Draft outlook: Linebacker

If the 49ers have one shining strength entering the NFL draft this year, it's at linebacker - a position they have built into one of the league's top units through the draft. So there's positively no need to select a linebacker on Saturday, right? Well, with the team considering more use of a 3-4 defense in 2004, picking a first-day LB is not out of the question, and there might even be a scenario in which the Niners would use their top pick on the best outside LB available.

It would be a radical move, to be sure, but it's not implausible the Niners would take star Miami linebacker D.J. Williams if he is available with the No. 16 pick in the first round. Considered a top athlete with the potential to be an impact player, Williams also would provide instant local recognition, having played nearby in high school at national prep powerhouse Concord-De La Salle.

"I've watched him a bit over the years," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's going to be very special, in my opinion. He can run, he's got great leadership. He's a prototype University of Miami linebacker that you've seen over the years than can run and strike you. He's just an outstanding athlete. He's going to play a lot of years in this league."

Said general manager Terry Donahue, "He has really outstanding potential and a huge upside. When you evaluate him, you're going to say there is a really big upside to this guy."

Williams would fit nicely into the team's plans for using more 3-4 defensive schemes, and he also would give the team some insurance if projected starter Jamie Winborn cannot return as expected from neck-fusion surgery. If he's healthy, there also is talk of moving Winborn to safety, which again would open a slot for a play-making LB.

Perhaps the most enticing explanation for taking Williams is what kind of leverage it could bring to the team in negotiations with its best player, Julian Peterson, on whom the team was forced to place the exclusive franchise tag this year when talks broke down on a long-term contract extension with Peterson's agents, who were asking for $30 million in guaranteed money on a new deal.

Peterson, an All-Pro, obviously is the biggest reason the Niners don't need to worry about grabbing an impact linebacker early in the draft. But if Williams was to show the potential to become a similar NFL talent, the Niners would have other options in handling the Peterson situation, which appears headed for acrimony later this year.

But linebacker may be an overvalued position, and the Niners certainly are looking for better and more logical ways to use their top picks. With a core of Peterson, Winborn, Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith backed by promising youngsters Saleem Rasheed and Brandon Moore at the position, the mostly likely scenario that has the Niners selecting a linebacker is if a high value falls to them in the early to middle rounds or a solid prospect still is lingering late on Sunday.

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