When it comes to the National Football League, there is no off-season.
Sure, the games end with the Super Bowl. The work never truly stops though.
From the moment a team is eliminated, they shift their gears from game planning and strategy to draft planning and strategy.
Even though the 49ers took some good steps forward, there is still work to be done.
This mock draft will give you an early look into what the team might do this April.
Even when you have eight picks—two in the first round no less—each selection must count.
While an emerging team like the 49ers can always stand to improve just about anywhere, some needs are far more important to fill than others.
The offensive and defensive line, the secondary and a dynamic kick/punt returner on special teams—all are areas the team needs to solidify prior to the beginning of the 2010 season.
The offensive line allowed too much pressure and too many hits on the quarterback, while conversely the defensive line generated too little pressure on opposing signal callers.
The secondary contains some solid players but lacks a big play corner or safety. There are a few too many aging vets as well. It needs to get younger, more aggressive and find a way to generate more turnovers.
Enough cannot be said about getting a dynamic kick returner. Field position is a huge factor for an offense, and all too often the 49ers' returners were unable to gain enough yards to put the offense on a short field. That has to change.
Also important—though not a high priority—is adding a linebacker to line up across from Pro Bowler Patrick Willis. The defensive line needs to get more pressure on the quarterback, but the linebacker corps needs to do its part as well.
If the 49ers can pair Willis with another tough, aggressive and play-making linebacker, that will make things tough on opposing quarterbacks.
One thing to remember—this team proved last spring that it will take the BPA, or Best Player Available, if the value is right.
So while most picks should fill a need, at some time there is a good chance that Singletary and Company go off the grid.
For the 49ers, the best case scenario is that something very wacky happens and Okung somehow drops to the No. 12 pick. Currently rated as one of the top offensive tackles in the draft, Okung is a top shelf pass blocker with long arms, good height who can use his natural quickness to get up off the snap and cut off rushers coming off the edge.
Okung needs to work on his run blocking technique, as he does not use his hands as well as scouts would like. He is an outstanding open field blocker, though, who can adjust on the run as defenders shift on the fly.
Okung's strength, speed and athleticism—coupled with elite skill in the pass game—more than make up for the few adjustments he needs make in the run game.
The 49ers desperately need more talent along the offensive line. Okung would give them that in spades.
Davis is not the cream of the crop; however, he is a player who got better every year he played for the Scarlet Knights. His physical tools—mobility, quickness off the snap, arm strength and balance—are elite, even if inconsistency marred some of his time at Rutgers.
His strength allows him to hit an onrushing defensive player hard enough to slow him, and his balance allows him to reset in recover when he is overpowered.
Davis is able to adjust to an incoming defender as the player moves, allowing him to both block effectively on a run to the outside and slide out to cut off an edge rusher. His quickness and mobility allow him to get through to the second level quickly on a run as well as block effectively in space.
Davis' biggest issue is the aggression in his play—or really, lack thereof. However, a coach like Mike Singletary is just the guy to bring out the killer instinct in a player like Davis, whose natural physical abilities are top shelf. I believe we are seeing him closer to his floor than his ceiling.
As with Okung, the 49ers would get a physically gifted offensive lineman who will help shore up a line that was hurt in 2009 and has underperformed as a whole for far too long.
Haden is one of the top corners in the 2010 NFL Draft and with good reason.
A third-year junior, Haden is an instinctive defender with elite closing speed, a knack for reading the quarterback and an ability to break up a pass even from behind a receiver.
Haden is more than just a coverage corner though; he is willing and able to contribute to run defense and when doing so, is very effective. Not only is he able to close on a ball carrier quickly, Haden is able to avoid blockers and when he can't, force his way through their efforts.
Still a little raw, the Florida cornerback needs to work on his footwork, which is a little sloppy and allows him to be turned around by a wily receiver and at times slows his transition.
However, Haden is an incredibly competitive player which—tied to his physical abilities and current skill-set—should allow him to overcome any flaw and become a top notch corner, something the 49ers could use more of.
While a play-making corner isn't a top need, if the first tier of offensive tackles is gone and Haden is on the board, I could see Singletary taking one of the best players at the position in this draft.
Thomas, a third year sophomore, set the record for most interceptions by a defensive back at Texas at eight. That the record had stood since 1940 gives you an indication of how good Thomas could be. That two of those were run back for touchdowns gives you an idea of the type of big play ability he possess as well (those two touchdowns were also a Texas record).
