Unfortunately for Jim Harbaugh (and San Francisco 49er fans), the relocation package from college to pros for head coaches does not include a starting quarterback. If so, the Niners would have had their biggest concern settled long before draft day, where they enter with the seventh pick.
Coach Harbaugh considers Bill Walsh a guiding spirit, and his affinity for the legend might help shine some light on how the 49ers might attack not only QB question, but the draft itself.
When it came to the draft, Walsh had some first-round misfires (Terrence Flagler), but also some wonderful selections (that Jerry Rice guy). By the mid-1980s Walsh and personnel director John McVay knew they had a core of good players, they just needed to round out the roster. Harbaugh is in a similar position, but, unlike Walsh, he doesn’t have a future Hall of Famer behind center.
Trent Baalke, the new GM, has done a good job in his old post as personnel director of identifying first-round choices that stepped right in and played at a high level (Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis). But, it is also worth noting that in 2005, Baalke was the scout in charge of the West Region. That meant he saw plenty of Alex Smith, who the Niners made the first player taken overall.
That’s not to say that Baalke is in love with Smith, but the Niners are in an awkward position because No. 7 is too high for the quality of quarterbacks coming out (the top three being Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and Auburn’s Cam Newton). Any of these three will require two years of seasoning, and in a division for the taking, there’s no need to reach.
That leaves three first-round options:
By swapping places with another team, the Niners could slide down 10 or 12 spots in the first round but also gain another (second round?) pick to add more depth to the roster, which is why Walsh often traded down. That might eliminate the chance for any of the above QBs, so the selection becomes quarterback Jake Locker out of Washington.
Why: Locker has size (6'3"), speed and experience (three-year starter against pro-style coverage schemes in the Pac-10). Also, like Ben Roethlisberger, he can see over the rusher (something Alex Smith cannot do), and his maneuverability allows him to extend plays even when the protection has broken down.
Why Not: The one thing you need to be a top-notch NFL quarterback is accuracy. (Ex: Aaron Rodgers). Locker isn’t up to prime NFL standards but can develop. It just takes lots of reps in practice, like two or three years worth (Ex: Aaron Rodgers). Of course, the 49er Faithful might suffer group apoplexy for having to consider Alex Smith for another year.
Intangible: Harbaugh’s Stanford stint allowed him to see Locker up close for three years.
Both Prince Amukamara of Nebraska or Patrick Peterson of LSU have the physical capabilities to start tomorrow at cornerback, giving the 49ers defense the chance next season to lock up Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and DeSean Jackson.
Why: The killer stat for the Niners in 2010 wasn’t the middle-of-the-pack 19 points a game on offense or giving up 21 per. It was opponents converting on third down nearly four out of 10 times. Sack the QB, you say? Consider: The Green Bay Packers don’t have a dominating outside linebacker or pass-rushing defensive end, yet in their run through the playoffs they had constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They did it with schemes.
Why Not: The fans will scream for a quarterback.
Intangible: The Niners had 36 sacks in '10. Decent, but Amukamara and Peterson give new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio options to employ differing schemes much like Dom Capers did in Green Bay.
Trade the first-round choice to Philadelphia for quarterback Kevin Kolb, a proven starter familiar with the West Coast offense that Harbaugh will employ. Then sign Oakland Raider free-agent corner Nnamdi Asomugha, who, when healthy, can shut down the Amazon.
Why: The fallout from all the success in the 1980s and '90s is Niner fans regarding as their birthright a 31-6 lead midway through the third quarter. They love Harbaugh now, but a struggling offense will end the honeymoon fast.
Why Not: A first is too much for Kolb, who, once returned to health, couldn’t beat out Michael Vick. Also, Philly coach Andy Reid loves Kolb and, more importantly, feels he needs Kolb because, unlike Roethlisberger, Vick’s size means he is one hit from the infirmary. And Philly’s price might be higher than a first-round pick. Also, why sign a veteran cornerback when either Amukamara or Peterson could be just as good and also be around longer?
Intangible: Harbaugh has enough ego to fill Candlestick, and instinct says he’ll want to develop his own guys while—get this—turning Smith into a very good quarterback. He even said so the other day: “People say Alex needs a new place, a fresh start. OK, why can’t that be here?”
Let the screaming begin.