The 49ers are on the precipice of ending their long playoff drought.
Coming off an 8-8 season where they discovered that quarterback Alex Smith's career just might be salvageable; that, with the proper coaching and motivation, tight end Vernon Davis could be at least as half as good as he thinks he is, and that rookie receiver Michael Crabtree wasn't just some spread offense gimmick, the offense, while being far from a finished product, at least looks like it's headed toward the right direction.
The defense, meanwhile, was aggressive and frisky, especially at home, and while they didn't force many three-and-outs, they did get opponents to cough the ball up at an alarming rate and produced a fairly consistent, multi-faceted pass rush that totaled 44 sacks despite no one having even as many as seven quarterback takedowns.
Mediocre teams the world over trot out the standard clichés about being "only one player away" from contention, but in the case of the 49ers, they really are a lot closer to being good than their detractors give them credit for.
All they need is one more playmaker on each side of the ball and to shore up the right side of their offensive line, and for Smith to take another step (or two) in his development and the 8-8 of 2009 could very reasonably turn to 10-6 or even 11-5 in 2010.
Last week we looked back at some of the Goofus and Gallant moments of 49ers drafts past, so here's a preview of sorts of five gentlemen general manager Scot McCloughan could very well target with his two mid-first round picks (13th and 16th) as well as some later round targets he might be interested in.
If he blows this draft it'll likely cost him his job and set the franchise back another five years, so you know, no pressure.
Far and away the biggest weakness the 49ers had last season was at right tackle, where "Plan C" Adam Snyder was forced to start all year after free agent signee Marvel Smith retired during training camp and Tony Pashos suffered a separated shoulder during his one and only start.
Snyder was a turnstile versus defenders on pass plays and provided little "oomph" for the run. He needs to be replaced. Russell Okung from Oklahoma State is the consensus top tackle in the draft, but he will be a top five pick. Besides Okung, Williams is the most polished tackle on the board.
Williams doesn't have ideal bulk or strength, but he does play with a mean streak, which is mandatory for an offensive lineman under coach Mike Singletary, and he is a smart and consistent player who should pick up the pro game quickly.
Davis is a more gifted athlete than Williams. He's bigger, stronger, and perhaps more explosive. He has the potential to be a true star player (for a tackle, anyway), whereas Williams figures to be a solid red-chip type starter.
However, Davis, a junior, is not as experienced as Williams is, his technique isn't as refined, and while he's a dominating pass protector, he's been inconsistent in the run game, prone to too much lunging and not always using his strength as effectively as he should.
Davis is too gifted to be a bust in the pros, but it will take time for him to develop and one wonders if Singletary and the 49ers have the patience to wait for a tackle who won't be very good for a year or two.
63 tackles, eight interceptions, 149 return yards, two touchdowns, one forced fumble
Strong safety Michael Lewis is a good in-the-box run stopper, but he's long been a liability in coverage. Also, he suffered three separate concussions last year and he's going to be 30 years old entering training camp.
It would make boatloads of sense for the 49ers to draft Thomas, who is a decade younger than Lewis, and groom him to be a ball hawk in their secondary for the next 10 years. They could even let Lewis stick around and play him on run downs and bring the inexperienced (played only two years of college ball) Thomas along slowly, starting him off in nickel packages.
Obviously Thomas is far from a finished product, but 10 interceptions in two seasons playing in a conference loaded with good quarterbacks is a statistic that's hard to ignore. He clearly has a nose for the ball and good instincts to go with elite athleticism.
Thomas is still a step below Tennessee's Eric Berry as far as the safety hierarchy goes, but he's leapfrogged USC's Taylor Mays, who has better measurables but doesn't make nearly as many plays.
216 carries, 1,212 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns
36 receptions, 503 yards, 14.0 yards per reception, four touchdowns
23 kickoff returns, 755 return yards, 32.8 yards per return, one touchdown
Eight punt returns, 210 return yards, 26.3 yards per return, one touchdown
On the surface this seems like a bit of a fantasy pick.
After all, the Niners already have the superlative Frank Gore at running back, and at 26 years of age, he's got plenty of tread left on his tires. Plus the drafting of Spiller would be a signal from management that they wasted last year's third round pick on RB Glen Coffee (which they did).
Spiller though, is too much of a talent to pass up on. He simply does too many things too well to not be an asset for the 49ers or whoever else will be lucky enough to draft him.
Practically every NFL team worth its salt uses a two back system now anyway, and having Spiller on board would give San Francisco another dynamic playmaker, a supreme third down back, and a guy who's a threat to take it the distance with every touch.
Coffee is, simply put, not that guy.
Also, Spiller would improve the team's disastrous return game immediately and would be invaluable in improving the offense's field position game in and game out. The electric Spiller led the country in average yards per kick return and would've led in punt returns too if he had enough attempts to qualify.