Thomas isn't the biggest player at his position (5-10, 197 lbs), but he can read a receiver and cling to their routes with the best, which allows him to not only disrupt a pass but also on occasion intercept it.
While he may not be the most physically imposing player, he doesn't shy away from contact and compiled 149 tackles over his career at Texas.
Thomas has a natural way about his game which gives him an edge over others in this position class and helps him overcome his lack of experience. While he started 26 games over the last two seasons, he will be compared to seniors and juniors who often have three and in some cases four years as a starter.
Thomas is another player who fits in with the hard-working team-first concept Singletary is trying so hard to develop as a core identity for the 49ers. If the team hasn't grabbed a corner or safety with their first pick at 12, expect them to try and do so here if a talent like Thomas is available.
Dunlap is a player who seems to have thus far split experts on what he will achieve in the NFL.
On the one hand, there is the powerful bull rusher who can drive an offensive lineman backwards and help to collapse the pocket on an unsuspecting quarterback. A player who can pursue ball carriers relentlessly and close quickly on them from any distance while absorbing, then shedding blocks as he makes his tackles. Dunlap is also able to get his hands up and bat a pass away when he has closed on the quarterback.
The problem with Dunlap has been consistency. When he plays with aggression, he is a force, but all too often his effort flags from play to play. Also, his toolbox is currently a bit limited and he will have to add to his pass-rush skills in order to vary his attacks.
In my opinion, the strengths outweigh the flaws and while passion cannot be taught, it can be coaxed out (see Davis, Vernon) and focus can be learned. The 49ers need help rushing the quarterback and Dunlap can bring that pressure.
Kindle can play either linebacker or defensive end depending upon the scheme. Either way, what you're getting is an explosive player with a nose for the ball who makes big plays against both the run and pass.
Against the run, he is outstanding at containing an outside play and closing for a tackle regardless of whether the back is running towards or away from him. Kindle has an easier time with the secondary blocker—tight ends and fullbacks—while he occasionally struggles against linemen.
He is not prone to over-pursuit and rarely bites early, instead staying home and reading a play before reacting. When he reacts he does so swiftly, violently and effectively.
Kindle shows great explosiveness off the snap on pass plays, either closing quickly on the quarterback or dropping smoothly into coverage. When a pass is completed, he is quick to close on the receiver and deliver a punishing hit. While he hasn't played as much man-to-man, he is quick and athletic enough to overcome that and with time, should be effective.
Kindle's versatility is an intriguing addition to his value. Wherever he plays, he can make big plays, and that's something the 49ers could very much use.
At first glance, perhaps picking Best here might seem a waste. However, Best is a dynamic play-maker and not just in the ground attack.
His phenomenal speed, coupled with the ability to make tacklers miss and find cutback lanes are part of what makes him an effective kick and punt returner. While he was not used much (just once, actually) in the 2009 campaign, he was voted to the All Pac-10 first-team as a true freshman and led his conference in yards per kickoff return.
He has clearly proven in the past that he can excel in special teams and the 49ers have lacked a play-maker at that spot for a long time.
Best has some injury concerns he needs to prove are not valid. He also can be tackled too easily and needs to learn to run through arm tackles more consistently.
Those concerns may be enough to drop him into the second round if he does not overcome them during the Scouting Combine and his Pro Day.
If he falls, the 49ers should jump on him. While they don't desperately need a running back (they seem perfectly willing to roll with Gore/Coffee), his return ability will make him too good to pass up and he will still be able to contribute in the backfield.
Williams is coming off an exceptional 2009, one in which it seemed everything clicked for him at once.
His production in Monte Kiffin's defense jumped from 48 tackles to 70 and he compiled 2.5 sacks—up from 1.5 in 2008. Williams has very good quickness and athleticism which gives him great range.
He is able to get inside blockers when one on one and has the strength to force a lineman backwards into the quarterback. When he has leverage, he can stack and shed a blocker very effectively on his way towards a ball carrier.
The problem is, he doesn't get leverage consistently due to some bad technique. This results in plays where he is forced backwards or to the side and once that happens Williams struggles to recover, sometimes being pinned at the line while the play moves. His effort occasionally waxes and wanes as well, which may be due to some conditioning issues.
Williams has yet to reach his full potential though, and his technique and conditioning problems are ones that can be fixed. His upside is high, and if he can continue what he did in his senior year, he could be a major factor for the 49ers.
One of the hardest things every year is gauging where the wide receivers will go. By and large there will be as much—if not more—jockeying at the top of this position than almost anywhere else.
