The 2011 NFL Draft Is Critically Important for Jim Harbaugh
I wonder if new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had any idea what he was getting himself into when he left Stanford. He could have stayed at Stanford and had a top 10 team with Andrew Luck, the top QB in the nation.
Instead, Harbaugh chose to come to the 49ers and he is looking forward to installing his complex offensive system and getting the 49ers back on track. Unfortunately, the labor strife and resultant lockout has thrown a wrench in Harbaugh's plans.
The only personnel business the 49ers coach has been able to focus on is the upcoming NFL Draft. It is imperative for Harbaugh that he and the 49ers hit it big with the draft this year.
The 49ers need help in several areas, but their top three concerns are pass rusher, cornerback and quarterback.
There is the potential for several quarterbacks in this draft to develop into top players. The top quarterbacks are Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick.
However, none of these players are ready to step right in and there is a big risk taking a quarterback with your first-round pick. If the Niners can select one of these signal callers with their third-round pick, I'm fine with that, but the team needs to address other weaknesses before speculating on a quarterback.
The 49ers need to make it a top priority to strengthen their defense with their first selection. Let's take a look at 10 very solid options. In addition, the more offensive players selected in the top six, the better it is for the 49ers.
Normally, I would leave the best player for last on the list, but in this instance, it makes more sense to list the top options first and check them off if they are selected before the 49ers' pick.
Von Miller Attacks Another QB
The San Francisco 49ers can definitely use a strong pass rusher on the outside. Von Miller from Texas A&M fills the bill. He would make an immediate impact as a pass rusher for the 49ers. Miller had 27 sacks over his last two seasons at Texas A&M.
Miller has excellent speed and a good burst off the line, which is needed at this position. He also shows good instincts and intelligence to go along with his athleticism. He was the Dick Butkus Award winner as the top linebacker in college football.
Miller is an ideal fit for the 49ers and could step right in to the pass-rushing linebacker spot. In 2010, the 49ers used Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy at this spot with inconsistent results.
I listed Miller first because a strong pass rush can help hide weaknesses in the defensive secondary. However, no defensive back can consistently cover NFL receivers for five or six seconds. In order to be a top defense in today's NFL, you must attack the passer successfully.
Miller has soared up the draft board and could be the first defensive player picked or possibly even the No. 1 overall selection. It's very unlikely that he will be available when the 49ers pick at No. 7.
Patrick Peterson Is The Top DB In The Draft
Patrick Peterson may be the best football player available in this years draft. At 6'1" and 222 lbs, Peterson is bigger than most cornerbacks and quite physical. He combines size, athleticism and speed and would be a welcome addition to a very porous 49ers defensive secondary.
Peterson has the ability to be a lockdown corner. He has excellent ball skills and he will be an impact player if chosen by San Francisco.
The 2010 Bednarik Award winner as the country's top collegiate defensive player, Peterson also won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
Depending on how the draft goes and how many offensive players are selected in the first six picks, there is a slight chance that Peterson could be available when the 49ers turn comes up at No. 7. If that is the case, the 49ers will gladly snap him up.
Peterson could also help the 49ers in the return game, as he has excelled in this capacity on both punt and kickoff returns at LSU. Peterson returned two punts for touchdowns this past year.
Marcel Dareus is a big, strong inside defender. He will be a force to reckon with for any offensive line. Dareus stands 6'4" and weighs in at 306 lbs.
The San Francisco 49ers are not likely to re-sign nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin this offseason. He carries a hefty price tag and, after holding out for the entire preseason, he did not have the kind of season the 49ers were counting on. The Niners would be wise to allocate that money to acquire other players.
Dareus has the size and strength to be a strong nose tackle in the NFL and that would allow the Niners to move Ricky Jean-Francois to the outside, where he could supplant Isaac Sopoaga. Dareus is the kind of player who would demand a double team if playing the nose-tackle position.
Dareus can be a solid run defender and he would also be a disruptive force up the middle on the pass rush. Few teams have defensive tackles who can collapse the pocket, and Dareus could provide that for the 49ers.
Unfortunately, Dareus is not expected to be available at No. 7, but if he is, he would be a great pick to upgrade Jim Harbaugh's defensive line.
Robert Quinn May Be The Answer For The 49ers
Robert Quinn is an intriguing possibility for the 49ers. He played two years of college football at North Carolina, then was ruled ineligible by the NCAA last year for lying to investigators about improper benefits he received.
The 49ers will need to be sure of Quinn's character before drafting him, However, I would rather take a chance on Quinn as opposed to a player like Da'Quan Bowers, who may have physical problems with his knee.
Quinn seems to have matured after going through the off-field issues that cost him his junior season. He is 6'5" and 275 pounds of speed and fury. Quinn would be a devastating pass-rushing presence at the defensive end position opposite Justin Smith.
Another interesting aspect is that the 49ers have been very quiet about Quinn. This could mean that they are hiding serious interest in him. If available at No. 7, Quinn would be an excellent choice. He has the ability to be an impact player for the Niners defense.