What kind of impact could Spiller have? Think Reggie Bush, without the fumbles and the Kardashians.
34 tackles, nine sacks
Of all the premiere defensive ends in this draft, Dunlap is the only one big enough to play in a 3-4 defense, which the 49ers use. Though his size and skills are still more ideal for a 4-3, Dunlap's stout enough versus the run that he wouldn't have to convert to an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.
The 49ers could use an upgrade from end Isaac Sopoaga who is a fine run stopper but is a complete non-factor as far as being a pass rusher. Dunlap would give the team a bookend to Justin Smith and free up the linebackers to make even more plays.
Character is a concern with Dunlap as he was pulled over for a DWI, forcing him to miss the SEC Championship Game against Alabama this year, but if Singletary decides that Dunlap is worth the risk, the ex-Gator could bring back the "elephant" position on pass downs to the 49ers defense that Charles Haley made so popular a generation ago.
Players of Interest for Round Two or Lower
87 receptions, 1,191 yards, 13.7 yards per reception, 11 touchdowns
42 kickoff returns, 1,281 return yards, 30.5 yards per return, two touchdowns
16 punt returns, 202 yards, 12.6 yards per return, one touchdown
Wide receiver isn't a pressing need for the Niners like it was a season ago, but Gilyard would be the perfect slot guy for this offense if he was still around for their second round pick.
Not only is he a polished route runner who can work equally well inside and outside, but Gilyard is also a dual threat in the return game, where he was fifth in the country in kick return average and 17th in punt return average.
49 tackles, one interception, 79 return yards
Jackson's cornerback teammate Javier Arenas is more celebrated among the national media and is more of a playmaker, but Jackson was actually the steadier performer last season for the national champions.
Corners with size are coveted in the NFC West, where one has to face tall receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin with the Cardinals and T.J. Houshmandzadeh with the Seahawks, and bringing Jackson into the fold would give the 49ers another tall guy to compliment Shawntae Spencer.
46 receptions, 1,154 yards, 25.1 yards per reception, eight touchdowns
Thomas would give the 49ers a much needed deep threat, as well as a receiver who could be a major red zone target on fade routes.
He's still pretty raw, but Thomas showed impressive breakaway speed, good run-after-catch ability, and he was pretty consistent throughout the year, recording at least one 35-yard or longer reception in 11 of his 13 games, despite having to play with very mediocre quarterbacks.
For sure he's got an NFL body, and his physique is reminiscent of Owens or Boldin, or even Calvin Johnson, who also played at Georgia Tech.
70 tackles, five interceptions, 25 return yards, five sacks
19 kickoff returns, 551 return yards, 29.0 yards per return
32 punt returns, 493 yards, 15.4 yards per return, one touchdown
Arenas is more of a gambler than his teammate Jackson, and he gave up a big play now and again during the 2009 season, but he saved his best for last, coming up with a big end zone interception in the SEC Championship Game against Florida and two more picks in the National Championship Game against Texas.
Arenas doesn't have ideal height or speed, but he's got good ball skills and showed himself to be an excellent blitzer off the edge, collecting five sacks to go along with his five interceptions.
Perhaps where Arenas distinguishes himself most though is in the return game, where he was eighth in the country in kickoff return average and fourth in punt return average.
96 carries, 461 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, two touchdowns, 25 receptions, 222 yards, 8.9 yards per reception
Far too often last season fullback Moran Norris was a lead anchor, dragging down the 49ers offense.
Whenever he was in the game opponents knew a run to Gore was in the offing, as Norris is too one-dimensional and plodding to be much of a factor in the pass game.
Drafting Jackson in the middle rounds would do for the 49ers what the acquisition of free agent Leonard Weaver did for the Eagles, because like Weaver, Jackson is a triple threat who can run, catch, and block.
Jackson would be a valuable outlet receiver for Smith, a young battering ram for Gore, and he could even be lined up as a half back to pick up tough yards on 3rd-and-short to save Gore the pounding.
Three Highly Rated Guys I'd Avoid
Iupati may be the most athletic guard in the draft, but he's far too sloppy for my liking. He was lunging and grabbing far too much in the Senior Bowl and got beat quite a bit. It could be that he just dominated against inferior competition in the WAC.
181 carries, 1,169 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, eight touchdowns, 44 receptions, 520 yards, 11.8 yards per reception, three touchdowns
McCluster's variety of skills may be reminiscent of Bush, or if you go back an era someone like Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett, but he has a propensity to put the ball on the ground and his size may not translate to this level.
42 tackles, three interceptions, 98 return yards, two touchdowns, one sack
Like Iupati, Wilson didn't play against too many studs while at Boise State and his average height means he wouldn't offer the 49ers anything more than what they already have with Tarell Brown.
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