I've reached the point where I'm growing tired of reading mock drafts that have zero clue on how the front office will approach the draft. Now, I'm not saying that I (or any other poster here) has a direct line into the war room (hardly anyone saw Aldon Smith coming), but I think we know enough to know what up-and-coming players they value, based on playing time last year and FA moves this year. So, let's review:
Wide-Receiver: This was obviously are most glaring deficiency, and we've signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to help cover it. Are we finished upgrading the position? I doubt it. But drafting a WR high is risky, and this is an extraordinarily deep class. I can see us waiting until Round 3-4 to take a WR.
Cornerback: I've been hoping for a cornerback for a few years now (Prince in 2011, Haden in 2010), but not anymore. While Carlos Rogers is a big part of it, a consistent pass-rush is the bigger benefit to our secondary, particularly with Tarrell Brown's play. I think the coaches are high on Chris Culliver's ability, and I don't see them drafting a CB high for that reason. Any time I see a mock draft with Alphonso Dennard or Janoris Jenkins slotted to the 49ers, I immediately stop reading it.
Right Guard: Other than QB, this is the only unsettled position we have going into 2011. However, we drafted Daniel Kilgore last year and the FO is clearly looking to sign someone to at least a one-year contract, and I think that is far preferable than bringing in another rookie, even a first-rounder. Anthony Davis has shown flashes of reaching his very high ceiling, but his play is atrocious next to an unreliable guard. I think the coaches recognize this as well, and that's why we're looking for a veteran. Plugging in either Kilgore or a rookie next to Davis would weaken the entire right side of our line. Maybe we draft for depth, but its been popular to draft us a guard in the 3rd- or 4th-round. I hope we pass and give Kilgore a shot.
Pass-Rusher: This team believes in Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. A 3rd or 4th round project? Sure, but not in the 1st round.
Tight End: I can see this one happening, due to Harbaugh's creativity and connection to Coby Fleener. I think its a bit too high for Fleener, but he won't be around at #62, so if Harbaugh really wants him, he's gotta pick him here. A very real possibility.
So now you're saying, "Alright, wise guy, if we don't need a WR, or a CB, or a Guard, or anyone really, then what are you proposing?"
Look, we have a really solid team, and the moves we've made thus far have afforded us an exceptional luxury: Instead of hoping a rookie fills a glaring hole, we can draft for the future, and prevent a drop-off we know is coming sooner rather than later. I'd like to highlight two positions in particular:
Running Back: We've been blessed to not need a running back in seven years. More than that, we found a great complimentary back with Kendall Hunter, a real slasher who can catch and isn't too much of a liability in protection. But though Hunter has remained durable despite running like he's 30 pounds heavier than he is, he had injury problems in college (which is why he slipped to the 4th) and I have doubts that his frame can assume a full-time load in a run-first offense if Gore goes down.
Why not use this chance to go after a running back, not just to spell Frank Gore but to eventually replace him when the time comes? By that, I mean a running back with three-down potential. One who is fast and strong, can catch, and already solid in pass protection? I like Doug Martin out of Boise State, but the only problem is he likely won't be available at #62. For that reason, I'd fully endorse the slight reach of taking him at #30. Robert Turbin out of Utah State fits the same role in later rounds. He isn't as solid a prospect, but might be the best option if we decline to go RB first round.
Defensive Line: There are two indisputable facts: 1) Justin Smith is the best defensive player in the NFL, and 2) He can't last forever. Since he's signed with us, we've never had to contemplate a defense without Justin Smith, but that reality may be upon us in the next few years, and simply put, downgrading from the best defensive player in the league to a rookie drafted the same year to fill that need could really damage this defense. I think a better option would be to draft someone high now, and let them learn a year or two, slowly rotating in, and learning the speed of the game.
Furthermore, as discussed last year, you can never have enough young, big, fast guys on your team. However, our depth is currently a 7th-rounder and two UDFAs. Maybe they're diamonds in the rough, but a more surefire route would be to get a prospect that fits our team's philosophy and has the talent to limit the dropoff. My draft crush this year is Jared Crick out of Nebraska, and I'll be happy to grab him regardless of any other pick. I've seen him go as early as the 20s, but he's more frequently slotted in the late 2nd through late 4th. Taking him at #62 wouldn't be a terrible reach, especially for his talent and motor. Kendall Reyes of UCONN is another option here, but I like Crick on virtually every level better.
Center: Jonathan Goodwin is an adequate Center, perhaps above-average, but he's best viewed as a stop-gap solution. Unfortunately, we don't have the other end of the bridge yet, so this draft seems as good a time to pick one as any... except for the fact that this is a particularly weak Center class. Still, if we're fully going down this road I've laid out of drafting for future need, then Mike Brewster of Ohio State in the 4th round would be a good fit.
Linebacker Depth: Not necessarily a pass-rusher, but that wouldn't be a bad idea either. Essentially looking for a replacement for Parys Harrylson and/or Larry Grant, if they are cut or signed elsewhere (respectively). If not, then depth alongside or behind them, that could also play on special teams.
Safety: Dashon Goldson may sign a long-term agreement, he may not. Either way, he can be upgraded. Donte Whitner had some obviously missteps last season, but is a good addition to the team. Targeting safety depth is already a staple of Trent Baalke drafts when looking for ST players, but a project such as Janzen Jackson of McNeese St. (formerly of Tennessee) or Delano Howell of Stanford might accomplish both feats in the 5th Round or later.
My Mock Draft:
After signing a veteran OG, here's how I'd like to see us proceed:
#30: Doug Martin, RB
#62: Jared Crick, DE
#74: Tommy Streeter, WR
4th: Mike Brewster, C
5th: Janzen Jackson, S
6th: LB depth, ST
7th: CB depth, ST
My Fanservice Draft:
To appease a certain segment on this board (and something I can see actually happening):
#30: Coby Fleener, TE
#62: Jared Crick, DE
#74: Markelle Martin, S
4th: Robert Turbin, RB
5th: William Vlachos, C
6th: LB depth, ST
7th: WR/DB depth, ST