49ers Use Draft to Gain Ground on Rams, Seahawks

May 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM


The draft is a strange process indeed as every team leaves the draft feeling as though they've gained a distinct advantage over their opponents. In reality, only half the teams can help themselves relative to the rest of the league. The other half should leave the draft hanging their heads, with GMs issuing Rumsfeld-esque apologies to their fans, and coaches fielding questions from reporters about the problems within their scouting department. But instead, it's cocktails and backslaps all around for the executives of all 32 teams.

What reason have we to believe that the 49ers have done some good on draft day relative to their NFC West counterparts? Let's take a look.

In the first round, with the top five receivers off the board, Terry Donahue decides to trade the 16th pick to Philadelphia for the 28th pick and Philly's second rounder. Why Philadelphia would give up a second rounder just to draft a marginally better offensive lineman than the one they would have gotten at 28 is incomprehensible. But hey, Donahue was threatening to draft D.J. Williams, linebacker from Miami, who would have been great company for Saleem Rasheed on the sidelines. Somebody had to stop him.

Then, we breath a sigh of relief, as not a single receiver is taken between picks 16 and 27. Mission accomplished. We still have our choice of Rashaun Woods or Michael Jenkins and we've added an additional second round pick. But wait, the Donahue/Walsh braintrust decides to roll the dice again, risk losing the last of the premier wideouts, and trade down three spots so we can pick up Richard Seigler, who, quite frankly, I have never heard of.

But let's cut to the chase. What do we have in Rashaun Woods? Well, in a normal year he would have been the 3rd or 4th receiver taken. He's the all-time Big 12 receiving yards leader. Over the last two seasons, he's accumulated more yards than any other receiver in the draft, surpassing Roy Williams by 844 yards during that stretch. He's not the greatest athlete, but he's extraordinarily productive, and does the little things right. Often times, the Roy Williams' are so big and strong that they can run right over and by cornerbacks at the college level, and thus, fail to master the nuances of the game. Rashaun gets the separation he needs. He uses his body well. He runs good routes. He won't blaze through a secondary, but he'll catch the 3rd and 6 and keep the chains moving. He catches everything. Scouts say he's the most polished receiver in the draft. Great pick.

The same can be said about Justin Smiley, our first of two second round selections. One of the top guards in the draft, Smiley should outperform Ron Stone, who underachieved since arriving from New York. All those who fear that the loss of Deese and Stone will cause our line to crumble like ancient ruins, think again. Kwame Harris will surpass Deese as a run blocker and learn to pass protect soon enough. Harris, Heitmann, Newberry, Smiley, and Gragg make a good line.

Mixed reviews on cornerback Shawntae Spencer. He was the fastest-rising player in the entire draft in March and April. He stole the show from Larry Fitzgerald on Pitt's pro day. He's athletic, has good feet, turns and runs well, is tall, has a good break on the ball, can handle larger receivers, and does a good job of locating the ball and batting it down. On the flip side, despite being one of the best corners in the Big East, he wasn't invited to the combine, has 4.48 speed which is good but not great, and is inconsistent. Yet, he should be able to play nickel back relatively soon.

Wideout Derrick Hamilton from Clemson probably would have been a second rounder most years. He led the ACC in total yardage each of the last two seasons, and will help us stretch the field. Thus, we have four receivers who will all complement each other well. Rashaun Woods is the big target who is strong, gets good positioning, leaps well, catches the ball at its highest point, and will make the tough catch in traffic. Derrick Hamilton will be our burner who will make teams respect us deep, and thus, open things up underneath. Teams can never have enough quick and darting Cedric Wilson types. Brandon Lloyd gives us another deep option, and fade option in the red zone, because of his leaping ability. Even Arnaz Battle has had a nice minicamp, showing marked improvement over last season.

Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga may have been the last quality defensive tackle remaining, and considering the likes of can't-miss prospects Dan Wilkinson, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, and Jimmy Kennedy, the 49ers were wise to pass on Vince Wilfork and address tackle when they did. Sopoaga was the strongest defensive tackle in the draft, had 3rd round talent in this draft, and has 1st round potential. Considering that the 49ers don't need a sack artist, only someone to stuff the run and collapse the pocket, he is an excellent pick.

It's hard to get excited about the rest of the draft picks. If any of them were worthy of mention at this stage in their careers someone would have picked them before they fell to us. We may get lucky, but we have no reason to believe that we've uncovered a great one at this stage.

All in all, the 49ers gained on the Rams and Seahawks, mainly because we picked before them, the plethora of quality receivers available, which was our main area of concern, our ability to trade down and acquire more picks, and Mike Martz's unfathomable ego. I can't defend him anymore; Mike Martz is drafting for shock value. The Rams have no adequate replacement for Grant Wistrom. Brian Young, who took a riverboat down to New Orleans, was one of their more productive interior linemen. Leonard Little faces what is likely to be at least a four-game suspension over a DUI. And yet, Martz, already lacking a second round pick, waits until the bottom of the 3rd round to select defensive end Tony Hargrove, who didn't even play last year. I'm sure Rattay's sweating bullets.

Instead of upgrading his porous defensive line or his highly suspect cornerbacks, he trades up to select Steven Jackson from Oregon State, who he can groom to take over for the aging Marshall Faulk. Martz won't even have a job two years from now when Faulk retires if he doesn't address his defense.

The numbers alone show Martz's befuddling of the draft. The 49ers made four quality selections before the Rams made their second, six selections before the Rams made their third. Last year, the Rams were a skeleton of what they used to be. They needed to reload. They didn't. They're in for a rude awakening in what could be a tough, tough division.

Unfortunately, the awakening probably won't come from the 49ers; more likely the Seattle Seahawks, traditionally the least likely of franchises to unseat the division champs. In the first round they made the obvious choice, selecting defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs from Texas, who it pains me to admit will probably be better than Isaac Sopoaga. The silver lining is his inconsistency. However, even if he pans out, Seattle still has a depth problem at DT the likes of which only the Washington Redskins have experienced. Furthermore, having to choose between Orlando Huff and Isaiah Kacyvenski for your starting middle linebacker is like ABC choosing to between Joe Lieberman and Brit Hume for its Monday Night Football color commentary.

I fear the Cardinals. Earnestly. I fear Dennis Green. I can't begin to imagine Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald on the same team. Winning in the Valley of the Sun never was but should no longer be, easy. But alas, we are not so pathetic that we need worry about being surpassed by a team that we dropped 50 points on over three quarters last season. Not this year at least.

Donahue is half way home in his plan to acquire 20 picks over two years and infuse youth and talent into the ball club. He understands that excellence is achieved not through free agency, but through the draft. Free agents seldom perform at the anticipated level. They're products of they system they play in. Meanwhile, draft picks become the backbone of the team within a few years. Donahue just made our backbone much stronger, relatively speaking.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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