The 49er Brain Trust Will Have Plenty of Options To Consider
It is entirely possible that one of the top four players on this list will be available when the 49ers pick at No. 7. If this is the case, they should go ahead and pick that player.
Quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert could be selected in the top six, as could either of the top wide receivers, A.J. Green or Julio Jones. If three of these offensive players are selected in the top six, that will ensure the 49ers will be able to pick one of my top four.
However, if these four impact defensive players are already off the board, then the 49ers should trade down to between 9-to-11, if they can make the deal. They could acquire multiple picks in this draft or potentially a first-or-second round pick in 2012.
There will be several very good players available at the No. 9 through No. 11 picks. If the Niners can get additional draft picks, this is a deal that makes great sense for them. The 49ers have several holes to fill so the more draft picks they can acquire, the better.
Prince Amukamara Snares An Interception Against Texas
In addition to having a cool name, Prince Amukamara is an outstanding cornerback. In 2009, as a junior, he had five interceptions and 64 tackles, emerging as one of the top defensive players in college football.
His 2010 numbers were down, largely because opposing offenses were reluctant to throw against him.
Amukamara has good size at 6'1", 205 lbs. At the cornerback position, he is rated just below Patrick Peterson, but like Peterson, he would fill a big need for the 49ers. It's very likely that Amukamara is available at No. 7, but also quite possible that the 49ers could pick him up at ninth, 10th or 11th.
Although not the owner of blazing, elite-level speed, Amukamara is a very good cover corner. He has excellent instincts and is a fine playmaker. In addition, he is a good tackler and solid in run support.
Unlike many of the other top selections who are coming out early for this year's draft, Amukamara was a four-year player at Nebraska. He has solid experience to go along with his athletic prowess.
Da'Quan Bowers Closes In On Another Sack
Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers had a monster junior season. After two solid years, Bowers burst onto the scene as one of the top pass-rushing defensive ends in college football. The only real concern about him is his health.
Bowers has decent size and explosive speed off the end and could fill a huge need for the 49ers as a pass rusher. Bowers had 16 sacks and 61 tackles in his last season of college ball as a junior.
The 49ers have had almost no pass rush from starting defensive end Isaac Sopoaga. Sopoaga is a good run defender, but not an effective pass rusher. He had just 1.5 sacks last season. Bowers would be a major upgrade opposite 49ers stalwart Justin Smith, who plays the opposite defensive end position.
Given the 49ers' deficiencies in the defensive backfield, a major upgrade to the pass rush will help hide that glaring weakness. Arguably the best pass-rushing defensive end in the collegiate game, Bowers, if healthy, would instantly improve this area.
At one point, Bowers was potentially the No. 1 overall pick, but concern over a balky knee has moved him down in the draft. There is a possibility that Bowers will need microfracture surgery, which means he would be a big risk for the 49ers. They simply cannot afford to miss on this pick.
Nick Fairley Is A Beast In The Middle
Nick Fairley was once considered a possible No. 1 overall pick, but his draft stock has fallen. By the look of things, he will be available at No. 7 and could also be available at nine, 10 or 11, similar to Amukamara.
Fairley is a big, powerful and athletic defensive lineman. He played inside in Auburn's 4-3 defense, but has the athleticism to play at the end position in a 3-4.
Nick Fairley is the type of defensive force who can wreak havoc on an opposing offense. At 6'5" and 298 lbs, Fairley combines strength with surprising speed for such a big man.
Fairley had 11 sacks and 51 tackles, including 21.5 tackles for loss this year. Not the explosive pass rusher that Da'Quan Bowers is, Fairley is probably the better all-around player, although it's just by a narrow margin.
Nick Fairley would fit right into the current 49ers defensive alignment at the end position, replacing Isaac Sopoaga. If the Niners decide to move to a 4-3, he would be a disruptive force at one of the defensive tackle spots.
There are two big question marks about Fairley. First off, is he a one-year wonder? Prior to his last season at Auburn, Fairley was a good, though not great, player.
Secondly, there are those that question his work ethic. He has all the physical tools to be a special player in the NFL, but if his work ethic is not there, he won't be. If the 49ers select Fairley, they better be certain he's going to put in the work to be a great player.
If Fairley has the dedication and work ethic to be great, he will be a pillar of strength for the 49ers. However, if he doesn't, he will become an under-producing bust like Kentwan Balmer. The Niners cannot afford to waste their pick on anyone resembling Balmer.
Cameron Jordan Is A Solid Option In The Middle Of The First Round
If the 49ers traded down to the ninth-to-11th draft slot, but were unable to get Prince Amukamara and were wary of Bowers and Fairley, then trading down to the middle of the first round, around No. 15 or No. 16 would be a very viable option.
The Niners would acquire additional draft picks and would be likely to get a very good player at this point. My top two choices at that level in the draft are defensive ends Cameron Jordan, from Cal, and Ryan Kerrigan, from Purdue.
