Forecasting the Future

Apr 22, 2007 at 1:49 AM

With the NFL Draft a week away and fast approaching (faster every year, it seems), now is as good a time as any to break it all down. With pro-days out of the way and most team's draft boards pretty much set, it's unlikely that much will change before Jamarcus Russell or Calvin Johnson is handed his Raiders jersey on Saturday.

A pet-peeve of mine has always been internet guys who seem like they think they know more than the professionals. The opinions of guys who watch hundreds of hours of tape before they make a single pick should probably take precedence over mine-- I'm lucky if I get the chance to watch a dozen non-Stanford college football games in a season. The real test of a team's success with a pick an entire draft class comes three years down the line, not with what grade Mel Kiper or online bloggers give it.

With that said, there's still plenty to talk about leading up to the best NFL weekend league-wide, and the Draft itself answers plenty of questions every year. Not questions about the players picked so much as questions about players already on the roster. Based on who Mike Nolan and the 49ers take, at least early on, we'll all know just a little bit more about what they think of the guys they already have. Here are some story lines and predictions for next weekend's greatest show off the gridiron:

Fixing the D -- A lot has been made of Nolan's priority to give the 49ers' defense a major facelift this offseason. But when push comes to shove, it will be interesting to see just how much attention is paid to this side of the ball. Given the 49ers already impressive free agency additions of Nate Clements, Tully Banta-Cain, Michael Lewis and Aubrayo Franklin it's no stretch to say that a big part of the makeover is already complete. Offensively meanwhile, it's no secret that the San Francisco could use some help in a big way at wide receiver and that the right side of the offensive line could be gone after next year with Kwame Harris and Justin Smiley both possible free agent departures.

So the question is, just how much help does the offense need relative to the defense? In the first round, value at the 49ers pick is stacked on the defensive side of the ball, so it's probably highly unlikely the team goes in another direction. But mid and late round picks should tell the tale of where San Francisco brass thinks the team's most pressing needs lie.

Evaluating the Past -- One particular 49er need area frequently mentioned by analysts and fans alike is the defensive line. The venerable veteran Bryant Young might be playing his last season for the 49ers, and even with his role expected to be reduced this year there's no question he'll be leaving some big shoes to fill. Marques Douglas has been a solid but unspectacular starter, and even with the newly signed Franklin the nose tackle position is still certainly an issue, especially given that the former Raven has yet to show starting ability.

But that's not to say the cupboard is completely bare along the defensive front. Sixth round pick Melvin Oliver logged significant playing time last season while Ronald Fields really stepped up as a key run-stuffer up front. How early and often the 49ers address the defensive line next weekend should be a good indication of what Nolan and Co. think of the young faces they already have up front.

Branching Out -- A name that has come up a lot recently as a possible pick for the 49ers in the first round is Michigan DT Alan Branch, a truly talented big man with the kind of athleticism and name school pedigree teams covet.

But questions about his motivation, work ethic and desire have plagued Branch ever since he declared following Michigan's Rose Bowl loss to USC. While there's no doubt that Branch's physical abilities the 49ers could really use for their front seven, if there's one issue Mike Nolan has stood firm on in all his time with the 49ers, it's been his dedication to drafting high character players.

In Branch's case, this distinction has nothing to do with the Wolverine star's off the field conduct, but rather with his passion for the game. True, Nolan violated his "rule" with the Antonio Bryant signing, but Bryant's will to play the game at the highest level was never in doubt and that was a free agency move where much less was at stake. When Bryant failed, Nolan cut him. If Branch failed, the 49ers would likely be stuck with him for another three to four years.

No matter how you slice it, drafting the Michigan star would be a big departure from San Francisco's norm.

Going Deep -- As mentioned before, it's no secret that San Francisco needs help at wide receiver. But as for what kind of player the team is looking for, it's anybody's guess. If you listen to the man in charge, the answer is big, physical receivers who aren't ashamed to block in the running game. If you look at the players the team has actually acquired, speed has been the deciding factor, with burners like Bryant, Ashley Lelie, and Brandon Williams being the norm. And other than a late round flyer on Marcus Maxwell, college production also seems to be an important factor for 49ers picks.

The problem? Outside of Calvin Johnson, there's not really anyone in the draft who fits all those requirements. If the 49ers were to trade back into the first round, looking for an outside presence for the offense and were luckily staring at Dwayne Jarrett, Ted Ginn Jr. and Robert Meachem, who would they choose? Ginn is the prototypical speed guy, with the kind of game-breaking ability the 49ers currently lack on the outside, while Jarrett is big, tough and durable but faces real questions about whether he'll be able to gain separation against professional competition. Meanwhile, Meachem would seem to be the best of both worlds, possessing both speed and size-- but the former Volunteer started just one season with Tennessee before coming out as a junior and lacks the kind of track-record some would probably like to see from a top prospect.

One way or another, the 49ers will have to decide what they really want in a receiver if they plan on taking one early this year.

Down in the Trenches -- With speculation swirling that Justin Smiley may be entering his final season with the 49ers, and Kwame Harris facing a training camp battle with Adam Snyder for his starting position the Niners' front five may not be as deep as it once appeared. As if that weren't scary enough, All-World left guard Larry Allen obviously won't be able to play forever. Add that up, and it could spell trouble for a San Francisco front that only looks to have two definite long term starters-- Jonas Jennings and Eric Heitmann.

Certainly Snyder and David Baas could take over for two members of this seemingly soon-departed trio, but Tony Wragge is most likely a versatile backup in the long run, not a starter. Luckily for the 49ers, this draft would appear to be particularly strong in mid-round guard talent. And SF definitely has plenty of mid round picks. Depending on how many and how quickly the 49ers address the offensive line, we should get a good indication of just how big of a problem area this is down the line.

Rush on Pass Rushers -- Banta-Cain's signing filled a gaping hole on the 49ers roster by finding a bookend outside backer to pair with Manny Lawson and get after opposing quarterbacks. Pass Rushing was perhaps the 49ers biggest defensive shortfall last season, though, and it remains to be seen whether San Francisco views the former Patriot as a full-time starter or wave player. It's important to remember that New England jumped at the chance to upgrade their own linebacker corps with Adalius Thomas. A day one choice for an OLB prospect could indicate that the Niners have their own doubts about Banta-Cain's potential as a full-time starter.

Just How Close Are They? -- Last year, Nolan pulled the trigger on a deal with the Broncos for a second first round choice that eventually turned into Manny Lawson. The reasoning at the time was that the personnel department was comfortable with overall team depth, but knew it needed starters. With a bevy of mid round picks this year, it's entirely possible that the same strategy could apply, especially if the 49ers feel they're just a few pieces away from really contending-- and not just for a playoff spot. The more the Niners trade up, the more likely they think they're really close to putting a truly talented team on the field come September.
The opinions 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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