After coming very close to going to the Super Bowl, and having compiled a 14-4 record that included the team’s first playoff game in 10 years, the 49ers look to the future with bright eyes and high hopes.
Perhaps the most compelling accomplishment first-year coach Jim Harbaugh did, aside from out-performing the expectations of just about everyone on the planet, was return some sheen to the storied franchise that is the 49ers.
Like most teams, the 49ers will look outside their bounds for roster help. At the same time, their success in last spring’s draft suggests that they might rely on that again to add more talent – with one glaring weakness: wide receiver.
As such, here’s a breakdown of the potential offseason moves in free agency and trades by the 49ers, and I’ll also look at some of their needs to be filled in the draft.
February 28, 2012: The 49ers have announced via their official Twitter handle that outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has signed a six-year contract extension with the team. Brooks notched 49 tackles and one forced fumble last season. According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, the deal is worth $44.5 million and includes $17.5 million in guaranteed money.
February 24, 2012: The Niners announced the signing of back up safety C.J. Spillman to a three-year contract. Spillman, a five-year veteran out of Marshall, excelled on special teams play. His signing follows that General Manager Trent Baalke said earlier in the combine week, namely that the 49ers are going to take care of their own first.
[All references comes from 49ers.com: http://www.49ers.com/news-and-events/index.html]
February 23, 2012: San Francisco announced the signing of Brian Pontbriand (6-2, 255), who was selected in the fifth round (142nd overall) by the Cleveland Browns in the 2003 NFL Draft. Selected to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2008, he played in 134 games with the Browns before being released on 11/29/11.
January 24, 2012: The 49ers announced they have signed C Chase Beeler, T Derek Hall, FS Mark LeGree, DB Cory Nelms, WR Kyle Nelson, TE Konrad Reuland and LB Michael Wilhoite to reserve/future contracts.
Courtesy of the 49ers' PR office, here’s a rundown of the players:
Beeler (6'3", 285), who played center under Harbaugh at Stanford, originally signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent on July 27, 2011. He spent the entire season on the 49ers' practice squad.
Hall (6'5", 307) spent the entire season on the 49ers' practice squad after signing with San Francisco on July 27, 2011.
LeGree (6'0", 210) was originally a fifth-round draft choice (156th overall) by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2011 NFL draft and was later released following training camp. He then was signed to the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad on September 21 and later released on October 5. LeGree signed with the 49ers on November 15 and was released on November 29.
Nelms (6'0",195) originally signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent on July 27, 2011. He remained on the 49ers' practice squad the entire season. Nelms was awarded the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award, presented to the 49ers rookie or first-year player who best represents the dream of Thomas Herrion. The award is voted on by the coaches.
lson (6'3", 240) went undrafted out of New Mexico State and spent time with the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs this season. He played tight end for the Aggies from 2007-10 and recorded 66 receptions for 559 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Reuland (6'4", 260) originally signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent on July 27, 2011. He spent the entire season on the 49ers' practice squad.
Wilhoite (6'0", 240) entered the NFL for the first time when he signed with the 49ers' practice squad on December 14, 2011. He signed with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL as an undrafted free agent in 2011. Wilhoite starred at Washburn University. He played in 44 games (35 starts), registered 211 tackles and three interceptions and was named honorable mention All-MIAA as a senior.
49ers Cap Room
Update: OLB Ahmad Brooks has re-signed for six-years for a reported $45.5 million. $17.5 guaranteed.
The Niners appear to be in strong position to make adjustments and raises for many of their key free agents. Their proposed cap space for 2012 is about $24 million, but the team also exercised the right to carry over the remaining 2011 cap space of $16.8 million [http://www.ninercaphell.com/salary], giving them somewhere in the range of $38 million to $40 million come March 13, the opening of the free agent signing period.
General Manager Trent Baalke said in Indianapolis last week that the priority if the Niners is to “take care of our own first,” and the signing of free agent safety and special teams player C.J. Spillman is an indication that the team is indeed true to its word.
