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It's the day after the NFL Draft weekend. This is the day that Niner fans use to scour the web for info on the team's latest rookie class rather than actually be productive at work. Fans have good reason to be excited about this offseason. The team has gone from a 2-14 joke in 2004 to a team on the rise that has, according to many in media, a legitimate shot at dethroning the Seattle Seahawks as NFC West Champions. All of this was accomplished in just three offseasons under head coach Mike Nolan, who obviously had a plan in place from the very beginning and is now being recognized around the NFL as the reason behind the team's resurrection.
After a killing in free agency, where the 49ers had some of the deepest pockets as far as salary cap room was concerned, Nolan and his staff are once again being commended for their 2007 rookie selections.
LB Patrick Willis of Mississippi and the 49ers linebackers
This year's NFL Draft didn't have as many big name players as last year. With the exception of maybe Calvin Johnson, there were no Reggie Bushes or Vince Youngs. However, there definitely was some great talent available. Niner fans once again got the player they had their targets set on in linebacker Patrick Willis of Mississippi. While linebacker was not the biggest need for the team, Willis was too good a prospect for the 49ers to pass up. Many draft experts have compared him to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Willis has the size (6-1, 242 pounds at the Combine), speed and instincts to make it at the pro level. The 49ers staff loved what they saw from Willis at the Senior Bowl and that exposure likely boosted his stock. Had the 49ers not taken Willis with the 11th selection, he would not have dropped too far since the Buffalo Bills were sitting there at number 12 ready to scoop him up. Willis was so good a prospect that the Denver Broncos were trying to complete a trade with the Houston Texans to move up to the number 10 spot in order to steal him away from San Francisco. Chris Horwedel of NFL Draft Blitz called Willis “THE can't miss defensive player in this draft.” Everyone seems to feel that Willis will flourish in the 3-4 defense that the 49ers will run in 2007. Nolan said that Willis will compete with Derek Smith for the starting weak inside linebacker position.
With Patrick Willis teamed up with players like Manny Lawson, Tully Banta-Cain, the former Patriot acquired during free agency, Brandon Moore, Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, the 49ers look to be pretty set at linebacker. As far as character goes, the 49ers could not have chosen a better player. On the field, assistant head coach Mike Singletary has positively commented on Willis' "coachability." Willis has shown his maturity off the field as well. At age four, his mother had left. The pressure of raising four kids was too much for his father and that resulted in abuse for him and his siblings. He helped to raise his siblings once they all moved in with foster parents. Before Willis' senior season at Mississippi, his younger brother, who was also on his way to making a name for himself as a football player, drowned at the age of 17 and it was Willis that helped his family through it, keeping the siblings together and on the right path. Because of this, Willis learned early what it meant to be on a team. The events of his life have made him stronger and there is no question about his desire to overcome anything that life throws at him.
OT Joe Staley of Central Michigan and the 49ers offensive line
In a pretty confident move by Mike Nolan, the 49ers gave up their 2008 first round selection and a fourth rounder this year to the New England Patriots to secure the 28th overall pick. This move is confident because Nolan must feel that the 49ers will be selecting later in the first round of next year's Draft anyway. Should the 49ers make the playoffs, this would have been the outcome. The team also handed over their 100th selection in this past weekend's draft to the Patriots. They did this because there was a guy still available that the 49ers had on their draft board as a legitimate first round player. Offensive tackle Joe Staley out of Central Michigan was that guy. Offensive line coach George Warhop told Staley that he will be the team's right tackle, hopefully replacing Kwame Harris. This pick most likely delighted 49ers fans as Harris was famous for holding penalties, especially during big plays. Staley should be a solid tackle for years to come. While Harris did make mistakes, no one was really sure that the team should mess with the offensive line that helped Frank Gore to gain 1,695 yards in 2006. With the predicted pick of Patrick Willis at number 11, would a top quality offensive lineman still be there in the second round at number 42 (a pick that was later traded)? Besides, everyone figured that the 49ers would take the best wide receiver available with that pick. Staley was still there so the move seemed logical to the team.
