2011 NFL Draft: Is Patrick Peterson Make or Break for the San Francisco 49ers?

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2011 NFL Draft: Is Patrick Peterson Make or Break for the San Francisco 49ers?
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Patrick Peterson could be a great addition to the San Francisco 49ers, but how much is too much when it comes to pursuing him?

In the wake of the NFL Scouting Combine, there has been a lot of buzz around the San Francisco 49ers with No. 7 pick, and more than a few rumors tying them to LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

The logic is obvious. The 49ers possess a truly glaring need in the secondary, which was arguably their weakest point last season, despite quarterback play that was dismal at times. The case against taking a QB at No. 7 has been concretely established and rehashed, which leaves the 49ers to address a key defensive need with the No. 7 overall pick.

The 49ers have deep need for improvement both in the secondary and the pass rush, and there several top-notch options in the early first round who could fill either hole. However, secondary help makes more sense due to the fact that an upgrade of personnel could have a more global effect on the play of the defense as a unit.

Part of the problem with the pass rush in recent years has actually been the secondary. They have been such a liability that it has prevented defensive coordinators from employing more aggressive pass-pursuit packages, needing to hold enough defenders back to neutralize the passing threat over the top. If the 49ers upgrade the pass rush personnel, it might improve marginally, but if they upgrade the secondary, things could improve much more dramatically.

Having established that defensive back is the optimal choice at No. 7, Patrick Peterson is the logical target. He is a physical stud, with ample size, speed, and strength and is also perhaps the most polished and NFL-ready player in the upcoming draft, bar none.

The only questions remaining are will he fall to No. 7 and if he does not, what should the 49ers do?

With regards to the first question, a surprising number of mock drafts have Peterson falling to the 49ers at their current position. This is certainly possible, especially if Carolina goes after a pass-rusher—setting the tone for those to follow—and Buffalo takes the chance on Cameron Newton that many expect them to. In that scenario, Da'Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley, Robert Quinn, Cam Newton, AJ Green, and Von Miller could come off the board in the No. 1 through No. 6 spots, leaving Peterson for the 49ers.

However, Peterson had a very impressive performance at the combine. While he failed to meet his self-imposed goal of a sub-4.3 40-yard dash time, his 4.34 was still good enough for second among DBs and overall. More importantly, he shined in positional drills, showing good footwork, impressive acceleration, and keen instincts for the ball.

Peterson's combine portfolio was impressive enough to elevate him to the very top of Mel Kiper Jr's "Big Board," and a comparison of his measurable to those of fellow Top 10 hopeful DB Prince Amukamara show that there is legitimate separation to consider (something that was in question in the preceding months). Therefore, what if Peterson stands to be gone in the Top 5?

The answer really depends on how high Peterson looks poised to go. There is legitimate separation between Peterson and Amukamara, but is the rift large enough to justify a pricey trade up to secure the former when the latter is almost guaranteed to last to No. 7? Probably not.

Peterson is still rightfully in the conversation to join the Carolina Panthers as the No. 1 overall pick, and moving up even a couple spots that early in the first round can be extremely costly. If, however, Peterson looks likely to fall to the No. 4-No. 5 spot, and the 49ers can move up for some combination of third-and-later round draft picks, the difference between Peterson and Amukamara could justify the move.

If it were any more expensive, the 49ers would be better suited staying put and simply taking Amukamara.

In the highly unlikely event that both are gone by No. 7, the 49ers might strongly consider trading down. There could be a variety of teams interested in moving into the Top 10, and one or more might be willing to make the 49ers a very enticing deal. The 49ers could gain something very significant by a simple move to the middle or late first round or even out of the first round completely. Depending on where they land, they could wind up targeting the likes of Akeem Ayers or Ras-I Dowling—or even a player like Michael Pouncey.

Taking an offensive lineman would be an overinvestment in the Top 10, but if they gained an extra second-round pick to fall back to the late first round, it could suddenly make a lot more sense. Of course, any move backward would depend on who was left at No. 7.

If the early selections of both top DBs displaced Von Miller, Nick Fairley, Da'Quan Bowers, or Robert Quinn to No. 7, it might be too good to pass up. Even AJ Green could be worth a look.

In the end Peterson is a fantastic prospect, and would make a very valuable addition to the 49ers' defense. He is not, however, the singular piece that will make this team a success (as some have claimed) and an over-aggressive pursuit of him could break the bank, leaving the 49ers scuffling to fill other key needs.

The 49ers should target Peterson on Draft Day, but having to "settle" for Amukamara would not be a bad outcome either.

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