[Source material: I received a podcast of Baalke's press conference from the 49ers PR office. Much of the same material can be found on the team site at http://blog.49ers.com/2012/02/23/combine-live-blog-thursday-2/]
Baalke handed out four multi-year contracts last year to free agents Ray McDonald, David Akers, Johnathan Goodwin and Donte Whitner. They also signed Frank Gore through 2015. More long-term deals appear to be coming.
Problematic Cap Hits
Unlike many teams, there appears no big threats to the cap due to the loss of players. Recent big contracts to Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis are extended for years to come, but neither player appears to be in danger of not making the team or wanting to leave.
Other big contracts to Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and Michael Crabtree, among others, are pro-rated over the length of the contract and thus pose no real threat to this year’s projected salary cap. The biggest issue might be Shawntae Spencer, the former starting CB who lost his job in 2011 and appears to be off the top 51 list of Niners who count against the salary cap. Spillman is due a $100,000 roster bonus this year.
The biggest issue is quarterback, but the Niners and even Alex Smith appear headed to a long-term deal. Smith made $4.9 million in 2012, and could see that number rise to $18 million over three years (at which he still will only be 30 years old). The issue here is how long they want to sign Smith with backup Colin Kaepernick waits in the wings.
Baalke played last summer’s post-lockout free agent period just about as perfect as a GM can. He got CB Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson for one-year deals that turned about to be way under their value in relation to their performance and what other veterans at similar positions were getting paid.
Both Rogers and Goldson appear to be main issues for the Niners. There are reports that the Niners will give Goldson the franchise tag for 2012, and perhaps then work out a long-term deal to spread the guaranteed portion of the contract over several years.
Rogers earned a spot in the Pro Bowl for a salary of $2.12 million, according to Spotrac, the salary-website. It’s now up to Baalke and personnel director Paraag Marathe to come up with a three- or four-year deal in the neighborhood of $15 million.
Goldson getting tagged should shoot his value up three- or four-fold from his 2011 salary of $1.2 million, but look for the Niners to offer him something like Rogers - $15 million over four years.
Also, the Niners might have one of the best backup ILBs in Larry Gordon, who made just over $800,000 in 2011. Another team can get him for pittance (relatively speaking) if they sign him for $2 million or so over three years.
The Niners after 2010 were one of the weakest teams in allowing opponents to convert on third downs. They also were one of the worst in giving up sacks as well as turnovers. The team had a major question as what to do about the quarterback position.
It should be said that key members like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith were on the team prior to the new coaching staff taking over in January 2011. But the team needed big help on third-down passing plays.
With the addition of Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner (31) in the secondary, improved play from the linebackers as well as the jolt of electricity from first-round draft pick Aldon Smith, the Niners became one of the best against third down. The front seven thrived as no team had better rush defense stats.
This unit went from lower third to top three in most defensive categories, and it appears capable of getting better as Aldon Smith continues to improve.
Conversely, on offense, while the sack total of 2011 (44) was about the same as 2010, the Niners only gave up 10 turnovers on offense – a remarkable drop.
The Niners of 2010 were noted for offensive deficiencies that at times appeared laughable. (Thanks, Jimmy Raye and Mike Singletary). Yet much of those same deficiencies (lack of big-play receiver, leaky pass protection, a QB prone to giving up key turnovers) remained throughout 2011, with the exception being the last.
This could be seen as the major improvement/influence of Jim Harbaugh. You could almost hear Harbaugh scream over and over at Alex Smith – “eat it.” Harbaugh and staff knew that the defense was good enough to hold opponents close. The key wasn’t to let the offense – namely, Smith – try to do too much when forced and thus commit a turnover.
Eliminating the interception (Smith only threw five all season) and the sack-and-strip fumble – the key plays that change the game – was essential to success in 2011. And it worked. With excellent special teams, the Niners were not giving up short fields and easy scores. Opponents had to work their way down the field against a steady, strong defense that might rank as the NFL’s best tackling team.
The 49ers’ plus-28 turnover advantage during the regular season and its excellent special teams did much to hide the team’s offensive limitations. No team averaged better starting positions in drives; no team allowed its opponents worse starting field position on average.