While he did not expect San Francisco to be one of his destinations, Staley expressed his excitement to be with 49ers. He admired the team's rich history, something that became very apparent upon arriving at the team's headquarters and seeing the five Lombardi trophies on display. That was not all he was excited about. Growing up, he was a big fan of Larry Allen and is looking forward to the opportunity to not only play along side him, but learn from one favorite players.
Not only do the 49ers get one of the top 3 tackles in the Draft, a guy that should be able to step in and start right away, but they now have good depth at the position should Jonas Jennings get injured again. Jennings and Staley anchoring the outside has to be very reassuring for quarterback Alex Smith. Now all the team needs is to re-sign Justin Smiley to a long term contract and they are set. Yes, I am one of the minority that feels that locking up Smiley would be a solid move. He has proven to be a solid player during training camp and during his play in 2006. I was very pleased that Smiley was not traded and I continue to hope that a fair deal can be worked out.
Regaining a first round selection in 2008
The move to grab Staley left the team without a 2008 first round selection. However, that changed when Nolan made another move in the second round on Saturday. The team gave up their second round selection (42nd overall) to the Indianapolis Colts for their first round selection in 2008 and a fourth round selection (126th overall) this past weekend. A solid move by Nolan considering the Colts' chances of repeating as Super Bowl Champions has been damaged by their losses in free agency and lack of moves on their part. New England and San Diego look like the best teams in the AFC at this point and the Colts won't have enough talent anymore to overcome them.
WR Jason Hill of Washington State and the 49ers wide receivers
The 49ers released Antonio Bryant after the 2006 season leaving their group of wide receivers very questionable when it comes to talent. Sure Arnaz Battle has played fairly well and proven to be a solid possession receiver, but last season was the first time that he appeared in all 16 games and there are still questions whether or not he is a number one receiver in the NFL. Battle hopes to kill those questions in 2007. Behind him are a number of "potential" guys. The team signed Ashley Lelie in the offseason, a questionable move to some. Would it be the Lelie that had 1,084 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns in 2004 with the Denver Broncos or would it be the Lelie that had 430 yards receiving and one touchdown in 2006 with the Atlanta Falcons? It was apparent that the team needed some help at wide receiver and this draft had a lot of depth at that position.
In the third round, San Francisco selected Jason Hill, the wide receiver out of Washington State. Hill had two 1,000+ yard seasons with the Cougars in 2004 and 2005. In his final three years of college play, he had 148 receptions for 2,704 yards and 32 touchdowns. That is over 18 yards per catch for those that do not have a calculator nearby. He has the speed to burn cornerbacks which was made apparent after his fast 4.35 40-time at the Combine.
Hill is a local boy having grown up in the Fillmore district of San Francisco so this has to be exciting for him. While Hill played for the North squad at the Senior Bowl, he made sure to go up to Nolan, who was coaching the South squad, and let him know that he would love to be a 49er. His attitude on the field shows confidence in his abilities, something that is absolutely needed in a wide receiver. If anyone can bring out Hill's best abilities, it will be 49ers wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan.
The 49ers were predicted to take at least two wide receivers in the Draft. Instead, they just took one. This was because a trade for Seattle veteran wide receiver Darrell Jackson was agreed upon prior to the start of the fourth round on Sunday. The 49ers gave up a fourth round selection, their 124th overall for the former Seahawk. This was an absolute steal for a receiver who has had three 1,000+ yard seasons, a Super Bowl appearance, 956 yards in 2006 and 47 career touchdowns in his seven year career. Jackson automatically jumps to the head of the depth chart and it will be up to the rest of the 49ers receivers to fight for that spot opposite him. Jackson visited the 49ers over the weekend, where he and his wife expressed their interest to be in San Francisco. Jackson was not too pleased in Seattle after a contract dispute and what he felt was bad handling of his 2005 knee injury. The Seahawks likely would have eventually cut Jackson where he would have been fought over in free agency. By giving up a fourth round selection, the 49ers secured Jackson, saved some money and gave Alex Smith a veteran target.