That said, however, there is a strong possibility that Tate will be here in the latter half of the second round.
Like with Jahvid Best, Tate does not fill a position of need with his primary role, that of wide receiver though he would add some needed depth to the position. Instead, it is his skills as a kick and punt returner which may be the biggest factor.
Of course his junior year stats—93 receptions, 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns—show that his upside is even greater. Tate has great hands, tremendous leaping ability and can make tough catches that are off the mark—something not uncommon with Alex Smith throwing the ball.
Even without elite speed, Tate has shown the ability to break a big play in both the return and receiving phases of the game. He doesn't go down easily and can gain a few extra yards after contact. His vision allows him to both find the seams when running back a kick and find space to gain yards after a reception.
Again though, all that is icing. Tate brings some good return skills to the table. While he did not amass tremendous yardage totals in part due to the lackluster play around him, he showed he was capable of the big punt return with an 87 yard punt return for a touchdown against the Pitt Panthers.
That's something the 49ers could really use.
Depending on what happens in the first round, it's possible that the 49ers will take a player early like Idaho's Mike Lupati to fill their need at guard.
It's more likely though that their pick will be directed elsewhere and the need for a guard will remain in the third round. I still think there will be multiple solid choices at this point and the best of these would be Asamoah.
Asamoah is a strong guard with very good mobility who can both hold the point of attack during both run and hold off bull and edge rushers. He explodes off the snap and even when caught off-balance, can recover very swiftly. He works well staying home on the line, but can be equally effective in the open field.
Asamoah might never be a huge Pro Bowl star, but he would develop into a solid guard and help anchor the 49ers offensive line for years to come.
Petrus is another flexible option who has moved around to several positions in his career, including fullback and tight end in addition to guard.
He is equally at home in pass protection and blocking for a run, whether on a perimeter run or inside.
Petrus is deceptively strong and can move and block defenders while not overpowering and dominating them. There is some concern that he couldn't duplicate this against some of the faster and bigger NFL defenders, and he would probably need to add some lower leg strength to truly move a defender and seal him off.
One other concern with Petrus is character. He was suspended for all of 2008 due to academic problems, and it may give some scouts pause as to whether he can put in the time and focus enough to make the transition from College to the Pros. As with several players in the past, Coach Singletary would be the sort of guy likely to reach someone like Petrus.
While not the best at the position, his athleticism, versatility (he also played special teams early in his college career) and upside make him an intriguing possibility in the third.
Johnson is a player who is solid but unspectacular, which may lead some to overlook him. He has the ability to hold his own against a single defensive player or to work in tandem with a teammate to negate blitzes and stunts. He also has good footwork and can lead effectively on inside runs.
Johnson can block on outside runs as well, though isn't as good at that. He also lacks the aggression and killer instinct that the best offensive linemen have, although he does occasionally over-reach and lunge too deeply, which ends with him falling off his man.
While he isn't a ruthless linemen, Johnson is pretty solid and would be a long-time contributor who might even be able to slide to a tackle position or center in a pinch.
Rolle is coming off a year where he didn't play football at all, having chosen the path of a Rhodes Scholar which took him to England, a country where football has a very different meaning.
His absence had some people dismissing his potential impact and marginalizing his skills. During last week's Senior Bowl practices, Rolle reminded onlookers what he was capable of and that he belonged.
There were some doubts that Rolle could cut it as a NFL safety, perhaps fitting better as a linebacker. However in Mobile, he showed that his coverage skills and footwork were better than advertised, and he often looked just as good as more highly touted safeties like USC's Taylor Mays. His technique was outstanding and by the end of the week, Rolle came away as one of the bigger surprises at the Senior Bowl.
Being a Rhodes Scholar shows a great deal of intelligence, and given that he looked to be in fantastic shape at the weigh-in and on the field, his work ethic is very clear as well.
While he may not be a ball-hawk, he's an incredibly hard worker with better than expected coverage skills and the ability to deliver a big hit. Rolle's stock is on the rise after Mobile, and he has moved from a late round pick to a good bet to go anywhere from the third to the fifth depending on his Combine and Pro Day. He could continue to rocket up draft charts with a good Scouting Combine and Pro Day.
If he's here though, he's the type of player who could thrive in Singletary's environment—smart, dedicated, driven and skilled.
This Virginia Tech safety is a bit raw but has great potential. He's willing to come up and support the run but doesn't have the technique to consistently make tackles though the hits he does deliver tend to be big. He doesn't fight through blocks and tends to let the runner come to him, rather than pursue and make plays.