At the same time, it’s hard to find a 13-3 team of recent vintage that had less-threatening wide receivers. Running back Frank Gore wasn’t as effective but still had a good year. The addition of Adam Snyder at right guard in place of Chilo Rachal seemed to steady the offensive line.
According to Spotrac and the NinersNation.com, the unrestricted free agents for the Niners include:
Alex Smith. Update. Reports are that Smith and the team are close.
Ted Ginn Jr.
Carlos Rogers Update: On March 13, Rogers agreed to a four-year, $31 million dollar contract to stay with the 49ers.
Josh Morgan. Update: latest rumors are the Washington Redskins pursuing Morgan. And On March 13, Morgan indeed signed with the Redskins.
Dashon Goldson (Update: On March 2, the 49ers announced they have given Goldson the franchise tag, which means he will be with the team at least through 2012.)
Tavares Gooden Update: On March 13, the 49ers announced they signed Gordon to a one-year contract.
Blake Costanzo Update: On March 13, Costanzo signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Bears.
Larry Grant Update: On March 2, the 49ers offered a one-year tendered contract to Grant.
Restricted free agents are:
Tramaine Brock. On March 2, the 49ers offered a one-year tendered contract to Brock.
Will Tukuafu Update: On March 8, the 49ers announced they signed Tukuafu to a two-year extension.
Alex Smith: $7 million
Smith signed a one-year deal last summer for $4.9 million, and this year's negotiations will be priority one. The Niners have several issues to consider. First, he’s a seven-year veteran who is just 27. He’s also healthy with no problems with his surgically repaired shoulder.
He also demonstrated two key qualities needed in an NFL QB: Feet to move out of the pocket and strong intermediate throws. His long throws are lacking. But the Niners don’t have a big deep threat – yet – who would bring that into better light.
Dashon Goldson: $4.2 million
A franchise tag seems likely, which could raise his 2012 salary to about $7 million. But a 6-year vet at 28 with his best years in front of him would seem to spark the 49er front office to nail him down for four more years for $16 million.
Carlos Rogers: $4.2 Million
Rogers will be 31 in 2012, so a four-plus-year contract seems less likely than Goldson. But Rogers did well in Vic Fangio’s defense; and that’s the key. Defensive players are more difficult to assess as their effectiveness often hinges on overall team performance rather than individual achievement. He earned
Ahmad Brooks: Signed a six-year deal for a reported $45.5 million, $17.5 million guaranteed on 2/28/12
Ted Ginn Jr.: $3.9 million
Ginn was the NFL’s best return man. But his work as a backup receiver left something to be desired. At the same time he had nagging leg injuries, and he missed the NFC Championshp game, which is how Kyle Williams became such a key player in that game.
Josh Morgan: $2.1 Million
Morgan’s broken leg in October should dampen the enthusiasm other teams have in the four-year vet. But coach Jim Harbaugh did say in the season that re-signing Morgan was a priority.
Madieu Williams: $900,000
The UFA is a valuable backup and plays both safety positions.
Blake Costanzo: $750,000
One of the league’s best special teams players who makes Brad Seely’s units click.
Tramaine Brock: $450,000
A raise to $600,000 could happen.
Larry Grant: $600,000
Other teams must be drooping to have him, and he’d be cheap at $2 million a year.
Brett Swain, Will Tukuafu, Shawntae Spencer, Derek Hall, Monte Simmons and Moran Norris probably will be released in 2012.
Of the key players that figure to be in the Niner 2012 plans, here’s a breakdown of the cap hits in 2011, according to Spotrac.com:
Alex Smith, $4.9 million
Carlos Rogers $2.1 million
Ted Ginn Jr. $3.9 million
Adam Snyder $2.6 million
Reggie Smith $2.4 million
Josh Morgan $1.8 million
Dashon Goldson $1.2 million
Madieu Williams $1 million
Tavares Gordon $750,000
Larry Grant $600,000
Tramaine Brock $405,000
The biggest raise of those on this list probably will go to Alex Smith ($7 million to $8 million each for five years, I say) and then Rogers and Goldson. Getting them for three years at about $4 million a year would do wonders.
