NFL Draft 2011: Jim Harbaugh's Sights Set on San Francisco 49ers Needs
The 49ers needs are mostly obvious, but things aren't always what they seem.
In a year in which the CBA has ground free agency and trades to a halt, the draft has started to seem more and more important for clubs looking to fill holes on their teams.
San Francisco boasts a new head coach, and thus a new system that players will need adapt to as quickly as possible.
Their passing game and passing defense are the 49ers' biggest concerns currently. Still, other positions could certainly use some more depth. Additionally, Harbaugh's new schemes might warrant very specific talents at certain positions.
Assuming the lockout doesn't last into next season and a free-agent signing period eventually takes place, many of these holes can be filled (and would be better filled) by experienced veterans.
In the meantime, the draft is the league's only certainty, and it's coming up on the calendar very quickly.
For an updated opinion on the possible effect of the court-ordered lifting of the lockout, follow this link.
The 49ers need a quarterback. This is not a secret.
David Carr is the only quarterback currently on the roster. Alex Smith is 50-50 to return next year (either he does, or he doesn't) and if he is back under center in 2011, any success he has will be to the (pleasant) surprise of a vast majority of fans.
The big question remains: How soon will they take a passer?
Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton are probably the only quarterbacks worth taking should they fall to the seventh spot. Nevertheless, plenty of decent-looking talent will be around in middle rounds.
There has been a hole in the secondary for quite some time now.
Nate Clements is one of the highest-paid players on the team, and he's underperformed in recent years. The going appraisal is that Clements needs to restructure his contract, and likely move to safety. Although his explosive route jumping can lead to big plays, it can also be a liability when he misses.
Shawntae Spencer is another corner they have who has been inconsistent. His salary is a fraction of Clements' scheduled 2011 paycheck, but he hasn't exactly played at an elite level.
Now it may be that the schemes San Francisco used last season were simply too lame to use these guys effectively, but the 49ers have not had an elite secondary since the 1990s.
There are two corners worth taking in the top 10 picks, and there are a large number of defensive backs later with NFL caliber potential.
Pass Rushing OLB.
Whether it's been Aaron Rogers, Kyle Orton, Phillip Rivers, or Kevin Kolb, opposing passers have been given too long to throw the ball. Way too long.
It's well argued that much of the seeming incompetence of the defensive backs could actually be blamed on the timid pass rush.
Manny Lawson, a former first-round pick himself, would all too often get to the quarterback just a split second after the pass. The tardiness has hardly been late enough to draw a flag, but passes were completed when there could have been a sack or a hit to cause an errant throw.
In fairness, Lawson was one of the better covering outside linebackers, and improved blitz schemes could possibly make up for that split second of sluggishness. There are, however, a healthy group of players who could seriously aid San Francisco in this area.
Eventually, free agency may also potentially decimate the number of outside linebackers on the roster. Lawson, as well asTakeo Spikes and Travis LaBoy are currently in free-agent limbo.
While the 49ers do have two first-round picks at tackle in Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, neither player is a lock for success.
Davis went through the Mike Singletary fire last year, and has probably come out a much stronger man and player. But he was often beaten off the line by opposing veterans and his youth was a liability for their quarterbacks at times.
Joe Staley often plays on par with the best left tackles in the business. Injuries to his lower body have caused him to miss games in the last two seasons.
Now this isn't a first-round need, especially considering the lack of blue-chip tackles this year. There are, however, several rookies who could fall to the second—and later—rounds.
As Roger Craig told me a year ago: "You can never have enough linemen, offensively or defensively."
The 49ers running backs coach is a bit of a legend: Tom Rathman was a do-it-all back for some of the 49ers' greatest seasons.
Moran Norris is a fairly solid fullback. He blocks well, runs all right every once in a while and catches (or drops) passes like a fullback would be expected to.
Norris is 32 years old and playing a young man's position. He's also in a contract year.
Fullbacks aren't typically high-round targets, and they aren't "sexy" draft selections. A solid blocking back is a must-have for any franchise moving forward.
A Big-Target Wide Receiver
The 49ers probably aren't ready to give up on Michael Crabtree. Most of their other receivers flash useful skills from time to time, too, but there's not been a large presence in the pass-catching department aside from Vernon Davis.
And aside from Vernon Davis (and possibly Nate Byham) the 49ers have relatively small-stature targets for whoever the quarterback ends up being.
This draft contains a very healthy number of receivers with lofty abilities, but it's also likely that an athletic tight end (like Virgil Green) could be utilized as jump-ball talent as well.
A WCO Running Back
When Frank Gore went out last season, it became obvious that Brian Westbrook had been severely underused. It also seemed to indicate that Frank Gore was getting overused, and that his health had likely been compromised by getting too many (predictable) carries.
Anthony Dixon is a fun (and big) back who works best in space, and should get better with seasoning. He's got a nose for the end zone, but doesn't hide as well behind blocks.
There are several running backs worth looking at this year, many of whom can catch, run and block just fine.
More Defensive Lineman
Outside linebacker is not the only way to improve pressure. Justin Smith is a beast at end, and although Issac Sopoaga has been adequate on the line, another monster in there could help SF massacre the line of scrimmage.
San Francisco indeed has some good players on the defensive line, but more is better.
Aubrayo Franklin is a free agent, as are Ray McDonald and Demetric Evans. Whether they return or not will wait to be seen. In the meantime, the 49ers have Justin Smith, Ricky Jean Francois, Issac Sopoaga, and Will Tukuafu.
This year has a plethora of talented defensive linemen at various rounds in the draft. Whether they stick to a pure 3-4 defense or look at a 4-3/3-4 hybrid system, they're going to want some more big bodies on the line.
A Strong-Legged Kicker
Joe Nedney is a hometown boy with tremendous heart and attitude. Nedney is also 38 years old.
While a rookie doesn't bring the experience of a veteran kicker, a strong, young leg will be an asset in 2011, when the kickoff rules will change to encourage more touchbacks.
And you never know, the kicker you draft might just turn out to have ice water in his veins.
Before you ask: That's Ryan Bartholomew (70) right there, who posted 34 bench reps and a 4.93 40 time at the combine.
We all want Chilo Rachal to take a giant step at guard. We want Eric Heitmann to comeback strong and be healthy all year. And we probably want David Baas to stick around a little while longer.
But what are the odds here? Nothing about these guys is really guaranteed, and developing a little more youth in the interior o-line could be a smart investment.
New System Plus CBA Debacle Dictate Need Priorities
Because Jim Harbaugh has suddenly been given a seemingly insurmountable task this year, the draft is of particular interest to 49ers fans.
Trying to install a new system with a quarterback shortage and no real way to talk to players could prove hazardous to San Francisco.
The draft is an event in which many clubs have to put their cards on the table. They select in accordance with need, and their weaknesses are often exposed, although such needs may be obvious already.
The decisions will of course be dependent on player availability when the selections happen, but don't think Baalke and Harbaugh haven't already trained their cross hairs on several players in particular. The draft is so close, you can almost touch it.