With the NFL Draft a little more than a week away, things are getting exciting for the San Francisco 49ers and their fans. A recent trade with Denver gives the 49ers two picks in the first round (6 and 22). This will allow the team to gain two instant starters should they draft smart. "We need starters. We're not just trying to build depth" said head coach Mike Nolan. This will give the team the opportunity to address both the offense and defense with their first two picks. The 49ers will need starters to fill the holes left by the departures of key players during the offseason.

Losses at linebacker

Linebacker Julian Peterson was the 49ers' biggest loss of the offseason. While his production over the past two seasons had gone down, he was a leader on the defense and one of the team's best players. The fact that he signed with the Seattle Seahawks, last season's NFC Champions and an NFC West rival, makes the loss even more significant. Unwilling to meet his agent's unrealistic contract demands, the 49ers opted not to franchise Peterson after the season was over and allowed him to become a free agent. While he drew some interest, his asking price scared off a number of teams. Seattle was willing to open their wallet since they felt that the addition of Peterson would help solidify their defense. The Seahawks fell just short of a Super Bowl championship.

The team had already lost linebacker Andre Carter to the Washington Redskins. Keeping either Carter or Peterson would have been fine. Losing both may be devastating if the team can't find at least one suitable replacement. This leaves linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich as the team's strongest players at that position. The 49ers also resigned linebacker Brandon Moore and signed free agent T.J. Slaughter. However, they were meant to provide depth to the team, not replace those that left for greener pastures.

A look at the wide receiver moves

While seemingly unfair at first, the trade that sent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to the Washington Redskins for a 3rd round draft pick this year and a 4th round pick next year was an absolute steal! The only reason that it originally seemed unfair was because Lloyd was the team's most productive pass catcher. However, he was not an elite player and would have to compete to break the starting lineup on most teams. His circus catches were amazing and were the only reason the 49ers ever made any highlight reels, but he was too inconsistent to ever warrant being offered a large contract. Shortly after the trade, the team signed veteran wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who spent last season with the Cleveland Browns and was highly valued coming out of college despite questions about his attitude. The Cowboys took a risk on him in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft. He clashed with Parcells in Dallas, but an interview with the 49ers coaching staff was enough to convince them that the receiver would cause no such problems in San Francisco. Bryant has much more raw talent and possesses a greater physical presence than Lloyd. He is the big receiver that the 49ers have been lacking since the departure of Terrell Owens (not that Bryant is in the same class). Basically, the team upgraded at wide receiver and got two draft picks for free. This allowed the team to package their second round pick and their original third for the 22nd overall. That is a steal since the team will come out way ahead from this deal.

Since being drafted in the first round (31st overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft, wide receiver Rashaun Woods has been a huge disappointment to 49ers coaches and fans. He has spent the majority of his career injured and his dedication to getting on the field has been lacking. In fact, citing that Woods did not have a realistic shot at competing for playing time, it is a very realistic possibility that the team would have released Woods had they not struck a deal with San Diego to trade him for cornerback Sammy Davis, another first round disappointment. Nolan has not had a problem casting off bad seeds in the past. This is a good move since it allows the team to give Davis a fresh start and compete for playing time as opposed to getting nothing for Woods. Of course, we all know how that Engleberger for Middlebrooks trade ended up.

An improved offensive line will boost production

The biggest signing of the offseason thus far has been Pro Bowl offensive guard Larry Allen. While he is at the end of his career, he still has enough in the tank to make another Pro Bowl push and whip a young offensive line into shape. This will offer better protection for second year quarterback Alex Smith, who was sacked 29 times and fumbled the ball 11 times last year. Last season's free agent signee, Jonas Jennings, should be returning as well. Whether or not center Jeremy Newberry returns at full strength, this will put a much improved offensive line in front of the very young quarterback. Hopefully this, along with a season of experience and some new targets will give fans a look at what Smith is capable of. Smith has the physical and mental tools (unlike the Jim Druckenmillers of the past) to be a solid quarterback for the 49ers. At this point, he just needs to get his confidence up. Earning his first touchdown during the final game of last season against the Houston Texans may have been a step in the right direction.

The addition of Allen is also big news for the team's running game. While rookie running back Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks looked impressive last season, starter Kevan Barlow did not. This was following a very disappointing 2004 campaign. While the coaching staff continues to praise Barlow, one has to wonder if this was said to entice a team to offer something for the running back.

