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Creative destruction, or what one 49ers webzone fan has called the "slash-and-burn" method of roster construction predominates in today's NFL. Given this current environment, how might the 49ers best work the draft? Let's look at some traditional strategies, and see which may or may not remain valid.
Draft for value versus draft for need. Of course, post-draft, every NFL rep will tell you that they got "great value" with every pick. But the meaning of "value" has shifted in the salary-cap era. Teams used to mean, by "value," that they drafted the proverbial best player available, regardless of position or team need. Back in the day, teams could stockpile talent, and even duplicate positions, knowing that a roster can never have enough elite athletes, and that, eventually, a team will need them. No longer. Now "value" means "which players at which positions will best fit our salary-cap situation." Teams today must draft simultaneously for value and need.
Draft "redshirt" players, that is players who, whether because of injury, small-school inexperience, or potential position changes, probably won't play much in their first year, maybe not even their second or third. Whoa Nelly! as Keith Jackson used to say. Because of the stable rookie salary scale, and the value of those first few years of relatively cheap rookie contracts, most teams simply cannot afford to gamble on more than one or two of these kinds of picks.
Draft hidden gems. NFL teams nowadays invest extensive resources in searching out potential talent. Very few hidden or under-the-radar talents exist anymore. If you happen upon a player labeled "undiscovered" or "hidden" on the internet, that of course means he probably isn't anymore.
Draft players that fit your system. More on this later.
So, what should the 49ers do, throw up their hands and ask a neighbor, say the Seattle Seahawks, to make their selections for them? Maybe not. The 49ers do not show an aversion to tradition. Far from it. In fact, from their old-school blocking schemes to their base-defense alignments, they willingly take tradition and tweak it. How might they utilize this tendency for tweaked tradition in the draft?
Draft for value versus draft for need. As discussed last month, the Niners use free agency, trades, signings, and Ouija Boards not only to bolster the roster, but to set up the draft, and they have set up this year's to take advantage of another of the organization's central cultural themes: flexibility. They have needs enough to merit early-round draft selections, but none so drastic that they must trade umpteen picks in a panic-stricken rush to move up and fill a single specific position. On the other hand, if a player they value at a position they need falls far enough to make a trade worthwhile, they have the flexibility to make the deal. Or, vice versa, if multiple players of value/need still stack their draft board when their turns to pick come around, they could trade down. Harbalk intends this unpredictability.
Draft "redshirt" players. Actually, the 49ers, because of their preparation and roster flexibility, have put themselves into position, more than most organizations, to utilize this traditional draft strategy. Last year, they probably figured that Looney, and maybe even Cam Johnson, would contribute little in 2012. Still, you can't binge on so many of these draftees that you hamstring your roster or impair your special teams. And the old gambit, when teams once stashed these players on practice squads, has gone the way of seventies-green artificial turf; other teams will sign them.
However, today's teams do have one distinct cumulative advantage over those of yesteryear: the advances in medical technology and medical assessment. Close consultation with medical staffs will help determine where players such as Cal receiver Keenan Allen or South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore might slot. No doubt the Niners have consulted intensely with their medical staff regarding the prospects of potential new roster additions, as well as the prognoses for current 49ers returning from injury, including the Smiths.
Draft hidden gems. Again, sheer odds dictate that a Tom Brady may come along occasionally, but, because of today's intense scouting and player assessment, those odds diminish every year. An offshoot of this hidden-gem strategy, though, may still gain some purchase in today's NFL. Some teams shy away from players not because they know too little about them, but because they know too much. I refer here to players with "character" issues. In 2013, former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu probably fits this category. Obviously, teams must do extreme due diligence when considering such a draftee. Some players do, in fact, get categorized unfairly. Others, however, can continue to carry chips on their shoulders not only rough enough to break them down, but big enough to tilt a whole team. Only organizations with excellent people-skills coaches and solid locker-room cultures should consider these sorts of challenges. The Niners seem to qualify.
Finally, draft players to fit your system. One, the 49ers, with their kaleidoscopic offensive formations, may still not have one specific "system" permanently in place. Two, they may be better off that way. Three, the defensive system may have become too staid, too predictable, and too dependent on a few key players late last season. In other words, if "creative destruction" now rules the NFL, don't dwell overly on the destruction by trying to replicate players already gone; emphasize instead the creative aspects of shifting schemes to accommodate new players, and draft with openness to their potential abilities.
The 49ers have the coaches for this approach. They possess not only the requisite professional savvy, but many of them also bring the invaluable experience of having worked at the collegiate level. If the Niners bring in new recruits appreciably different from departed veterans, all the better. The fresh rookie skill-sets will force innovation, adaptation, and improvisation. Look for the 49ers to leverage the expertise of their coaching staff accordingly in the draft, and watch for them to proceed with boldness, creativity, and, yes, an occasional risk. With thirteen picks, they have set this draft up not merely to duplicate a previous roster, but to seize novel opportunities for tomorrow's teams.