49ers Pre-Draft Rundown
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With the NFL Schedule set to be released later this afternoon talk will shift away from the draft for a short time as fans and ‘experts’ alike try and predict the chances of each team for the coming season. Before that happens though, I would like to take a minute to squeeze in a few thoughts for the upcoming season, and highlight a few areas that the team should be focussing on the draft. I should probably prelude this article by saying that this year’s NFL Draft is so deep in talent, particularly in first round talent, that it is not obvious how the draft will break down. The teams picking ahead of us do not necessarily have one definitive need, and as such there could be a number of really good players available to us in the first round that fit one of our top needs for the coming season.
I will begin my analysis on offense, where I firmly believe the success of the season will depend on the offensive line. Last year I was elated that the team drafted Kwame Harris in the first round, as we seriously needed youth infusion on the offensive line, and not simply depth players, but dominant starters. I firmly believe Harris will materialize as one such player that can anchor the line for years to come. That being said, this team is still hungry for depth on the offensive line, and a young starting guard that can be a real difference maker. Recently signed Scott Rehberg is a versatile lineman who is mamothly big at 6’8”, 325 pounds. Whether or not he has starting talent is questionable, but he is the type of player I would like to see the 49ers add via the draft this year. Our draftee can be less versatile if they are pegged in to start, but dominant size at guard with some quick feet is a must.
The offensive line is so integral to the success this season for a number of reasons. Regardless of who is at quarterback for us, it will not be someone with the same ability to escape the rush that Jeff Garcia had. Rattay, who is penciled into start, has proven to be frazzled by the blitz. The 49ers goal should be to provide the quarterback with as much time to throw as Tom Brady had in the Super Bowl. A further problem is that the team will be without Garrison Hearst this year, and Hearst was a beast when it came to pass blocking. Not to take anything away from the young Barlow, but he is much more of a pure runner than a refined all around running back. Tight end provides a few question marks too. Both the 49ers top tight ends, Eric Johnson and Aaron Walker are better at receiving than blocking. This will make it harder on the offensive line to maintain a pocket for any of your quarterbacks.
Aside from Bandon Doman none of the 49ers quarterbacks currently on the roster are that mobile. This should make it easier for the offensive line to protect them, as it is much harder to block for a quarterback that is always moving around. Having a young quarterback running the offense also means that the team will likely rely quite heavily on the run. The 49ers have a capable set of running backs, but having a really solid offensive line will be a tremendous help to keeping the ball moving. Offensive line, for all of the reasons above, has to be a priority for this team.
The 49ers have three young quarterbacks on their roster, and likely will not carry four into the season. It remains possible that the team targets a late round quarterback, particularly if they pick up an extra draft pick or two from a trade down, but I personally do not think it is very likely. The team likes Rattay and Dorsey, and values Brandon Doman enough to bring him back this season. There is always a chance that drafting a quarterback will bring dividends to the team, but I think the 49ers have enough need areas to skip quarterback in this year’s draft.
As previously alluded to, the 49ers are in pretty good shape in the offensive backfield. Kevan Barlow and Fred Beasley are a good starting tandem, despite feuding between them. Terry Jackson, Jamal Roberts, Jason Isom and Matt Stanley, in some configuration will provide adequate depth. The team may opt to draft a late round running back, particularly if they are an excellent kick or punt returner, but this is one area the team can choose to ignore.
The 49ers have a pretty good set of tight ends despite pass blocking not being a huge strength of the unit. The team may take a second day tight end, but perhaps perusing the free agent market for a pass blocking tight end, after June 1st would be a better way to fill this void if only temporarily.
