The San Francisco 49ers made headlines just a week before the draft, trading for disappointing top 10 pick and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr.
This morning they signed free agent linebacker Travis LaBoy, a member of the 2008 NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals.
Both these moves fill needs, but reflect a strange strategy toward balancing the draft and free agency/trades as a means of improving the team.
The need for return help and linebacker depth were certainly real, but they were among the lower priorities for the team approaching the 2010 regular season. Needs like offensive line, defensive back, pass rushing, and even running back and wide receiver depth are much more crucial.
It is odd then that the 49ers would attempt to fill their lower echelon needs with more known and proven players (veterans) and leave their biggest needs to be addressed in the draft.
The 49ers didn’t spend too much in either of these moves, but what do they mean for the draft?
The 49ers must look to defense, specifically defensive back, early, now that it appears this need will not be addressed by other means. There should be good talent available in the first round at 13 and/or 17 to fill this need.
The 49ers need to address their offensive line needs fairly early, with a player who can at least sub in for limited stretches right away. This does not necessarily mean that the No. 13 or No. 17 pick must be an offensive lineman, however, as the demographics of the draft suggest better value from the late first round through the third.
Whether the 49ers choose to address this by trading down or waiting until a later round remains to be seen. I for one hope they do not choose to reach at 17 for a player who is not worth first round money.
The addition of Ted Ginn Jr. gives the 49ers immediate potential in the return game. This means now more than ever that they should not look to add a C.J. Spiller or Javid Best, even if one is available in a logical spot. They are no longer in dire enough straights on special teams to justify the running back bottleneck that would create.
Travis LaBoy will certainly step in and compete for playing time with Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson. His career statistics suggest that he could help bolster what has been a disappointing pass rush in recent years, and he should be a good addition to core of outside linebackers that have been disappointing and injury-prone thus far in their careers (though LaBoy is coming off an injury that held him out all of 2009).
LaBoy’s signing probably precludes the 49ers from pursuing Rolando McClain, a popular pick in several recent mock drafts for San Francisco. The signing does not eliminate the need to bolster the pass rush, however.
The demographics suggest that waiting until later rounds and targeting the likes of Clifton Geathers would be the best approach, but there are some players in the early rounds that could fill this need as well. Whether the team addresses this need early or late, they certainly need to address it.
And what about quarterback?
Speculation surrounding the 49ers as draft day approaches is highest at the quarterback position. This is despite the February signing of free agent David Carr, despite the vote of confidence from every relevant team official that Alex Smith will be the starter, and despite the reports from initial team workouts that Alex Smith looks smoother and more confident than ever.
Draft experts as reputable as Todd McShay have toyed with the notion of the 49ers taking Jimmy Clausen or Tim Tebow in the draft. There are reports that the Steelers are shopping suspended starter Ben Roethlisberger to San Francisco, among other teams.
The 49ers passed on Donovan McNabb, who was perhaps the best option for bolstering their offensive production. That was the right move, and suggested they are confident in the Smith/Carr tandem. I doubt they will make the mistake of trading for Roethlisberger or drafting a marquee quarterback, which would virtually force them to part ways with Smith, Carr, or Davis.
If Alex Smith is their guy, they are set for 2010. Should Smith falter, they can plug in Carr and take their chances. Why bring in another player expecting to start and further hamper Smith’s potential emergence as a bona fide NFL starter?
Only time will tell what actually happens, luckily that time is now short at hand.
Keep the Faith!