Harbaugh expects Looney to be an eventual starter
When the NFL draft finally reached its conclusion Saturday, the 49ers had turned one draft pick into five, added three more picks for next year, found a mauler they think can fill their only open starting position and added depth at one of the team’s few thin areas. Yes, you could say it was another productive draft for the Niners and the wizard running the show, general manager Trent Baalke.
Baalke never felt pressured to load up on rookies or sacrifice depth to make one, splashy pick.
With a talented roster expected to challenge for the Super Bowl, the Niners’ GM instead built depth and created future flexibility on the final day of the draft.
Baalke still hopes the 49ers also plugged a few holes – and maybe found a hidden gem – in Saturday's late rounds, selecting guard Joe Looney of Wake Forest, Notre Dame linebacker Darius Fleming, Michigan State free safety Trenton Robinson, offensive lineman Jason Slowey of Western Oregon and defensive end Cam Johnson of Virginia.
San Francisco also netted three picks for the 2013 draft.
"It's all about value," Baalke said. "We feel good about that depth. It's about drafting players at the right value, and also making sure that they have a legitimate chance to make this football team."
Going to back to Friday's third round, it seemed San Francisco might never draft another player.
The 49ers traded back three straight times from the 92nd pick before moving up to land Looney in the fourth round and 117th overall. San Francisco sent its original fourth-round pick (125th) and a sixth-rounder (196th) to Detroit.
The 6-foot-3, 318-pound Looney started at left guard the last three seasons for the Demon Deacons and – unlike the team's other picks on the final day – could have an immediate chance to play. San Francisco lost 2011 starting right guard Adam Snyder to Arizona in free agency. Snyder’s backup, Chilo Rachal, signed with Chicago in free agency.
"As impressive an interview as we had at the combine," 49ers coach Jim Harbugh said of Looney, emphasizing the lineman's "oomph" and "pizazz" as reasons. "We believe he will be a starter in this league for us."
Looney has a head start.
He spent part of the offseason working out with former 49ers center Jeremy Newberry (1998-2006), who knows Looney's agent, Andy Ross. The practice should speed up Looney's learning curve in Harbaugh's complex version of the West Coast offense.
The pulling guard – a key position in San Francisco's zone-blocking scheme to attack linebackers – had a left ankle injury that kept him from working out at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis and Wake Forest's pro day. He said Dr. Bob Anderson – the same specialist to perform surgery on Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry's right ankle last year – in Charlotte cleared him for running and jumping activities two weeks ago.
"I love pulling around, coming up on linebackers," said Looney, who can also play center. "I feel like that's an offensive lineman's time to shine."
Looney's selection followed a series of trades by San Francisco to add future picks.
Baalke parlayed the original 92th overall pick in the third round into five picks in trades with Indianapolis, Miami and Carolina. In all, that included a pair of sixth-round selections Saturday – one of which was later sent to Detroit – plus a pick in the third, fifth and sixth round in 2013.
The 49ers lost to the eventual champion New York Giants in the NFC title game and figured it best not to overload with late picks who probably won't make a talented roster this fall anyway.
"We feel like we're ready to go," Baalke said, acknowledging the team will sign undrafted free agents in the coming days.
That will include at least a trio of former Stanford players – defensive end Matt Masifilo, wide receiver Chris Owusu and safety Michael Thomas – who Harbaugh recruited while the Cardinal's coach. Masifilo drove from the nearby campus and signed minutes after the draft ended.
"That's probably one race and the last race I'll ever win against Owusu," said Masifilo, confirming his teammates would soon join. "Coach Harbaugh likes to cut drag. He said it's a competition to get down here as fast you can."
Familiarity proved to be a common theme for Harbaugh's new group.
The 49ers drafted wide receiver A.J. Jenkins of Illinois in the first round Thursday before selecting Oregon running back LaMichael James on Friday. James, Looney and Fleming made it three straight players Harbaugh had faced while Stanford's coach.
Fleming had 55 tackles, 3½ sacks, one interception and one forced fumble for the Fighting Irish last season. San Francisco has perhaps the NFL's best linebacker corps with All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and sensational rookie Aldon Smith, among others, but a shortage of outside linebackers. Still, it will be tough for Fleming to find playing time as a rookie beyond special teams.
Even though he will be half a continent away from his native Chicago, Fleming should feel right at home.
He was a college roommate of San Francisco's Ian Williams, and the two are close friends. Fleming, who wanted to avoid the agony of watching the draft, was stuck in Chicago traffic when Harbaugh called him to deliver the news.
"I was actually rolling pretty well and then once I got the call traffic hit," Fleming said. "I'm fine with being stuck in traffic now that I'm a 49er."
In the sixth round, San Francisco took Robinson 180th and Slowey 199th overall.
Robinson had 76 tackles last season and his nine career interceptions are tied for 12th in Michigan State history. Slowey played left tackle for most of his career at Western Oregon but is projected at center or guard in the NFL.
The 49ers took Johnson in the seventh round and 237th overall. The Virginia defensive end is expected to shift to a pass-rushing outside linebacker in Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme in a transition similar to the one Aldon Smith made a year ago.
"It's a historic day for so many of these young men," an overenthusiastic Harbaugh said. "But it's not the end. It's very much the beginning."