McCloughan's impact will be felt well before draft

It has been said that Scot McCloughan is a bona fide college scouting guru, and there is solid evidence to support that statement. Indeed, McCloughan's top priority will be building the 49ers through the draft. But what some don't realize is his ability to evaluate San Francisco's current roster and those of other NFL teams will be just as big a key to the Niners finding success sooner rather than later.

McCloughan promises the 49ers will be ready when the draft rolls around, saying the team will be prepared to "have a really good feel where we take those (draft picks) that we're going to be getting good football players."

But, in actuality, the 2005 draft will be for filling in holes and projecting for the future after McCloughan, coach Mike Nolan and others in the organization study the team's current roster, then decide what players to unload from it and what players on other rosters to target in free agency.

This is where McCloughan will make his first impact on the organization, and it will be much bigger than some who consider him just a "draft scout" may realize.

The 49ers' hiring of McCloughan has received generally rave reviews throughout the league, as if the team had unearthed some kind of hidden, precious gem. McCloughan is quick to admit that his expertise is in college scouting, but after nine years in the scouting departments of the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, he also has a general sense of the personnel that fills most NFL rosters.

That includes the San Francisco roster.

Don't think McCloughan doesn't already have a pretty good idea of who should stay and who should go on the 49ers' current 53-man roster.

McCloughan tiptoed around the subject this week when he was asked his impressions of the San Francisco roster, saying, "I hate to comment completely on it because I don't know it as well as I'm going to know it" – a politically correct answer if there ever was one.

But, since the Seahawks are a NFC West rival who play the 49ers twice a year, McCloughan didn't deny that he has studied the San Francisco roster and had a pretty good idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

While not attempting to downplay the premise that roster changes – perhaps big changes – are sure to come, McCloughan said the 49ers have a base nucleus of solid players that will be enough to build around through the draft and free agency.

"I know there is talent there," he said with a straight face. "Last year, with coach Holmgren just talking about the team, they scared Seattle a lot. Any team, even the teams that are playing this weekend (in the Super Bowl), you always have to get better. Each year, you have the salary cap, and there are reasons always to take another step, no matter what. I feel really good about it, I really do."

Each year he was in Seattle – his first draft in charge of college scouting with the Seahawks was 2001 – McCloughan got a little bit more involved with pro personnel. Now he'll put that skill to use in a broader sense, as the Niners comb over hundreds of NFL free agents and prepare for their offseason shopping. San Francisco will be about $18 million under the salary cap when free agency begins in March, and the Niners have targeted some of that money to go after established veterans who will make an immediate difference in their lineup and 2005 record.

"Scot has that ability to identify guys properly," Nolan said. "It's not like we all of a sudden say, ‘We want a tough college guy, but we want a not-so-tough pro guy.' You know, you're looking for the same kind of guys. The objective is to get the best football players – including character and all of those things that go with it – on your roster. Whether it is a college guy or a pro guy, people are people and that is what Scot showed us as far as that goes. Scot is good at his job, and he's the guy that can get me off the fence (in pivotal personnel decisions)."

As Nolan alluded to – and has already been well established since he was hired – the head coach will have final say on all personnel decisions. But, to suggest how it actually will play out, it's McCloughan's job to tell Nolan what to do as far making final decisions on players – whether they're already playing for the Niners, are currently on another NFL rosters or just finished their final college season.

And another factor could come into play in a huge way over the next month: McCloughan's Seattle connections.

McCloughan knows the Seahawks' players inside and out. Heck, he was responsible for drafting most of them. Don't look now, but 16 of Seattle's best players currently are scheduled to be up for unrestricted free agency in March.

Some of those players will be out of reach for San Francisco, but the Seahawks certainly can't keep all of them. McCloughan will know better than anybody which ones the Niners should go after, and which ones will best fit into the new system the 49ers envision.

In fact, with McCloughan and vice president of football operations Ted Thompson bolting from the team to better jobs, combined with owner Paul Allen's decision to fire team president Bob Whitsitt in January, the defending NFC West-champion Seahawks are in a state of front-office turmoil – perhaps even chaos – which the Niners might be able to take advantage of as far as siphoning off some of Seattle's talent.

The 49ers certainly just hired the right guy to evaluate that talent. And everybody else's talent, for that matter, including the team he now works for.

"Free agency is starting to get going," McCloughan said. "I don't feel behind the eight ball at all. We'll get this done. It's a lot of hard work, but it's not my first road here. I've been through these things and I'm looking forward to it."

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