His ability to read plays, however, is very good and he rarely gets fooled by a play-action and misdirection plays. His coverage skills are overall very good, and he is able to play man-to-man on both wide receivers and bigger tight ends.
Chancellor's transition skills are very good and he is able to shift and close in on a pass quickly, often being able to accelerate and get in front of a receiver to break up passes.
While he still needs to work on his run-support skills, his versatility (he could play free or strong safety pretty easily) and athleticism make him a good pick to help the 49ers secondary.
Dillard is an instinctive, tough player who has the ability to shed blocks, move through traffic and make tackles.
While he doesn't have elite speed and won't be winning track meets anytime soon, the fact is that track speed and speed in pads are two very different things—Dillard plays faster than his 40 time would indicate. This is in part because his ability to read plays gives him the edge to react quickly and make a play.
While not a great coverage linebacker, Dillard plays with the passion and aggression coaches love to see at the position and while he isn't amongst the elite at his position, he's the type of of player who the 49ers staff would get good productivity from for years to come.
Smith's skill set is more geared towards the pass rush than run defense, and his speed belies his size. He's a tough player who can uses a nice array of pass moves to penetrate and disrupt a pass play.
Even when he isn't able to get to the quarterback, will force the pocket to collapse, allowing a teammate to make the play. When he does close on the ball, Smith shows and extra intensity which results in a very good closing burst.
Smith is not as reliable against the run, though this is in part because he often found himself the victim of double teams. Beyond that, he tends to get too high and ends up being pushed backwards. Often he gets held up by blockers too long and he has to learn to move and shed them if he is to become reliable as a run defender.
A versatile player who could—depending on scheme—either line up as a defensive tackle or end, Smith is strong player who could end up being very productive if the team who drafts him can get him to play more consistently.
Woods is still a player who can develop, having not played on a consistent basis prior to his senior year. When he got his chance though, he made the most of it and ended on a very productive note.
Woods is a big lineman and is able to use his strength to either force a blocker aside or in some cases just drive him backwards. Despite his size, Woods also has very good quickness and has shown nice speed in closing on a ball carrier.
However, while Woods is quick, he lacks explosion off the snap and sometimes misses opportunities to shoot a gap because of it. He's also limited in his pass rush abilities and really just relies on his bull rush. He also needs to work on his awareness—too often, he gets caught by a side block and ridden down the line, effectively wiping him out of the play. Finally he has struggled to get good, consistent leverage, something which sometimes allows his impact to be minimized.
Many of these problems may be due to his limited playing time prior to his senior year and are things I believe can be improved upon. He's a project, but one with very good potential.
Neal has good overall athletic ability and a nice initial quickness which allows him to take advantage of any gaps in the line which he finds. He is also quick laterally, allowing him to move with a play when needed and can change directions easily as well.
His motor goes from snap to whistle and he works hard during the entire play. He has a strong frame and is able to knock a guard backwards while rushing a pass play.
Neal's biggest problem may be consistency (he disappears for several plays at a time) and some problems shedding blocks which may be due to arm-length. While consistency and dealing with blockers can be worked on, arm-length is what it is. If his arms are just average—or as is thought, below average—it may be something which could hold him back from being a special player.
However, Neal could develop into a solid starter or a part of a rotation at the position. The 49ers need depth in the defense, and if Neal can work out his consistency and blocker issues, he help shore up the defensive core.
If by some chance the 49ers did not acquire a returner earlier in the draft or in Free Agency, a sixth round flier on a player who can add to the return game would be the way to go.
It's hard to say where Johnson's stock would have been had he not had a serious accident while weight lifting on September 28th. Prior to that incident in which a weight bar crushed his neck and larynx, Johnson had been a successful and productive portion of the running back rotation USC used under head coach Pete Carroll the last few season.
Johnson is a tough and determined runner who is always looking for that extra yard and keeps his legs churning. He has very good vision and instincts, which allows him to find open lanes and space. He is also very patient when need be and isn't averse to waiting for blocks to develop rather than run past his would-be blockers.
He also has the agility to make tacklers miss when they penetrate the backfield and once he's in open space has the speed to make big plays.
Aside from the injury concerns due to his recovery, Johnson does tend to run too upright and sometimes must slow down in order to cut, sometimes taking too many small steps to do it. While he is fast, he isn't explosive and it takes him a few moments to reach top speed. Johnson has also not shown a willingness to deliver a big hit to a defender which sometimes results in not hitting the hole hard enough.