Other free agent signings include wide receivers Bryan Gilmore (Dolphins) and Jason McAddley (49ers), cornerback Walt Harris (Redskins), fullback Chris Hetherington (49ers), kicker and 2005 49ers MVP Joe Nedney, and safety Kris Richard.

A look at day one of the upcoming NFL Draft

The 49ers will likely look to add two starters in the first round baring a trade. Look for them to address an offensive position as well as a defensive position.

Only a few projected first rounders stick out as "can't miss" players. Included among these players is running back Reggie Bush of USC who will be something very special. Defensive end Mario Williams of North Carolina State and tight end Vernon Davis of Maryland are another two.

Bush will undoubtedly be taken with the first overall pick by the Houston Texans. Williams may also be taken before the 49ers selection. However, Davis may still be available for the 49ers should they stay at the sixth spot. While there have been whispers that the team would also be interested in linebacker A.J. Hawk of Ohio State and safety Michael Huff of Texas, it is unimaginable that the team would pass up on such a phenomenal prospect like Davis. The linebacker position is very deep in this draft, making it possible to pass up on Hawk should he still be available. While Huff is a solid safety and would boost the team's defensive backfield, he is not one of those rare talents that can't be replaced. Davis would offer Alex Smith another strong target and would be complimented by the return of tight end Eric Johnson, who caught 82 passes for 825 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2004. This would create a scary two tight end formation. Davis has the speed of a wide receiver with a 263 lb frame. His ability to run after the catch is something this team has been lacking for some time.

The defense would also be helped by the addition of Vernon Davis. The team's defensive unit would have been ranked much higher over the past two seasons had the offense been able to accomplish anything at all and move the football. Despite this year's April Fools joke, rumors of a trade for Green Bay Packers wide receiver Javon Walker continue to circulate. A better core of receivers and a stronger offensive line resulting in better pass protection and a stronger running game will help the offense to be more productive this season.

Should the 49ers go for an offensive player like Davis with the 6th pick, they will more than likely address the defense with their newly acquired 22nd pick. Players like Michael Huff and cornerback/safety Jimmy Williams of Virginia Tech may be long gone. A player like Ohio State safety Donte Whitner may still be available. While he is smaller, he has good speed and is a very physical player that could step in and make an impact. He can make big plays and become another leader for the defense.

The 49ers no longer possess a second round pick and will pick again in the third round with the 84th overall selection. This is a tough spot to predict since anything can happen by this point. There are many positions that the team could address with that selection. A likely scenario would be the addition of a defensive player like linebacker Spencer Havner of UCLA or linebacker Kai Parham of Virginia.

Havner is the type of player that can easily transition to any linebacker position within a defense. He has good size, makes big plays and can assist in pass coverage. While at UCLA, he was all over the field and always seemed to be around the football. His versatility would be a perfect fit for the 49ers should they have the need for a filler role due to an injury. Havner would provide depth for the depleted linebacker position and may surprise a few with his intelligence for the game.

While he may be a reach in the third, Parham is particularly interesting because he fits a 3-4 defense very well. He is a strong linebacker with good size standing at 6'3" and weighing in at 256 lb. Parham is another player that makes big plays and could become a natural leader for the defense. He is a solid blitzer and would be a solid contributor with the run defense.

If the team is looking at linebackers in the third, other possibilities include Chris Gocong of Cal Poly or Mike Kudla of Ohio State. Both are converted defensive ends.

The team should look to add at least one other day one pick. After the 22nd selection, a lot of talent will go by and all the 49ers will be able to do is sit and watch until they select again at number 84.

What to expect from the 2006 season

Every offseason, 49ers fans are optimistic about the upcoming season and often have unrealistic expectations. While I doubt that the team will end up with the first choice in the 2007 NFL Draft as some within the media have predicted, fans should not expect a playoff appearance or many more wins than last year. While it is true that injuries have plagued this team over the past two seasons, it is a bit presumptuous to assume that the same will not occur this year. Unless the 49ers have a stellar draft and make a few more acquisitions over the summer, another 4 or 5 win season is realistic and anything more would be a blessing. Should they add some veteran leadership or skilled players, they may win a couple more games. At this point, the 49ers are still a young team that have a long way to go.