What’s interesting is how low Grant’s salary is. He’s capable of starting for another team. He can be had for cheap.
Projecting Which Free Agents the 49ers Will Re-Sign, Which Will Walk
Alex Smith: Re-signs
Smith has his teammate’s faith. He’s also young. He also served as Jim Harbaugh's caddie during the AT&T National Pro-Am. That should convince you where the issue lies.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $30 million
Dashon Goldson: Re-signs
A franchise tag has been declared, which could raise his 2012 salary to about $6.2 million. But a 6-year vet at 28 with his best years in front of him would seem to spark the 49er front office to nail him down for four more years.
Projected contract: 4 years, $22 million
Carlos Rogers: Re-signs
Rogers will be 31 in 2012, so a four-plus-year contract seems less likely than Goldson. But Rogers did well in Vic Fangio’s defense; and that’s the key. Defensive players are more difficult to assess as their effectiveness often hinges on overall team performance rather than individual achievement.
Projected contract: 3 years, $13 million
Ted Ginn Jr.: Re-Signs
Ginn was the NFL’s best return man. But his work as a backup receiver left something to be desired. To his credit, though, Ginn will be only 27 in 2012. A three-year deal to continue as return man seems likely. Somewhere to what he made in 2011 - $4 million per.
Projected contract: 2 years, $8 million
Chilo Rachal: Walks
The strarting right guard in September became a backup by October when the Niners were on a nine-game winning streak. When he did fill in, he had some problems against the bilitz. That said, a four-yet vet with plenty of starting experience should find plenty of offers in the NFL. St. Louis comes to mind.
Josh Morgan: Re-Signs
Harbaugh has said signing Morgan is a priority. He was needed in January, to be sure. A two-year deal seems likely.
Projected contract: 2 years, $5 million
Madieu Williams: Re-signs.
A small raise.
Projected contract: 2 years, $3 million
Blake Costanzo: Re-signs
One of the league’s best special teams players who makes Brad Seely’s units click.
Projected contract: 2 years, $3 million
Tramaine Brock: Re-signs
A good backup who was pushing for a starting job during camp.
Projected contract: 1 year, $900,000
Larry Grant: Walks
He made $600,000 in 2011; other teams must be drooling to have him, and he’d be cheap at $2 million a year.
If the Niners had A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson – or at least avid 49er fans like think – they would be the best team, period.
Yes, the second-half of the NFC Championship game brought into clear terms the needs of a limited offense; namely, someone who can get deep fast to keep the safeties off the line as well as doubling up on tight ends. But as we all know, it’s one thing to be fast and quite another to be able to break press coverage.
That’s where the Niners will look – at a free agent like Steve Johnson of Buffalo or in the draft, where Mohamed Sanu (6) of Rutgers and Michael Floyd of Notre Dame will get a long, hard look.
At the same time, Coby Fleener of Stanford, the 6’6” tight end, has to be appealing to Harbaugh. First, he loves his former Stanford players. More importantly is the fact that Fleener is a mis-match creator – too fast for linebackers, too big for corners and safeties.
Interior Offensive Line
Adam Snyder at right guard can get better, but the Niners are fairly deep in this overall group. But if a sure-fire starter like Cordy Glenn out of the University of Georgia is available when the above receivers are gone, this is a likely choice.
Shutdown cornerDrafting 30th, it appears that the Niners won’t have a chance to get any of the excellent corners coming out, such as Morris Bradshaw of LSU. But Baalke, who pores over film, will be looking for a gem in the second- or third-round.
Justin Smith is reaching his mid-30s. Isaac Sopoaga played a huge percentage of downs in 2011. This is an area the Niners will look to add depth in the later rounds.
There’s always a need for speed, and the Niners would like to gain a little more heft with more speed, as incumbent starter Frank Gore sometimes looked a little slow getting to the point of attack.
The way I figure it, the Niners are committed to about $53 million in contracts for 2012 but with many of their own free agents being key to their success in 2012. They'll be re-signing Alex Smith, for starters, as well as trying to hold onto the likes of Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Ted Ginn Jr., Joshua Morgan and Ahmad Brooks.
