Going into the 2011 NFL Draft, the most imminent needs for the 49ers are in the secondary, at quarterback, and bringing in a true outside linebacker that fits into their 3-4 defense. Given the players who may be available when the Niners take the podium with the 7th pick, here’s my outlook for the direction they should take in the early rounds:
SECONDARY: The most urgent need in the secondary is at cornerback. San Fran gave up the most passing yards per game last season in an otherwise solid and improved defense. Patrick Peterson out of LSU is considered a no-lose prospect, and has drawn comparisons to a young Champ Bailey. In 2010, he was the recipient of both the Bednarik Award(top defender in the nation) and the Thorpe Award(top defensive back in the nation). There is a strong chance he will be available when the 49ers pick, and given his scouting reports, Peterson would make an immediate impact. He would be an upgrade over current starter Shawntae Spencer, and would dramatically improve the secondary, especially because the 80 million dollar man, Nate Clements, hasn’t exactly performed to the level expected by a player with that price tag. I think Peterson would be the safest pick and would also be a guy who can get right on the field to make plays rather than riding the pine for two years to “develop.” If he is there at 7, the 49ers should strongly consider taking him.
QUARTERBACK: Given the current weapons the Niners have an offense in RB Frank Gore, play-making WR Michael Crabtree, and stud TE Vernon Davis, they need nothing more than consistent, game-managing play at this position. Unfortunately, former number one pick Alex Smith has not been able to get it together and deliver this type of play. Whether or not the 49ers go quarterback in round one is based solely on who is available, and which need, that or defense, is a higher priority. If a first-round prospect such as Blaine Gabbert of Missouri or Cam Newton of Auburn is still available, it might create a quandary for the Niners front office. It would be hard to pass on one of these guys, because every team eventually needs a franchise QB. However, there will still be many quality guys available come second round, such as Colin Kaepernick of Nevada, Jake Locker of Washington, Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, and Andy Dalton of TCU. I really don’t think they would lose much landing one of these other guys instead of Gabbert or Newton, all of the prospects had solid performances at their pro-days, and it would let the Niners focus on defense first round instead of giving themselves fits on what direction to go. If it were my decision, I’d have to weigh the option of how much better Gabbert or Newton would be than one of the others, and if it is worth the risk of missing out on a bigtime prospect like Peterson who would make an immediate change for the team. Also, I wouldn’t rule out the 49ers looking into free agency to bring in a veteran game-manager type, who could deliver consistency at QB and give whatever prospect they bring in someone to mentor behind should they pass on Gabbert and Newton. I have recently heard Tampa Bay backup Josh Johnson mentioned as a possible option because of his college ties to new coach Jim Harbaugh. He would be the game-manager they are looking for and also give whoever they draft the chance to compete for the position should Johnson come in and not perform as needed. It will be interesting to see what the Niners choose to do here on draft day.
LINEBACKER: 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis is the best in the game, hands down. He is all over the field, and regularly leads the team and the NFL in tackles. The problem here is he can’t play all linebacker positions. They desperately need a true outside linebacker whose responsibility in the 3-4 defense is to pressure the quarterback. Current starters Manny Lawson and Parys Halason combined for only 6.5 sacks last season at the position. This lack of a consistent pass rush hindered the performance of the secondary. Von Miller, linebacker out of Texas A&M, seems the perfect answer to this problem. The Butkus Award winner made 43 tackles last season, 25 solo, and recorded 3.5 sacks while being double-teamed constantly. 3.5 sacks may not sound like a huge number, but keep in mind it is only three less than the other two starters had combined. He would also be a player on defense who could make an immediate impact, and also take pressure of Willis and the secondary. Should the unthinkable happen and Patrick Peterson not be available, if the Niners first-round committment is to defense, then Von Miller seems like the logical choice here. But once again, with the need at QB, it will be interesting to see what route they go in the first round.
OVERVIEW: It is rare that highly touted players at all position needs are readily available for a team when they take the stage in round one. The 49ers appear to have that luxury, but it could also be a disadvantage because it makes for an extremely difficult decision. I’m sure come draft day, they will have prioritized team needs and draft accordingly. However it plays out, the 49ers are undoubtedly an up-and-coming team. They lost several heartbreaking, close games last season, and play in a relatively weak division where ten wins could lead to a division crown. I for one am predicting a breakout season from this team on the verge, they can only improve on last season’s promise. Look for exciting things from San Francisco as we head into the 2011 campaign.