What the Niners need most in 2011 NFL draft

At this time last year, the 49ers seemed only a few exclusive pieces away from finally becoming a playoff team again. Now, as they enter the 2011 NFL draft, they're just another struggling team coming off a 6-10 season and looking for answers. To be sure, the Niners have specific needs to fill in this draft, and here's a detailed look at the five specific areas where they need help most.

Quarterback

When talking about the 49ers' most pressing needs last week, general manager Trent Baalke didn't attempt to hide from what has become evident to all. "Obviously, we need a quarterback," Baalke said. "We've got work to do, whether it's in free agency, whether it's in this draft, or whether it's in trade. We've got to figure it out." The 49ers might have an opportunity to figure it out during the draft. Veteran journeyman David Carr is the only quarterback under contract and Jim Harbaugh wants to groom a youngster for the future. The 49ers have offered Alex Smith a one-year deal to return in 2011, but nobody really believes anymore that he's the future at quarterback. If he plays QB for the Niners this year, he'll just be keeping the position warm for someone else. The 49ers have enough faith in Harbaugh as an evaluator and coach that they may not necessarily use their first-round pick on the position. Harbaugh could wait until the second round for someone like Nevada's Colin Kaepernick or even longer for a sleeper like Delaware's Pat Devlin. The 49ers won't waste their first-rounder on a QB, taking a player at that slot only if they feel he's a can't-miss prospect for what they envision at the position. With Harbaugh's prowess at developing QBs, the Niners might be able to wait until the second or third round to pluck a candidate who could realistically develop into their QB some day, and become a premier one at that.

Outside linebacker

Hasn't this been a need for the 49ers ever since they moved to a 3-4 defensive system more than half a decade ago? Yes, it has. And yes, it still is. Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, San Francisco's starters at the position last year, combined for just 6.5 sacks in 2009 and Lawson is an unrestricted free agent. Lawson never became the double-digit sack master the 49ers envisioned when they traded up to draft him in the first round in 2006, and the team would like an upgrade from what he has provided in pass-rushing situations. The Niners got some sack contributions last season from rotational reserves Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy, who each had five sacks, but new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wants an aggressive, blitz-happy defense similar to the one that buddy Dom Capers runs in Green Bay, and that means adding a premier edge rusher if the team can find one. The Niners covet a player who can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks like Clay Matthews does for the Packers, but the best option in this draft, Texas A&M stud Von Miller, likely will be off the board when San Francisco is on the clock. Other possibilities include North Carolina's Robert Quinn in the first round, North Carolina's Bruce Carter in the second and Fresno State's Chris Carter in the third. Expect to 49ers to grab at least one prospect here during the first two days of the draft.

Cornerback

The 49ers were rather easy pickings for opponents throwing the deep ball last year, and the team was done in by shoddy coverage many times when it needed a stop on passing downs. The 49ers finished 24th in the NFL against the pass in 2010, and their top cornerback, Nate Clements, might be released due to an unwieldy contract in 2011. Clements never became the shutdown corner he was expected to be when the 49ers made him the highest-paid defender in NFL history during 2007 free agency, and he's scheduled to make far more this year than he is worth to the team. Clements has clearly lost a step and has become limited in downfield coverage. He'll only return with a considerable pay cut, making it paramount that the 49ers add another quality young player here in the draft. The team's No. 2 corner last year, Shawntae Spencer, did nothing special last year after a resurgent 2009 season and struggled against bigger receivers. Fangio wants to run an aggressive defensive scheme and having cornerbacks who can cover receivers deep is essential. LSU's Patrick Peterson would be a no-brainer selection at pick No. 7 and the team even could nab Nebraska's Prince Amukamara at that spot. Later in the draft, Texas' Aaron Williams or Virginia's Ras-I Dowling are possibilities. No matter who is on the board – including quarterbacks – the 49ers might have a difficult time passing up Peterson if he's there, and perhaps even Amukamara, because it's tough to go wrong with can't-miss cornerback prospects.

Running back

The 49ers have attempted to protect Frank Gore, their top offensive player, for several years by adding new players to help him share the load. But Gore continued to carry that load anyway and paid for it with injuries that kept him out of a few games in 2009 and ended his season in November last year. Gore also is entering the final year of his contract and the time has come for the team to seriously consider grooming another lead back for the future. The Niners have taken long looks at running backs that will be available in the middle rounds and probably will select one during that stretch. Backup Anthony Dixon is big, shifty and talented, but the 49ers aren't ready to turn the reins over to him just yet. He still has to show them more and probably will get that opportunity in 2011 with veteran backup Brian Westbrook almost certain not to return to the team. Kansas State's Daniel Thomas, Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter, Eastern Washington's Taiwan Jones, Nebraska's Roy Helu and Cal's Shane Vereen have all gotten long looks from the 49ers in recent weeks, with both Helu and Vereen attending the team's Pro Day on April 20. Any one of them could wind up a 49er, and the team is almost certain to bring in a draft pick for competition at this position.

Defensive line

This area is perhaps the strength of the team, with standout Justin Smith continuing to play at a Pro Bowl level and veteran Isaac Sopoaga holding his own on the line opposite Smith. Aubrayo Franklin, after missing all of training camp without a contract last year, was again solid but took a while to get going and never played up to his top form of 2009 that got him stuck with the franchise tag by the team. Franklin again is a free agent and is no lock to return, so the team must find another big body to add to the mix up front, since backup nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois, despite showing ability, disappeared for stretches while he was in games last year and probably isn't big enough to be a regular at the position. With reserves Ray McDonald and Demetric Evans also looking at free agency, the Niners have an outstanding need to add more depth here.


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