Those six alone could add another $30 million to the 49ers obligations in 2012, but that still leaves them close to $38 million or so under the cap.
For a team that isn’t looking for too much help but does have a need for a big-play receiver, it’s going to be a matter of CBA – cost benefit analysis. If a player like receiver Vincent Jackson is on the market for $9 million a year but you can get Steve Johnson for $7 million a year, is the difference of in performance worth $2 million?
In short, if Jackson and Johnson had peak years in SF, there stats would differ in very small ways. More than anything, when a player comes to the Niners it’s all about fitting in rather than star potential.
That’s why Baalke seems to have a grip on the team’s needs. He’ll look to build in the draft (no team had a better one in 2011), and if there’s a player to be had it’s going to be someone who will be offered the chance to prove himself and then gain. Examples include Carlos Rogers (will get raise) and Braylon Edwards (got cut).
Forty-Niner fans can press their face against the department store window and drool over the following class of receivers available for bidding:
DeSean Jackson (UPDATE: The Eagles announced on March 1 they will use the franchise tag on DeSean Jackson.)
Vincent Jackson (Update: On March 13, Jackson signed a five-year, $55 million contract with Tampa Bay.
Marquess Colston (Update: On March 13, Colston agreed to a five-year contract with the New Orleans Saingts.)
Steve Johnson. Update, earlier in March Johnson re-signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Of them all, if there were no strings attached, Wallace is the prize. Young, fast and seemingly on the rise, he'd be a home-run threat that could really propel the Niner offense to the upper reaches of the NFL. But, alas, Wallace is a restricted free agent.
My favorite is Steve Johnson of Buffalo, a great route runner who often got the best of Antre Rolle of the Jets in their twice-a-year matchups.
Vincent Jackson of San Diego is appealing for his size (6’5”) but his age (31) and attitude would seem to scare off Baalke in terms of giving a huge contract. The same goes for DeSean Jackson, but his capability as a returner gives Baalke a 2-for-1 reasoning to kick the tires. Also, if Ginn Jr. leaves, then D. Jackson becomes even more attractive.
Marquess Colston of New Orleans and Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City are viable, but I see the former staying with Drew Brees and the latter going to some team willing to over-pay for someone who is not in the Calvin Johnson-A.J. Green category.
Drafting so late suggests that the Niners will look long and hard at the free agents; finding out who fits and who is capable of making an impact is the issue. Remember, Braylon Edwards came in last year with great potential and he was released in December.
That the Niners signed backup tackle Alex Boone to a three-year deal last season suggests that they really like this group. That said, someone like Carl Nicks of New Orleans, who is one of the game’ best, will be off their radar.
The contract issue with Carlos Rogers will play a huge role here. If he re-signs, then the Niners will not likely pursue. If Rogers goes, they might have to go hard at Brent Grimes of Atlanta or Marcus Trufant of Seattle – players who can battle the likes of Larry Fitzgerald one-on-one.
The mock drafts all over the internet have players like Mohammed Sanu of Rutgers and Reuben Randle of LSU being on the 49ers radar screen.
Knowing Baalke, he'll look over the top names like Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright, Michael Floyd, Dwight Jones. But note that one report on Jones was less than thrilling. And one thing Baalke doesn’t do is reach. There’s nothing to be gained in drafting a player higher than needs to be and find out that he’s not capable of the role needed. It makes the player and the team look bad.
That’s why when it comes to receivers, free agents are known better than draftees. And in that aspect someone like Steve Johnson makes a lot more sense than someone like Jones, who would get good money for not having proven anything.
That’s why Cordy Glenn of Georgia pops up on my radar screen. Baalke has said that there’s good depth at both receiver and offensive line, the key is knowing which player to take. Glenn of Georgia has started three years in the SEC, has played more than one position on the OL and he’s huge (6’5”, 360-plus).
Someone like Brandon Brooks of Miami-Ohio could be found in the third round.