Jordan, the son of former NFL tight end Steve Jordan, emerged as an impact-caliber player in his senior year at Cal. Projected as a second or third-round pick early in the 2010 season, Jordan has steadily moved up his stock in the draft.
He has matured as a player and the consistency of his effort has improved greatly. In addition, his workouts and showing at the combine were very good.
Ryan Kerrigan is a younger version of Justin Smith. He is a tough, hard-nosed player who's motor never stops running and his effort is never in question. Simply put, Kerrigan is a football player.
Kerrigan is not blessed with great speed or amazing athletic ability. He gets the job done with heart and perseverance. His consistency and reliability are excellent and that's a big thing in the NFL. Kerrigan was also the 2010 Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year.
Although Ryan Kerrigan may never be a superstar, there is less risk in taking him because of his level of effort and drive. Kerrigan will be a very good NFL player for many years.
Cam Newton led Auburn To The National Championship
The San Francisco 49ers have several needs and quarterback is a major one. However, there is no quarterback in the 2011 draft that's a sure thing. In fact, I believe there are as many as seven QBs who could make an impact in the NFL. That being said, there is risk with all of them.
Cam Newton has tremendous athletic ability and a strong arm. He has tremendous upside and also showed good passing accuracy at Auburn.
However, Newton played in a spread offense and if his first option was covered, he was just as likely to run as to survey the field and find secondary receivers. There will be a big learning curve for Newton
Blaine Gabbert is perhaps the most polished of the quarterbacks available, but is he worthy of a top seven pick? There are many who say yes. I say no.
Gabbert has a strong and accurate arm, but he played his college ball in a spread offense. There will be some learning to do, but he seems like a quick study.
Jake Locker has a strong arm and played in a pro-style offense at the University of Washington. He is a good leader and ultimately could turn out to be very good.
However, Locker is often inaccurate and injury prone. His all-out style and propensity to try and run over people leave him vulnerable. Locker will need to learn to play under control and leave his tendency for reckless abandon back in college.
Ryan Mallett has an outstanding arm and he is a pure pocket passer. However, he is a bonehead. Because of his boorish attitude, he has blown his Round 1 draft status. Several teams that he visited will not to select him under any circumstances.
On the field, he lacks mobility and apparently also lacks the common sense to be a leader. Mallett reminds me of Ryan Leaf, another big, strong kid who never made it, largely because of his head. Under no circumstances do I see Jim Harbaugh taking him.
Andy Dalton was originally slated as a Round 3 or Round 4 pick. He has impressed the NFL brass with his accuracy and intelligence. Dalton also has good mobility and would be a good fit for Jim Harbaugh's plan to install a West Coast offense in San Francisco.
The two concerns about Dalton are that he played in a spread offense and he does not have an overly strong arm. However, Dalton's accuracy is important in a West Coast system and he seems to have the understanding of the game to transition from the spread to the pro game.
Christian Ponder from Florida State is another player, like Dalton, who should be available in the second round or perhaps even the third round. Ponder is a very good athlete with a strong arm. He is also tough and he has shown good leadership qualities.
The concern with Ponder is whether he can stay healthy, as he has had some injury problems in the past. In addition, many scouts warn that his decision-making abilities on the field need improvement. If available in the third round, he would be a good pick for San Francisco.
The final quarterback who I believe has star-caliber potential is Colin Kaepernick from Nevada. Kaepernick is a strong athlete with a good arm and excellent mobility. He will be a bit of a project as he played against lower-level competition and his throwing mechanics need improvement.
Kaepernick could be available in the third or fourth round and that would be a good investment for the 49ers.
The 49ers should not select a quarterback in the first round. There are impact players on defense who will help the Niners a lot more. If Jim Harbaugh is able to get someone like Dalton, Ponder or Kaepernick in a later round, that would be ideal.
Harbaugh is known for developing top-notch quarterbacks and I'm sure he has his eye on one or two of these players after Round 1.
Bill Walsh Orchestrated Several Great 49er Drafts
The 2011 draft is really the first opportunity for new head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke to begin shaping this team. The Niners desperately need a good draft and an infusion of some impact players.
They cannot afford to miss like they have many times in the past. Recent picks like Alex Smith, Kentwan Balmer, Chilo Rachal and maybe even Anthony Davis have not panned out well.
Bill Walsh was a master of draft maneuvers because he had the forward view to envision how talent would play into the future. He was also unafraid to make a big move, whether that meant trading up or down to bolster his team.
Unfortunately, Walsh is gone and it will be up to Baalke and Harbaugh to orchestrate this draft successfully.
There is one other key factor that makes this draft crucial for the 49ers. The free-agent market is at a standstill due to the labor dispute. The resultant lockout has put Harbaugh and the 49ers at a huge disadvantage.
I detailed the issues caused by the lockout that hurt the 49ers more than any other team in a previous article: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/633491-san-francisco-49ers-the-breakdown-of-nfl-labor-talks-is-a-crushing-blow