When San Francisco 49ers executives and coaches file into the draft room at the team’s Santa Clara, CA headquarters Apr. 25-26, it’s going to be about more than simply trying to rebuild a once-proud franchise that in years past was more likely to be reloading on draft weekend.
It will mark the second time this decade that a new era is upon the five-time Super Bowl champions—not only in terms of coaching, but in leadership at the very top.
What has been even more significant, at least in the Bay Area, has been 28-year-old Jed York’s ascension to the top of the entire organization, having assumed the reigns from his parents John and Denise, whose lack of direction and overall understanding of how to run a football team entirely is largely responsible for the 49ers free-fall from the top of the NFL.
Will Jed pick up where his inept folks left off? Or will he take more after his uncle Eddie Debartolo, the former 49ers owner that oversaw their period of dominance and for whom no price was too steep for the privilege of being able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season?
Time will tell, but if Jed is indeed a chip off the old Eddie D-block, he’ll need to not only be ready to shell out cash, but more importantly, put the right team of coaches and executives in place to lead his franchise to its old glory.
Jed York’s first order of business upon being named president of the 49ers was to surprise the players in the locker room after their come-from-behind win over Washington in the season finale by informing them that Coach Singletary was being stripped of the interim tag; not only that, he declared it would be the final time a 49ers season would end in the month of December.
It was easy to get caught up in the joyous moment, but five months later it’s even easier to recognize the many upgrades the 49ers will need to make in order to make a playoff run.
This isn’t the horrendous 2-14 that Mike Nolan took over in 2004, but to contend for the post-season some holes will need to be filled. This month’s draft will provide an opportunity to do just that.
No. 10: WHO MIGHT BE AVAILABLE
San Francisco has needs all over the board, beginning at QB and on through receiver, both sides of their line, and the defensive backfield. They also needs to bolster their pass rush and could use a solid number two back to spell Frank Gore.
The team is still unsettled at QB, where former number-one pick Alex Smith will compete with last year’s starter Shaun Hill, who has proven to have a knack for winning, no matter how ugly it might look.
Will the 49ers be too gun-shy to pull the trigger on a QB with the 10th pick? It would be hard to blame them, on the heels of restructuring Alex Smith’s $30-plus million contract that got them more picks and losses than touchdowns and wins.
Most draft publications feel there are only two QBs worthy of a top-10 pick: USC’s Mark Sanchez and Georgia’s Matthew Stafford.
WHY SANCHEZ: The only real knock scouts can come up with on Sanchez is his lack of experience, which shouldn’t worry the 49ers too much because while they don’t have a bona fide superstar under center, they have one or two guys that can move the team until the QB of the future is ready.
Sanchez is one of the few marquee college quarterbacks these days that has played in a pro-style, drop-back offense, and will be the most primed to adapt to the NFL style of play.
Possessing excellent accuracy and more than enough arm-strength, Sanchez could be a mega-star in the NFL. Additionally, he would have the same widespread appeal amongst the 49er fanbase that Jeff Garcia enjoyed during his time with the 49ers, who have a large Latino following in the Bay Area.
WHY NOT STAFFORD: Matthew Stafford might have the arm-strength that NFL execs piss themselves over, but how great is a strong arm when the guy can’t complete at least 60 percent of his passes?
Stafford was often inconsistent and at times lacked the leadership skills a team needs from its QB when it is trying to win the tough games. Throw in the fact that Stafford played a lot out of the shotgun and more of a spread-style offense, and you’ve got a guy that could take several season to adapt to the NFL.
In the later rounds, taking a chance on a guy like Stephen McGee of Texas A&M might not be such a bad idea, but the signing of veteran Damon Huard this offseason indicates they may not draft at QB at all this year.
In fact, San Francisco could be zeroing in on a target for the QB to throw to. The 49ers haven’t had a dominant receiver since Terrell Owens turned diva and busted out of town, and 2003 first-round blunder Rashaun Woods aside, haven’t made much effort at replacing him.
Issac Bruce’s return after pondering retirement in the offseason may deplete the need for another receiver in the near-term, but at 36-years-old he’s not the long term answer.
The chances of Texas Tech All-American Michael Crabtree being on the board at 10 are slim-to-none; however, should he slide (Seattle’s offseason acquisition of TJ Houshmandzadeh could keep Crabtree on the board a bit longer) whoever would have taken Jeremy Maclin might just snatch him up instead.
