The 49ers are coming off their first non-losing season since 2002. This modest measure of success has a fan base hungry for a return to prior glories. They're cautiously optimistic that this could be the year the team finally breaks through.
Head coach Mike Singletary has achieved rock star status in the Bay Area. After several “false starts” toward the resurgence of the franchise, 2009 was the first year in over a decade to see the 49ers actually improve on a 7-9 record from the year before.
The team’s success could have been much greater in 2009 if not for a few untimely miscues, questionable calls and the heroics of Brett Favre and Vince Young.
These tantalizing thoughts of what could have been are setting the expectations much higher for 2010, making the upcoming season one of the most important barometers for the state of the franchise in a long while.
Given that, what do the 49ers need to do to ensure they continue to march in the right direction?
That’s not entirely clear.
Nobody will know the true extent of the 49ers’ draft needs (though some areas are essentially locks) until the free agent signing period plays out a little further.
The 49ers made some headlines with the signing of David Carr but still have some decisions to make on players to retain and whether to bring anyone else in.
Last year, the players on the roster seemed to buy into Coach Singletary's system. That should bode well for the team’s chances to hold onto key cogs like Barry Sims and Dre’ Bly.
Assuming that happens, where does that place the 49ers come April 22nd?
At this point, I could drone on ad nauseam, breaking down every potential prospect the 49ers could select in each of the seven rounds, and why each would or would not be a good choice.
I could debate whether C.J. Spiller is going to fall to the 49ers at No. 13 or Zno. 17 and spend so much time replying to specific fan comments on the article’s message board that I would probably lose my real job.
Fear not, I have decided to spare us that exercise.
To be honest, I really do not see any particular player or pick as a make-or-break issue in this draft for the 49ers. Rather, the biggest potential blunders lie in making relatively broad decisions on draft posture, preparation and approach.
Blunder No. 1: Failing to take advantage of two mid-first-round picks
This could include a variety of potential scenarios.
The most obvious manifestation would be packaging the two picks to move up. Chances are that bundling a 13th and 17th in the first round will not get you all that far.
There is virtually no way such a move could land the 49ers in the top five, and baring a moment of “genius” by Al Davis, it would be unlikely to even get them into the top 10.
Even if it could, there is little out there in this year’s draft field worth the 49ers investing top 10 money.
Ndamukong Suh would unquestionably be a major boon to a pass rush that has been less-than-stellar since before the retirement of the legendary Bryant Young.
But the chances of Suh slipping past No. 3, or conversely the 49ers getting that high without packaging Vernon Davis or Frank Gore with both their Round One picks, are slim to none.
Given that, a move up would be a wasted effort.
Packaging the picks to move down could be just as foolish. The 49ers have needs, but they are far from being riddled with holes like some of the early Bill Walsh-era teams, which one year led the coaching legend to trade completely out of the first round.
Barring the perfect deal for a proven veteran who could undoubtedly fill a critical need, the 49ers should keep the No. 13 and 17 picks.
Having two mid-first-round selections allows the 49ers the unique flexibility to address key needs early with quality players. But even if they keep both picks, they could still make a costly error.
Blunder No. 2 - Overinvestment
I have never been a fan of drafting non-skill position players in the first round, and the demographics of this year’s draft make that even more true than usual.
I know the 49ers need to address offensive line depth, regardless of retention or loss of Barry Sims. But the first round is not the place to do that, even with two picks.
There are plenty of talented linemen projected in the second and third rounds, especially at tackle.
Knowing that, why allocate a first round pick and the associated money on a lineman, when you could likely get better value by waiting?
The 49ers proved in 2003 that drafting an offensive lineman in the first round could backfire. Remember a guy named Kwame Harris?
Another avenue for overinvestment could arise if the 49ers allow the local media to affect their grading of area college stars.
The potential of bringing in a new halfback to complement the current stable of Frank Gore and Glen Coffee is intriguing. The argument being that despite their upsides, injuries could prove problematic.
I have yet to be sold one way or another on this issue, but one thing is certain. The 49ers could do themselves serious long-term harm by letting the local popularity of a Toby Gerhart or Jahvid Best talk them into reaching for such a back.
I’m not saying the 49ers would be wrong to draft either player under any circumstance. If the right situation presents itself, take fullest advantage. Just don’t let local pressures overinflate the true value these players bring to the table.
Blunder No. 3 – Failing to address needs appropriately
The best drafts are a combination of immediate role players and longer-term development projects. The 49ers need to ensure they understand their current situation and draft appropriately.
The key for the 49ers is the need to improve on the progress made in 2009. Therefore, the bulk of their investments need to be in players who can step in and fill roles right away.
Obviously, one can hardly expect any rookie (except apparently Patrick Willis) to step in and perform at Pro Bowl levels, but the focus in the early rounds needs to be on addressing skill players with the biggest immediate upside.
Longer-term development projects can be considered in later rounds, where dollar amounts are down, and risk is lower.
Blunder No. 4 – Not another Crabtree
First of all, calm down. I will not say anything bad about Crabtree, nor will I make the fruitless argument that the 49ers should have considered repeating Al Davis’s “brilliance” of passing on him in the first round last year.
There is no reason to believe that he will be anything less than well above average to potentially great as he continues to mature in the league.
My argument here is that the 49ers need to make sure they know what they are getting themselves into with any potential pick, but particularly high-profile ones.
Maybe better homework could have helped allay Days of Our Crabtrees last summer and fall, maybe not. That does not really matter.
The point is if the situation were to repeat itself, there would suddenly be major questions surrounding the 49ers ability to negotiate with and sign high-caliber draft picks.
The 49ers need to be more proactive and tactful in their salary negotiations with any big ticket name from now on. Another prolonged holdout by a college star could drum up more than a little bad publicity and hamper the team’s chances of successful in future dealings.
If the 49ers develop a reputation for having trouble locking down their draft picks, it opens the door for media ridicule and could eventually scare off potential free agents.
They need to be smart about this.
Having said all that, I was pretty impressed with Coach Singletary's first draft last year (Crabtree saga notwithstanding).
The “immediate” contributions of Crabtree (once he finally signed), combined with the upsides of Nate Davis and Glen Coffee, seem to suggest keen scouting and evaluation capabilities.
If the 49ers can build on that draft strategy this year, we could be in for big things in 2010. Keep the Faith.