The San Francisco 49ers Need To Strike Gold in This Year's NFL Draft

Mike FerreroCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2009

When it comes to recent draft busts in the NFL, it almost seems fitting to look towards the team who have long been pioneers.

Whether it is the West Coast offense, deciding on a unknown backup over a proven Hall of Famer, or even packing everything up and taking a chance on life panning for gold,  the San Francisco 49ers are a team that likes to do things first.

It is this type of brave, experimental attitude that had turned the team into what was seen as an icon in the National Football League for decades.

This rich history of 49ers accomplishments has stemmed from two factors: the NFL draft, along with new, innovative coaching.

These two determinants have resulted five Super Bowl victories and 20-plus playoff appearances since the early '80s.

This time around, things are a little different. The 49ers have failed to reap any success from the first round of the NFL draft since 2005, except for the otherworldly MLB Patrick Willis, who continues to evolve and impress people in every facet of the game.

But the rest of the 49ers first round draft picks have been downright dormant whenever they step on the field. There is still time for some of the picks to evolve into contributors, but that comes strictly from coaching. It is vital that Mike Singletary formulates a staff that is up to the task of molding young talent from first round pick hopefuls to professional successes.

Here are the nominees for biggest 49ers first round bust since 2004 (in chronological order): Rashaun Woods ('04), Alex Smith ('05), Vernon Davis ('06), Manny Lawson ('06), and Kentwan Balmer ('08). 

Now, there seems to be a recurring theme in all of these former hopeful standouts: they are all projects. Alex Smith came from the spread, Vernon Davis did not quite have the size to block, Manny Lawson came onto the first-round scene late in the game, and Kentwan Balmer was drafted based upon size. 

The recent past has shown that the 49ers are very much inclined to find an under-rated, under-developed talent in the draft and turn him into a headliner for the team.

While we have seen this work in the past with the likes of Jerry Rice, there is obvious evidence that Bill Walsh and his minions had everything to do with that phenomenon.

Well, the late, great Bill Walsh and his minions are no longer around, and the team definitely has a more smash-mouth aura about them now.

This is why I feel the first round of the NFL draft should be dedicated to selecting a proven talent—someone who has shown that he is ready to make an impact in the NFL right off the bat. Let the venture projects that turn into contributors emerge in later rounds, maybe even the second round if you must, but it is essential—especially for a team rebuilding—to test their luck with a proven entity in the first round of the NFL Draft.

This brings me to the recent forecasting coming out of the diverse array of NFL mock drafts for the 49ers. Assuming that the originators of these mock drafts are going off of the tip from Head Coach Mike Singletary himself that the 49ers are indeed looking at the Left Tackle position and Defensive End position, lineman seem to be the key to this year's draft.

This makes complete sense considering Mike Singletary's desire to turn this team in the 1985 Chicago Bears.

The 49ers have the 10th pick, and the most common names I see popping up on these lists are the likes of Aaron Maybin (PSU) and Everette Brown (FSU). Both would be fine picks and both can play the hybrid OLB/DE position.

But there are still those crucial elements that continue to show up on both of these guy's scouting reports: under-rated and upside. While they have all the ability in the world to turn out to be major contributors to the team, there are still many question marks surrounding them.

If I were holding the reins on the 49ers draft path, I would take advantage of the recent information that has come through at the NFL Combine. Both Michael Crabtree (TTU) and Andre Smith (UA) have taken hits when it comes to draft stocks and unlike the economy, now is the time to jump.

While Andre Smith did "act-a-fool" during the recent combine, there are some things I saw that allow me to believe he can turn it around.

First and foremost, he owned up to his mistake. He stated in a recent interview that he knows what he did was wrong and that he would certainly handle the situation differently if he could do it all over again.

Obviously that doesn't make up for the lost evaluation from the NFL Combine, but it shows me that he can attest to his mistakes, which to me is a sign of maturity. While he did also perform negatively during interviews with certain teams, I can just chalk that up to him not being much of a people person.

The fact remains there is a requirement for talent, as well as a high football acumen, when you are the left tackle for a team that stood at No. 1 in the NCAA polls for weeks and plays in the almighty SEC.

Andre Smith stands at a rather beastly 6'4", 335 lbs. and has shown that he can be an exceptional hole-opener and blind-side saver at any level. If he falls to the 10th pick, the 49ers should waste no time on acquiring this proven talent.

As for Michael Crabtree, his story is a little different.

He still projects to be a top-10 pick hands-down, and the 49ers would be most fortunate if he were to fall all the way to 10. But he did just decide to undergo stress fracture surgery in his foot that will keep him out a reported five weeks. This is essential training time that Crabtree is going to miss.

While I personally do not see this as a reason to devalue his draft status, it is clear some teams are. Many projected 2009 mock drafts have Michael Crabtree going to the Seattle Seahawks with the fourth pick.

The three teams ahead of them have far more dire needs than a wide receiver, in turn giving the Seahawks a chance to get the Calvin Johnson-esque receiver at a bargain, considering he could go first if those Detroit Lions weren't almost required by law to not pick a wide receiver this year.

But instead, the Seattle Seakawks recently decided to acquire T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a charitable five-year, $40 Million contract with $15 Million guaranteed.

If other teams follow suit, there is a chance that Crabtree could fall all the way to 10, and the 49ers could snatch up a game-changing WR who would certainly make any quarterback on the planet better (just ask Graham Harrell how his draft stock is doing, if he even has any, now that they aren't paired up).

Of course, both of these guys would be blessings to have available around the 10th pick, and there is a chance that both will not be, especially Michael Crabtree. If both of these players are taken before the 10th pick, then I would be more content with the 49ers selecting Brian Orakpo out of the University of Texas.

Orakpo has staggering speed for his size (6'3" 265 lbs, 4.70 40-yard dash) and preposterous strength (31 reps). Both numbers posted at the NFL Combine were in the top five for defensive lineman.

But what is also astonishing is the fact that his 40-yard dash time would have been sixth-best for linebackers, and his bench press reps would have been first. That shows tremendous versatility, which is essential for his expected position in Mike Singletary's 3-4 defense.

To go along with those numbers, Orakpo out-vertical-leaped every single defensive lineman and linebacker at the Combine (39.5 in.). The combination of Orakpo's speed, strength and leaping ability, along with the type of competition he had to face every week against the offensive lineman of the Big 12, show that Orakpo has a much more proven track record than both Maybin and Brown.

Now that the San Francisco 49ers are officially Mike Singletary's team, I would like to see them act that way.

Everyone knows the first draft can make or break a head coach's tenure with a NFL team. It is crucial that Singletary builds a foundation of valuable players that can make an impact as soon as they step on the field for the first time.


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