Niners may maneuver to score in draft again

With a league-high 12 selections available in the upcoming days, the 49ers have a lot of flexibility to maneuver up, down and all around in the 2011 NFL draft. After general manager Trent Baalke had some success at it last year as a novice running the draft, that is just what the 49ers might do again beginning Thursday.

Thrust into the role of calling the shots last April after the 49ers parted ways with general manager Scot McCloughan the month before, Baalke – in conjunction with others comprising the team's draft brain trust – didn't hesitate to make moves when the opportunity presented itself at this time last year.

The jury still is out on San Francisco's 2010 draft class – as it is for every draft class just one year after it's selected – but Baalke's moves on draft weekend last year were solid at the very least and perhaps will pan out as much better if certain youngsters continue to develop on the paths they set forth in their rookie seasons.

Baalke, who is becoming adept at never tipping his hand when faced with concrete questions, naturally didn't give away any indications which way the team is leaning when asked recently if there was a likelihood the 49ers would move around again in the draft this year. San Francisco currently has three selections among the first 76 picks.

"I think there's a likelihood of a lot of things that we could do," said Baalke, promoted to team GM earlier this year after serving as vice president of player personnel during the draft last year. "We could go up. There is a possibility we move up. There's a possibility that we sit tight, and we could move back. It really depends on how the board falls initially with the first couple of picks on what we want to do."

While saying the team will explore all its options, Baalke alluded to last year's college lottery, when the 49ers were sitting with the heavy ammunition of the Nos. 13 and 17 overall picks in the first round.

The 49ers' primary intent in the early portions of the draft was to bolster their offensive line, to inject into one of the team's weakest areas the final pieces that could turn San Francisco into a playoff team. That result never happened during a disappointing 6-10 season, of course, but the 49ers did make good on their intention to solidify their line, perhaps adding two cornerstones of that unit for years to come in first-rounders Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati.

Davis started all 16 games at right tackle and showed promise at the position while Iupati did even better at left guard, starting all 16 games while being named to the Sporting News 2010 All-Rookie team. Davis and Iupati became just the third pair of rookie teammates to start every game on the offensive line since the NFL's 16-game schedule was instituted in 1978.

But on the draft's opening day last year, the 49ers were getting particularly antsy they wouldn't get Davis, the young prospect they were targeting to fill their formidable void at right tackle. When the draft dropped near the end of the first 10 selections, and it appeared there was a good chance Davis wouldn't still be around at No. 13, Baalke pulled the trigger.

He traded that No. 13 pick and the team's fourth-round pick (the No. 113 overall) to Denver for the Broncos' top pick, the No. 11 overall. The 49ers promptly grabbed Davis when they went on the clock at No. 11.

"A lot of people criticized the decision at that point to move up because the player would have been there," Baalke said. "There's no guarantees with this thing. It's easy to sit back and say that the player would have been there. But in our minds, there were a lot of people that needed a tackle. Some people were of the mindset that there were two there, and there would have been two picks in front of us. In our minds, we felt very strongly about Anthony, so we decided to move up. We gave up a fourth-round pick to do it, and I've never second-guessed that decision."

The move worked out for the 49ers, particularly since Iupati fell into their laps with the No. 17 overall pick and the team ended up with two immediate starters who both promise to make an impact at their positions as they continue to develop in the years to come.

Another draft maneuver by the 49ers – this one backward – also worked out splendidly and gave the team high value for its picks.

With San Francisco's third-round pick, the No. 79 overall, Baalke traded with San Diego to move back 12 selections in the round, picking up the Chargers' No. 91 overall pick. In addition to San Diego's third-rounder, the 49ers received a sixth-rounder in the deal (No. 173 overall) with the added bonus of also collecting San Diego's fourth-round pick in the draft this year.

Just one year after it was made, that deal is looking like a bona fide steal.

With the No. 91 overall pick, the 49ers selected linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a fast and fluid prospect who was raw as a rookie but showed definite flashes of starting potential. Bowman started one game, recorded 35 tackles and also became a standout performer on special teams with 26 tackles on those units, which led the team. Bowman graded out as San Francisco's No. 2 special teams performer at the end of the season.

With the sixth-rounder they picked up in the deal, the 49ers landed running back Anthony Dixon, a power back with shifty feet who topped the NFL with 300 yards rushing during the exhibition season and was San Francisco's third-leading rusher with 237 yards and two touchdowns during the regular season. Davis should see more work this year and could become a legitimate No. 2 back behind Frank Gore, and perhaps even develop into Gore's eventual successor.

And then the 49ers also got San Diego's fourth-rounder this year, the No. 115 overall. That gives the 49ers two fourth-rounders on Saturday, when the draft concludes, to go along with two sixth-rounders and four seventh-rounders.

"We gave up a little extra in the first, we got it back, and we got a good player in the sixth that we wouldn't have had had we not made that trade," Baalke said. "So we're going to look at every option."

The 49ers also picked up two extra 2011 picks last year when they traded quarterback Shaun Hill to Detroit for a seventh-rounder (netting the No. 231 pick overall) and disgruntled lineman Kentwan Balmer to Seattle for a sixth-rounder (No. 190 overall).

All those extra picks become even more important for the 49ers if they want to move around in the draft this year. With the uncertainty of the NFL lockout looming, teams can only trade draft picks – and not any players – should they attempt to make deals during the three-day college lottery.

With the No. 7 overall selection being such a premium pick, the 49ers won't hesitate to make a move again this year. They could potentially move up to grab that can't-miss quarterback prospect they need, or move down a few spots and still pick up a game-breaker at several positions while adding more picks to use later.

And as Baalke and the 49ers exhibited last year, they know what to do with them.

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