depth on the offensive line, but adding this beast to the mix would surely lay some of those worries to rest in San Francisco.
Stanford guard David DeCastro is an intriguing option at the position as well, given Harbaugh's ties to the school. Glenn is the more likely scenario however as DeCastro seems well-liked among scouts and could easily find a home inside the top 15-20 picks of Round 1.
Ingram would provide another pass-rush option for the 49ers in the pass-heavy NFC>
Aldon Smith has shown he can do just that, and Justin Smith's mighty man-motor puts the Energizer Bunny to shame. But something tells me there's still room for a guy like Ingram.
The 6'2", 275-pounder from South Carolina can play virtually anywhere on the front seven, aside from inside linebacker. San Francisco could very well try and chase down a big free-agent receiver like Dwayne Bowe or Marques Colston and save the 30th pick for another defensive standout.
If the 49ers solve more prominent needs elsewhere and do snag a guy like Ingram, his unique flexibility and top-end speed provide a perfect fit for Vic Fangio's defense.