Okay, I know a lot of you are probably thinking it is way too early to start thinking about the 2011 NFL Draft, but is it really?
If you’re like me, you wait until February or March rolls around and start researching players. I thought it would be much more prudent (to borrow a word from George Bush Sr.) to identify players that the 49ers might have an interest in, and follow their development throughout the season.
So how do we identify players the team might be interested in? That can be tricky, but I think we can narrow it down to the three areas that the team didn’t address in the last draft, corner-back, quarterback, and defensive line.
The corner-back position is one where you just can’t have too many good players. Look at the New York Jets. They have the best in the business in Darrelle Revis, they traded for Antonio Cromartie, and then they took Kyle Wilson with their first round draft pick in the 2010 draft.
Whether or not Nate Clements will return to Pro-Bowl form this year is anybody’s guess. Shawntae Spencer is a certainly a decent corner-back, but still not what you would consider and NFL elite shut-down corner.
Behind these two are, third-year man Terrell Brown, seventh round draft pick Phillip Adams, and the veteran, Will James (Tramaine Brock was released earlier this week to clear a roster spot for Jason Hill and then re-signed to the practice squad).
Brown has shown flashes of talent, but is still at best a nickel-back. The rookie, Adams, is talented, but still raw and needs time to develop.
The chances of the team using an early round pick on a corner-back seem to be extremely high, and at this point it looks like a strong draft at corner in the early rounds.
So keep your eyes on these guys throughout the season:
Prince Amukamara, Nebraska 6’0” 203 lbs (We’re going to party like it’s 1999 of we land Prince, or is it Dec 21, 2012 now?)
Ras-I Dowling, Virginia 6’1 1/2” 201 lbs. (Needs to buy a vowel)
Janoris Jenkins, Florida 5’11” 189 lbs. (Arrested and tasered in 2009 for fighting)
Patrick Peterson, LSU 6’ 1” 211 lbs. (Related to Bryant McFadden, Sinorice Moss and Santana Moss)
Brandon Harris, Miami 5’ 10 1/2” 193 lbs. (Just a junior)
Aaron Williams, Texas 6’ 1” 195 (Another Longhorn corner?)
The quarterback position is probably the biggest question with this team going forward. Alex Smith is on a one-year contract and unless he has a break-through season (which seems unlikely) chances are the team will not re-sign him.
The guys behind him are David Carr and Troy Smith. Either of these guys could be called upon to get the team through a season while developing a young quarterback, but neither will lead the team for very long.
This leads us to The Curious Case of Nate Davis. Davis, who is now on the practice squad, has all the ability in the world. But he has yet to gain the coaches trust by working hard and learning the playbook in toto.
The Cardinals jettisoned Matt Leinart, leaving them with the unpredictable Derek Anderson.
Matt Hasselback has shown he can still play at a high level, but the oft injured quarterback is getting a bit long in the tooth.
The 49ers are almost forced to select a quarterback in the draft. However, it they want to land one of the two highest regarded prospects (Jake Locker and Andrew Luck), they more than likely will have to engineer a trade to pull it off.
The quarterbacks expected to go in the first round are:
Jake Locker, Washington 6’3” 225 lbs. (Has taken a beating, but tough as they come)
Andrew Luck, Stanford 6’4” 235 lbs. (Junior—Bay Area Favorite)
Ryan Mallet, Arkansas 6’7” 238 lbs. (Sorry, no hammer jokes here!)
Chris Ponder, Florida State 6’3” 227 lbs. (The wild card?)
The defensive line may not seem to be an immediate need at first glance, but you have to consider several important factors:
1. Aubrayo Franklin is in all likelihood, gone after this season.
Franklin was designated the team’s Franchise player and after a brief hold out, he signed his one-year tender. Speculation had been that the team was afraid to offer Franklin a multi-year deal with a possible lock-out looming in 2011.
That theory was put to rest when the team extended both Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis lucrative multi-year contracts.
With the New York Jets hell bent on winning a Super Bowl this year, it would have been interesting to see what they would have given up for Franklin had he continued to hold out.
When the Jet’s nose tackle, Kris Jenkins was lost for the season in the Monday night game, the speculation began that they might trade for the Washington Redskin’s disgruntled Albert Haynesworth. But the main reason Haynesworth is ticked off is that he does not want to play nose tackle and he maintains that he really isn’t built for that position. Quite frankly he is right. So why would the Jets trade for him?
That speculation was put to rest when the Jets quickly signed Howard Green who played in 12 games for them last year.
If Green should falter, should the 49ers entertain trade offers for Franklin? Hmm.
2. Depth is an issue.
After Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga, and Justin Smith, the team has Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean Francois and Demetric Evans on the active roster.
As well as Franklin, McDonald and Evans will be free agents at the end of this season, and Sopoaga’s and Jean Francois’ contracts will be up the following year. There is just no way the team can re-sign all of them.
3. The need for an all-around defensive lineman that can bring the heat.
Sopoaga and McDonald have had their moments, but for this team’s defense to move to the next level, they really need an upgrade at left defensive tackle.
To stop the run, the 49ers use large lineman to clog the middle to allow the linebackers to make tackles. Although this approach is great for the run defense, it does not always allow for an ideal amount of pressure on the quarterback, and pressure on the quarterback is a good thing.
Of course I am a bit biased here as well, because my personal favorite in this draft is Cameron Heyward out of Ohio State. His bio reads like the quintessential Mike Singletary pick, “Strong work ethic and ability to dominate. Deflects praise to his team mates.”
I could go on, but I prefer to leave that for an upcoming article where I will take a closer look at each of these players by position. I will offer more useful information on each pick, less bad jokes, and look at how each of these guys might fit in with the 49ers.
But for now here are the rest of the top-rated linemen anticipated to be available in next year’s draft:
Marcell Dareus, Alabama 6’3” 303 lbs (projects as a DT, but is a strong pass rusher)
Allen Bailey, Miami 6’4” 287 lbs (better suited for the 4-3?)
Marvin Austin, North Carolina 6’3” 303 lbs (the antithesis of Heyward- lacks consistency and drive)
Cameron Heyward, Ohio State 6’6” 287lbs (son of the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward)
Adrian Clayborn, Iowa 6’3” 285 lbs (punched a cab driver in 2009)