The 49ers signed Frank Gore last summer to a three-year deal, and the addition of Kendall Hunter provided added spark. But it seems that more speed is needed, and so someone like LaMichael James of Oregon has popped up on some mock drafts.
The Niners would love to have his speed; but they don’t want to get that speed that high. There is one thing to consider, though, and that Gore’s contract doesn’t call for that much of a cap hit should he be cut in 2013. With a huge offensive line and a fast, powerful back being able to squeeze through the middle leads to big, big plays.
Aside from James, someone like Chris Polk of Washington would be quite appealing in the second or third rounds.
With so many teams switching around their needs – some need a QB, others defensive help – it can be quite difficult to assess what will fall to the Niner at No. 30. But if someone like DT Fletcher Cox (94) is there for the taking, Baalke will take serious time to consider.
Here’s a third-year junior who is 6’4” and 295 pounds who is still young, seems easily capable of adding 15 pounds and who has started three years in the SEC. In other words, he’s only getting better, and better means, for the 49ers in three years, perhaps a DT who is another Justin Smith.
That means linebackers Willis and Bowman continue to roam free; that means pressure on the QB without blitzing. It means good defense over the ball, and that’s the secret to success in the NFL.
Trumain Johnson of Montana could be had in the second roung. What’s so appealing is that he is big (6’2” and over 210 pounds) and can run. He didn’t play in a Big Name conference, but that doesn’t matter. He’s got Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell to coach him. He’s the sort of value pick the Niners love, a la Chris Culliver in the third round of 2011.
The issue always depends on the numbers. It is not like Baalke to blow up his team salary structure for one player. That’s why it’s hard to assess where the Niners will end up in pursuing key needs for 2012.
Coming into 2011, when everyone in the world knew the Niners needed help at cornerback, the Niners didn’t come close to getting the best-of-class Nnamdi Asomugha. But they got a great deal in Carlos Rogers. That’s one reason why Baalke is NFL Exec of the Year.
Update: On March 13, the 49ers announced they have signed CB Perris Cox to a two-year deal. The former Denver Bronco was a fifth-round pick in 2010.
Steve Johnson: 4 Years, $22 million Update: Johnson re-signed with Buffalo.
A four-year vet who turns 26 in November, a big-play threat (17 TDs in last two years) who has averaged about 13 yards a catch in his career, Johnson appears to be a big upgrade.
He’s not a Megatron (Calvin Johnson) or even Justin Blackmon, who might be the premier receiver in this year’s draft, but Johnson is someone who runs great routes, has great hands, can play wide or from the slot. He’s not a perfect player, but he’s better than what the Niners have.
Vincent Jackson: 3 years, $18 million
He’s big enough to be open when he’s not; and that has its appeal. But then, he also seems tied to Phillip Rivers, the Charger QB. Also, he’s demonstrated less-than-stellar attitude at times, which is not that appealing to the Niners. Look for Jackson to take bigger numbers elsewhere.
Marquess Colston: 3 years, $14 million Update: Colston agreed to a five-year deal with the Saints.
He fits so well with New Orleans it seems strange to write the words that he could play outside New Orleans.
Brent Grimes: 3 years, $13 million
Only if Carlos Rogers leaves will this deal come up. The thing is, looking to the 2012 schedule, the Niners play against Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning. That is about every elite QB in the NFL. Pass defense will be essential.
Brandon Carr: 3 years, $10 million
The Kansas City CB had a strong year on a disappointing team. His signing depends on how he would do in meeting with Baalke and Harbaugh, for it’s all about how players fit in the 49er clubhouse.
Trent Baalke went to the combine in 2011 looking for one thing: someone who to improve the defense. It appeared that Patrick Peterson of LSU would be a good fit, but the Cardinals took him at No. 6. To the surprise of many, Baalke selected Aldon Smith at No. 7, and he had a great year for the 49ers.
After that came a quarterback, a cornerback, a backup running back, a receiver (who didn’t make the team), and a converted defensive end now fullback, a safety-special teams wizard, and another offensive lineman. All appear to have long futures with the 49ers.