Still, if the 49ers are looking to upgrade their return game, Johnson can do that. His speed, agility and patience would be a boon to a return game which has struggled to have a big impact and his ability to break a big return would help the offense start of with much shorter fields than they did in 2009.
Lauvao played tackle as a senior, but for most of his college football career he was a guard. While he was adequate as a tackle, he's a better guard and it's likely that's where teams will consider him.
You can never have too much offensive line depth, and considering the shaky play of the guards for the 49ers in the past year, if they can find a gem in a later round it would be extremely helpful.
Lauvao is a big, tough player who can play with a mean streak and is able to drive a defensive lineman down the line and out of the play with a nice side block. He's not the most agile player and not a great athlete. Lauvao can occasionally slip into bad habits like leaning into his blocks too much or stopping his feet and being overcome by a second pass move because he's planted.
Some of these things could be corrected and at heart, Lauvao is a big strong aggressive guard who can chip defensive tackles and seal off linebackers, giving Alex Smith enough time to throw the ball.
Butler is the type of solid-yet-unspectacular player who sometimes gets lost in the masses at his position. The sort of consistent, quietly productive player who puts up good games but lacks the elite speed, athleticism and ability which catches the eyes of scouts and analysts.
This is not to say he isn't a very good player. Butler is an instinctive player who consistently reads plays correctly, closing on passes and breaking them up on a regular basis. He can also flip his hips easily and transition to turn and run with a wide receiver.
Butler's lack of speed and athleticism do have their downside though. He has a hard time recovering and catching up with a receiver who is able to gain separation and while he can flip his hips to transfer from forward from backpedaling, the backpedal itself is sloppy and could cause him to have problems with receivers as they come out of their breaks.
At this point in the draft, the risk picking Butler is minimal. If he can work out the kinks in his game, his instincts and coverage ability could allow him to become a productive corner-back. At worst, the team could switch him to safety so he can play the field in front of him and not be put in a position where he will get burned too often.
At this point in the draft a team is either looking for a long-shot prospect with tremendous upside or a player who will fit a very specific role. In Geer's case, he would be brought on almost solely to block.
It was in this capacity where Geer shone brightly in the recent East-West Shrine game. During that week, he showed the ability to block well both during passing and rushing drills. He definitely left a good impression on the scouts present.
As a bonus, Geer had some nice catches down the seam where he showcased steady hands. While likely never to be relied upon too much in the passing game as a receiver, knowing a team could do so is always helpful.
Geer is also a versatile player, having had some experience on special teams (specifically the field goal unit), something that will help him stick around in a camp longer. He could even conceivably shift to an H-back role in the NFL.
Teams can never have too many blockers and the 49ers are no exception. None of the tight ends on the team really fill that need exceptionally well. Geer could step right in at several spots on the team and contribute in some way quickly.
Byham was a blocking tight end for the Pittsburgh Panthers for three years and excelled in his role. It's really all a team can expect for him as he enters the NFL—some solid blocking along the line with decent skills when he gets to the second level or in the open field.
He is serviceable in receiving duties and tough to bring down due to size and toughness but isn't a great route runner, doesn't have great speed, doesn't separation off the line and isn't particularly elusive after the catch.
However, that isn't why the 49ers—or any team really—would bring him on. He'd be there to block for the most part and while he might never become a complete player, he could develop into a blocking tight end the team can rely on.
Tough would be the best word to describe Valentin, whether it's describing his fearlessness in making a hard catch in a crowd or his willingness to block down-field on a run play. He doesn't shy away from contact and is a very physical runner once he has the ball in his hands.
Is very aggressive when running the ball back on a return and has great vision and elusiveness during his returns. Valentin isn't about to go down on first contact either.
He lacks both the speed and burst off the line which scouts look for in a top receiver and will have problems getting separation of the line in the NFL. His route running must also get more polished.
Still, to be able to have another shot at a potentially good returner at this point in the draft would be a coup and if Valentin could work out his issues and become a No. 3 or possession wide receiver—that would be a bonus.
The clock is running. Over the course of the next three months, the landscape of the potential draft picks will vary wildly from week to week, even day to day.
As we sit here discussing this mock, the 49ers staff is already shifting players around on their "Big Board" based on the Shrine Game and the recently finished Senior Bowl. Shortly, they will be compiling notes on players from Texas vs The Nation and move those names on their board again. Then it's on to Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine and off across the country for an endless stream of Pro Days.
Draft season is a fluid, constantly shifting process with only one constant truth.
There really isn't an off-season in the NFL.