There is little question that the 49ers need to add a receiver from this years draft. The only real question is whether this is the number one priority, or if it takes a back seat to some defensive positions or offensive guard. Without Terrell Owens and Tai Streets, the 49ers current depth chart has Brandon Lloyd and Cederick Wilson as the starting tandem with Arnaz Battle as the third receiver. Brandon Lloyd was drafted last year and was a threat every time he was on the field. Lloyd will likely hold onto the starting spot, but Wilson never made the jump he was expected too. The 49ers like what they have in Battle, but he’s still raw, and with this being one of the deepest drafts at WR in recent history, it would be shocking if a first day pick is not used on a receiver. There are several candidates that would make sense to be drafted in the first round, and it may be possible to get one of them even with a trade down. That being said, there is always a risk in taking a first round receiver, and teams have shown that they can be productive with just ‘good’ receivers. It is possible the 49ers will overlook receiver in the first round and possible even the second in order to fill their other needs first.
On defense, the front four is clearly in need of some players. The team could really use a defensive tackle and a defensive end to play opposite Andre Carter. In both case size has to be important, as the 49ers have continuously not been able to hold the line of scrimmage over the past few seasons. The line needs to be bolstered in order to improve the pass rush, and stuff the run. There is no reason why the team should have to rely on the blitz as the only means of getting to the quarterback. Improving the defensive line will allow the team to compete much better, particularly on third down. There are a few top defensive tackles and perhaps one or two defensive ends that would be amazing value with the sixteenth overall selection, but after these top players are gone, and there are about four of them, it may make sense to hold off until the second round, and fill one of the team’s other pressing needs in round one. Landing any of the top tier defensive line talent will involve lots of luck. This is one area that the team may end up reaching on a player if they select one at the sixteenth spot, if those top few players have already been snatched up.
Linebacker is not a huge priority for the 49ers, but it is indeed a priority. The 49ers top four linebackers, Julian Peterson, Jeff Ulbrich, Derek Smith and Jamie Winborn are an amazing tandem. However, Peterson and the team are yet to come to an agreement on his contract and he is currently on a one year deal. His agents are some of the toughest to deal with in the league, and by next season the 49ers may not have Peterson on the roster if they can not agree on a fair long term contract. To make matters worse, Jamie Winborn who has loads of talent has yet to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season. That could leave the 49ers in serious jeopardy next season at linebacker, so taking a linebacker with a fourth or fifth round pick would not be that bad a move. Saleem Rasheed is another depth player that has loads of potential but has yet to do anything on the field, and injuries are a question. Brandon Moore the team’s sixth linebacker is a solid depth player, but is not slated to become a full time starter.
In the defensive backfield the 49ers are banking on Ahmed Plummer, who recently signed a new long term deal, to improve his play over last year and provide solid stability at one corner. The team also hopes that their other former first round corner, Mike Rumph can continue the amazing progress he showed last season. The loss of Jason Webster though, and some uncertainty over Rumph, coupled with the need to have three top flight corners in the NFL, could prompt the 49ers into spending a high first round draft pick on a corner back. There are a few that would make sense in terms of value in the first and the second round, but the 49ers could hold off, and hope that either Jimmy Williams or Dwaine Carpenter can fill the role at nickel cornerback. Either way, the 49ers need to draft a cornerback this year, and will need some serious speed. Changes in the NFL rules this season will make being a cornerback much harder, and having the speed to stick with the receivers will make adapting to the rule changes much easier.
At safety the 49ers are set to return Tony Parrish and Zack Bronson to the starting positions. The team will be looking to get Dwaine Carpenter onto the field, and he may beat out Bronson for the starting position. There is also some discussion that Bronson, who has not been the same since a knee injury two years ago, may be released after June first. The 49ers do a pretty good job of finding safeties later in the draft, and they may take a flier on one this years draft to help provide stability in the defensive backfield. Of course veteran John Keith is still around to provide backup duties should the 49ers decide to keep the status quo.
Looking over the 49ers needs for the upcoming season it is quite clear that OG, DT, DE, WR and CB are the top priorities. Filling any of these needs in round one would be well worth the pick providing that the team does not reach for a player. Having so many needs to fill as big priorities should mean the team does not have to reach in round, and should mean the team can get some real value in their top pick, and picks in later rounds. Ultimately the direction that the draft unfolds will likely determine which area the 49ers elect to address first, but a ‘run’ on any one position may leave us with a ton of options at the number sixteen pick, not the least of which cold be trading down.