Drafting for tomorrow and today

The 49ers clearly are in a rebuilding mode with the college lottery looming, but that doesn't mean they'll be drafting for the future this weekend. They still have the present to think about, and they need to come out of this draft with some talent that can step in immediately if the team plans to be competitive this season. "It would be like going to the toy store," GM Terry Donahue said. "We want one of those toys assembled. We don't want to assemble them. We need some guys who can come in."

The Niners, in what could be an unprecedented scenario, must replace five starting offensive skill players - their starting quarterback and running back, both starting receivers and their starting tight end - from the team they fielded in 2003. The replacements at QB, RB and TE already have been identified, making a topflight receiver the team's most clearly-defined need entering a draft in which the Niners have many.

Donahue, who will continue to try adding another pick to San Francisco's eight selections by trading down until the Niners' No. 16 selection goes on the clock in the first round, knows how vital it is that the Niners get it right with three of the top 77 picks today and five more scheduled for Sunday.

"I think the next two drafts are very critical," he said. "We need an influx of talent into the organization. Over the next two years, we want to try to bring in as many players in terms of the draft system as we can, because we're more limited in the participation of the free-agent market. I think, philosophically, Dennis (Erickson) and I both feel over the next two years we want to try to accumulate as many picks as we can to build the quality of the football team."

For salary-cap reasons, the Niners cleansed their roster of a whopping nine starters - four of them released and five of them signing elsewhere as unrestricted free agents - and they'll expect many of the voids that exodus created in their two-deep depth chart to be filled by the names they'll be calling out through seven rounds this weekend.

They'll likely stay at the No. 16 slot unless a last-minute deal can be made by Donahue in the tradition of his predecessor with the 49ers, Bill Walsh. The 16th slot has been good to San Francisco. The last time the Niners selected there, they landed All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson in 2000. The last time they picked a receiver at that slot in the first round, the guy's name was Jerry Rice.

The Niners obviously would like to start this draft with a similar big-bang opening today.

"The last time we picked at 16, we got a Pro Bowler," Donahue said. "So it's a good spot for us. That's a good place to be. We would be inclined, at 16 if we had the opportunity, to trade back, if the trade was conducive to giving us a good pick or something of value we felt we could really utilize. But 16 is fine."

Figuring that at least eight players are locks to be gone by the time the 49ers pick, SFI predicts the Niners first-round selection will be from among this group of seven players: Cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall of Virginia Tech and Chris Gamble of Ohio State; receivers Reggie Williams of Washington and Rashaun Woods of Oklahoma State; defensive tackle Vince Wilfork of Miami; defensive end Kenechi Udeze of USC and linebacker D.J. Williams of Miami. There's a good chance the Niners could trade back in the first round and still get one of those seven players.

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