If Maclin is there for the 49ers, he would be very hard to pass on. That’s assuming that he hasn’t leapfrogged Crabtree by draft day, as his stock is soaring. Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey and Kenny Britt of Rutgers could both provide the large presence the 'Niners lack at receiver by way of a second or even third round pick.
What they’ll need to avoid is jumping on the oft-injured Percy Harvin of Floridain the first round. Blinding speed aside, Harvin figures to be a slot receiver with return skills at best, and could wind up being as fragile as Reggie Bush.
Where this draft appears to be loaded, at least at the top, is right where the 49ers need are desperate for improvement. Any 49er fan who endured journeyman Barry Sims’ play at tackle in spot-duty last season (and the subsequent beating Shaun Hill took) will vouch for that.
The question is—who will be available to them? Current projections suggest that Virginia’s Eugene Monroe and Jason Smith of Baylor will be snatched up before the 10th pick, suggesting the top-two tackles available will be Andre Smith of Alabama and Michael Oher of Ole Miss, and either of these two would be worthy at that spot.
Once considered the top overall prospect in the draft, Smith has seen his stock fall in the wake of the agent scandal that forced him out of the Sugar Bowl and his subsequent performances (or lack their-of) in pre-draft workouts and combines.
That aside, the game film doesn’t lie and Smith has proven on the playing field to be the kind of dominant offensive tackle that doesn’t come along too often. And at No. 10, he would be worth a “gamble.”
On the other side of the line, the 49ers need a strong presence in the middle of their 3-4 scheme, and need to upgrade their pass rush. Rumors of a failed drug test for Boston College’s BJ Raji could scare some teams off, which could be a huge blessing for San Francisco.
In fact, if he falls to 10, they need to jump on this kid no matter who is available. Last year they picked up Kentwan Balmer in the first round, and the fact that he couldn’t settle in on the inside or outside of the defensive line could be a discredit to both the coaches and himself.
Raji on the other hand is no late-first round “flyer;” this kid is ready to lineup on Sundays right now. Peria Jerry of Ole Miss is another viable option should the 49ers feel defensive tackle is a top priority.
Defensive ends that could be available at the 10th pick include Florida State’s Everette Brown and Texas Longhorn Brian Orakpo. Defensive end Aaron Maybin of Penn State is projected as a top-10 overall talent in this draft.
And just down the road from San Francisco is a real intriguing prospect out of San Jose State. Jarron Gilbert has been projected by some services as the best 3-4 defensive end available in the '08 draft.
While he had turned a lot of heads this offseason with some freakish athletic talent, his small school status and lack of big-time opposition at the collegiate level could keep him available into the second round.
Northern Illinois linebacker Larry English could boost the outside pass rush and will likely be there in the second round.
Rounding out their most glaring needs is the safety position. In a move that was probably a year overdue, the 49ers removed Mark Roman from their plans in the offseason. Stepping in for him is a promising young talent in Dashon Goldston, however either safety position could use better play.
The 49ers are likely going to be in a position to snatch the centerfielder they’ve been lacking for some time in the second or even third round.
Sean Smith of Utah will likely be a mid-first-round pick, but hard-hitting Missouri safety William Moore would be worth a second rounder, and even further down the line they’ll be in contention Oregon’s Patrick Chung or Alabama ball-hawk Rashad Johnson with a third or fourth round choice.
Obviously, draft analysis is nothing more than speculation. We can all hop on some collegiate stud’s bandwagon, piss and moan when our team doesn’t pick him (or piss and moan no matter what if you’re a Jets fan), and second guess all the draft choices we never saw coming.
All we know is where teams need to improve. The worst-case scenario would be the 49ers buying into the arm-strength hype that ha some projecting Matthew Stafford as the top overall pick. If they replay the Jim Druckenmiller debacle of 10-years-ago, it's not only going to set this draft back, but the team for the rest of the decade.
Should they be unwilling to take a chance on a first-round quarterback, there is no reason they can’t boost their pass rush and receiving corps on the first day. Overall, if the 49ers can at least score with five solid picks, they’ll be in line for marked improvement in the coming years.
The bigger picture for the 2008 draft is that it will give a real indication of where San Franciscois headed.
Scot McCloughan is the new GM; until the middle of last season, Mike Nolan’s eternally befuddled sideline face was that of the entire organization, so we don’t know for sure how much McCloughan had to do with picking the likes of Alex Smith, Vernon Davis or Kentwon Balmer when he was the Director of Player Personnel.
Now the buck stops with him—or does it? Singletary claims the 49ers are simply in the market for the best available player. At the end of the day, it will be well beyond draft day before we know if they follow through with that plan.