The rest of the rookie class
The 49ers finally addressed the defensive line at the end of the third round with the selection of defensive tackle Ray McDonald from Florida. This is a risky pick because of some injury problems. He had two knee surgeries in 2005 that clearly bothered him during his play in 2006. McDonald may still require more surgery, but once he has healed completely, he may grow into a force on defense. 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula called McDonald, who played for the South squad at the Senior Bowl, a quick learner. At 276 pounds, he has good size and may be able to get a little bigger. He has played both defensive tackle and defensive end and has proven to be explosive off the line. There is a lot of upside here and considering the 49ers used a Compensatory Selection on him, hopefully the risk was low and the team can wait for him to contribute.
The team drafted another Florida defensive tackle in the fourth round by taking Joe Cohen. This guy already has defensive tackle size at 6-2 and weighing over 310 pounds. He was likely drafted to join the rotation at nose tackle and keep Aubrayo Franklin fresh. Franklin, the former Baltimore Raven, was signed during the offseason. Nolan and Scot McCloughan must have seen something in this guy to draft him so high.
Earlier in the fourth round, the team selected defensive end/outside linebacker Jay Moore out of Nebraska. This selection is interesting. Moore played on the same defense as Adam Carriker, the defensive end that some mock drafts felt the 49ers might select, and may have contributed a bit to his success. Not to the level that Manny Lawson contributed to Mario Williams of North Carolina State, but it is certainly something to think about. Moore put up pretty good numbers at Nebraska ending his college career with a 45 tackle and 6 sack season in 2006. Moore, who came in at 273 pounds will try to lose about 10 to enable him to compete for an outside linebacker spot with the team. He is a project, but hopefully the transition will be successful and he will be able to provide even more depth at the position. His versatility and football intelligence could be an asset to the team.
The 49ers used another fourth round pick to select Washington free safety Dashon Goldson. While their cornerbacks are now solid, there is still some uncertainty at the safety position for the 49ers. The team signed Michael Lewis from the Eagles during the offseason. Lewis had a great season in 2005 with 107 tackles and 2 interceptions. However, many felt that his production had fallen in 2006. Goldson does not have great speed and did not time very well at the Combine. However, at his listed 6-2 and 202 pounds, he has good size and has been said to be a very good tackler. It will be interesting to see exactly how San Francisco uses him.
Then we get to the troublesome twosome. Cornerback Tarell Brown from Texas and running back Thomas Clayton from Kansas State were selected in fifth and sixth rounds respectively.
Brown is the most intriguing selection. He has been labeled has having some character problems by many teams around the NFL which definitely hurt his draft stock. However, Scot McCloughan said that the team was satisfied with the background check on Brown. Brown was suspended early last season after being charged with a misdemeanor for carrying drugs and weapons. The drug portion of the charge was dropped. Brown was then arrested in March for a misdemeanor drug possession charge which was dropped last week. He does not sound like a "Nolan guy." The head coach obviously does not feel the same way. "I don't believe he's a character problem. I think he made a couple poor choices but I do not see him as a poor character person. I think he has very good character," said Nolan. All of that aside, on the football field, Brown could be a huge asset to the defense if he stays out of trouble. He could even be a draft steal with his good size, speed and the ability to shut down opponents. The cornerback situation seems to be much better with the addition of Nate Clements. The 49ers finally have a shut down corner that will help against Arizona's receivers. Despite a 5-11 record, Arizona had the best record when it comes to NFC West head-to-head play and swept San Francisco in 2006. With Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris on the other side of Clements and Shawntae Spencer contributing, the 49ers pass coverage woes may finally be over. Brown was probably worth the risk in the fifth round and was likely selected to compete for depth in the defensive backfield.
Clayton had his own troubles. He was suspended in 2006 after a conviction for misdemeanor aggravated battery. Clayton suffered a knee injury in 2006 which left him inactive after starting 4 games. He also had a poor relationship with his head coach at Kansas State. He will compete to be Frank Gore's backup. The selection of Clayton, like Goldson and Cohen, may have been a reach. But if just one of these guys pans out, it should be considered a success.
The team looks to be in fine shape heading into the 2007 season. The only bad thing is that the 49ers will not take anyone by surprise since they are gaining more and more respect throughout the league. No one will overlook San Francisco. Hopefully the attitude of the team and the desire to win will prove to opposing teams that there is a reason to once again fear the 49ers.