This year, Baalke may go radical and, in thinking that the Niners are one player away, might bunch some picks in order to move up in the draft. If Michael Floyd of Notre Dame (3) is available at 20, look for Baalke to throw in three or four picks for the right to swap places and drat Floyd.
But that seems unlikely in that too many other teams have receiver needs, and it’s a draft that isn’t that deep in receivers. So, look for Baalke to try to find the best players in the draft. That is, the best athletes. It may be more defensive linemen (the richest position this year) or it might be cornerbacks.
Either way, Baalke does not appear to be a man who likes to “reach,” meaning picking a player too high for his capabilities. It puts too much pressure on the player and has the risk of too much backlash on the front office.
If the Niners don’t trade up, then look for them to add more depth throughout the roster.
The thing that Trent Baalke did so well, and it is a compliment that carries down to the coaching staff, is that his 2011 draft got so many contributors throughout entire draft. Aldon Smith had as big an impact as any rookie in the NFL outside of Denver, so that gives Baalke top grades.
Collin Kaepernick remains a question but few question his capability as a quarterback. From there, the additions of CB Chris Culliver, RB Kendall Hunter and FB Bruce Miller in the latter rounds were something on which GMs hang their resumes.
For the 2012 draft Baalke reiterated in a pre-combine press conference that the NIners will do their work. It's one thing to see players run and jump in their underwear - John Madden's term - and quite another to see them move in pads on the field.
Film study is the difference, so it's hard to say who and why Baalke will be looking at come rounds 2-6. But he did say that there's depth at both OL and WR, so with that in mind, consider the following names as possible contenders:
Aside from either a fairly big free agent and/or a first-round pick, the Niners will most likely bring in several players here. As Harbaugh said prior to 2011, he'll roll out the balls and see who can compete. In that perspective it's OK to assume that more than one WR is going to be drafted, so look for these names to be considered:
Nick Toon, Wisconsin. He's got the size and his Combine time in the 40 was 4.54. Good but not great.
Tommie Streeter, Miami (one breakout year; great size at '6'6", but he has questions regarding his ability to catch. But then he did run a 4.4.
Marvin Jones, California, has the size and really helped himself with a 4.46.
Later on in the draft, do the Niners look hard at Devon Wylie, an under-heralded receiver out of Fresno State who posted a 4.39 40 time.
As Baalke said earlier, the Combine can present a team with more questions about a prospect than it answers. In the case of the above players, it might mean that they get more interest from the 49ers. But the 49ers will determine their value/attractiveness later on during face-to-face interviews as well as deeper film review.
Getting stronger up front is always an issue in the NFL. The one weak spot in the OL is at right guard. Left guard Mike Iupati is very good at pullling and leading, but a bigger road-grader type might be needed. At the same time, Harbaugh and staff love versatility, which is why someone like Brandon Brookes out of Miami-Ohio might be appealing in Round 4. He has great size and has experience playing multiple positions. Also, he has started for more than one year.
Johnnie Troutman of Penn State has been at for a full five years, and his experience in playing in the run-oriented Big 10 as well as the academics of Penn State could spark interest by the 49ers in the latter rounds.
The 49ers had the best group in the NFL in 2011, but that could change with the departure of Ahmad Brooks. Also, it seems one team can never have enough guys who are taller than 6'2" and weigh more than 240 and can run like the wind.
George Illoka, Safety, Boise State. At 6'4" and 245, he played safety in college but look for him moving up in the NFL. The thing that DC Vic Fangio likes to do is give offenses something new to think about every now and then, and bringing up a strong safety and drop him into a three-point stance off the edge can provide plenty of headaches in pass protection.
Josh Kaddu, Oregon (5). He's another large (6'3". 240) fast inside backer seemingly perfect for outside play in the NFL. Illoka and Kaddu could also be seen as "projects" as they learn new positions and adapt. But the success of NaVorro Bowman seems to be an indicator that learning new positions might be a requirement when drafted by the 49ers.
Bowman played outside in his college days at Penn State. Aldon Smith was a down DE in college, and now, in his development as a full-time player he'll have to work out of two-point stance.