49ers hit gold again in '11 with No. 1 pick Smith
The complexion of the NFL draft has changed this year for the 49ers, who have dropped to the bottom of the selection order by virtue of their sudden rise last season into one of the league’s premier teams. Not long ago a team practically desperate to add talent through the draft, the Niners now can enter the college lottery with luxury of supplementing a strong roster that doesn’t have many holes.
Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh have a man in mind for the 30th pick in Thursday's NFL draft, if the player is still around at that spot for San Francisco. And if the 49ers don't jump on a chance to move up to land someone they believe could help right away as the reigning NFC West champions look to make another Super Bowl push in 2012.
They might just trade down, too.
Maneuvering either way during the college lottery in recent years produced talented drafts that helped turn the 49ers into NFC West champions last season after an eight-year drought without a winning record or playoff berth.
Baalke has been right on in running the past two drafts, selecting several players who contributed immediately – from offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati two years ago to 2011 rookie linebacker Aldon Smith, who wound up with 14 sacks. Each were first-round selections.
While it has always been the general manager's approach to snag the best possible player available, this draft is slightly different for the 49ers: San Francisco is set just about everywhere on the roster.
The Niners also are picking much lower than has been typical over the past decade, and there's not a major need at any one spot. The 49ers have their lowest selection in the first round since 2004, when former general manager Terry Donahue traded down twice from No. 16 to the 31st slot in the first round.
The Niners selected Oklahoma State wide receiver Rashaun Woods with that pick, and he turned out to be one of the biggest first-round busts in team history. The 49ers finished 2-14 that season, beginning a slide of eight consecutive non-winning years, and the team missed on several draft picks in the years to follow, contributing to the franchise’s demise.
But with Baalke at the controls, the 49ers are back to hitting winners on draft weekend. Now the team has the luxury of supplementing a talent-laden roster that came within an overtime loss of reaching the Super Bowl last season and has no glaring needs.
"I think you always try to go through the offseason and take care of as many of the needs as possible," Baalke said. "That's part of free agency, addressing needs. As your team gets deeper, you hope to have fewer needs, which should allow you to concentrate on the best-player-available formula."
San Francisco returns all 11 defensive starters on coordinator Vic Fangio's unit, which was No. 1 at stopping the run last season. Baalke already brought back Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers with a $29.3 million deal in free agency and Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, who was given the team’s franchise tag and a one-year tender offer of $6.212 million.
Those leaders of San Francisco’s much-improved secondary shared the team lead with six interceptions each in 2011, which put both among the NFL leaders in that category.
On the offensive side, quarterback Alex Smith reached a new three-year deal last month, and Baalke also signed wideouts Randy Moss after he spent a year away from football and recent Giants Super Bowl star Mario Manningham.
They are expected to boost the unit after the Niners' receivers managed only just one catch for 3 yards in a 20-17 loss in the NFC championship game to New York at Candlestick Park on Jan. 22.
This is a far cry from a year ago, when eventual NFL Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh could do little more than plan as he waited out the lockout to build a team for his first season.
The 49ers chose Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick in last year's draft, and he wasted no time becoming a hit for his big hits. A year earlier, Baalke selected right tackle Davis at No. 11 and then left guard Iupati six spots later. Both started every game as rookies and are developing into cornerstones on the team’s upgraded offensive line.
Baalke had a good feeling about Aldon Smith within the first five minutes of watching him on film.
"I'm a big believer in the book 'Blink,'" the GM said. "I think your instincts, when you go in and look at a player, what you see initially in that first five to 10 minutes, what your feelings are, if we were to go back and take a look at it, generally speaking you were right in that first five to 10 minutes. ... I think a lot of times you spend too much time evaluating certain players and you either make them better than what they are or you make them worse than what they were. The initial reaction is usually the correct one."
Take the case of Bruce Miller last April. The 49ers took him 211th overall, in the seventh round.
Miller surprised everybody when he emerged as a starter at fullback after being converted from defensive end. He was a star defender in college at Central Florida.
Getting reads on players who might be able to pull that off as Miller did is something Baalke and Harbaugh have spent plenty of time on leading up to the draft.
"Right now we talk about guys and where they're going to go in the draft, and what pick they're going to be. And really, the only time that is important is on the draft," Harbaugh said. "And then after that, it becomes completely irrelevant. It's just a matter of who can play or not. Were they a good player? Were they able to make the football team? Were they able to contribute and be a starter-caliber player, that kind of thing. So that's what we hope to get out of the draft, players that can compete for those positions on the team."
That's exactly how Harbaugh likes it. In fact, he will most certainly say in the coming months that the quarterback job is up for grabs even though everybody knows it's Alex Smith's job to lose after his remarkable comeback season in 2011.
Still, Baalke likes to keep everybody guessing about what he might do on draft day. He said last week the 49ers had their board narrowed down to about 150 players.
Might tight end Coby Fleener be on their radar after he played for Harbaugh at Stanford and caught passes from projected No. 1 pick Andrew Luck – even though San Francisco has star starter Vernon Davis and capable backup Delanie Walker already entrenched at the position?
"We're not going to rule out anything right now," Baalke said. "Every player in the draft is a possibility."
Harbaugh's time is more split this year between draft planning and being around for the players who are taking part in the team's offseason workout program. The first organized team activities are May 21, so there's much planning to do that he didn't have last year.
Harbaugh acknowledges he is better at everything involved in his job as he goes into the second year.
"I feel like I've learned a lot from Year One to Year Two. Feel that we all know how each other works. We all have confidence in each other," he said. "A tremendous amount of confidence in Trent and the entire scouting department, and a tremendous amount of confidence in our coaches and their ability to evaluate players. My own confidence I have gained in that regard as well."
Which makes the 49ers a confident team as they go into the draft looking to bolster their roster, even though they are picking much lower than they have become accustomed during the 21st century.