Focusing on trenches is wise way for 49ers to go

If the 49ers are going to get to the NFL's promised land again, as Mike Nolan pointed out twice during his busy first draft day as a head coach, they are going to need not only a potential franchise quarterback to guide them, but also a bunch of burly linemen to clear the path on the uphill climb. While some wanted to see Nolan go for flashier skill players after taking Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick, he wisely focused his intentions on rebuilding the 49ers from the trenches up instead.

That continued on Sunday when the 49ers used their first selection of the day at the top of the fifth round on Mississippi State defensive tackle Ronald Fields, who was rated as a possible first-day talent and should slip right in at noseguard if the veterans already ahead of him on the team's roster don't step up at the position.

The 49ers plan to add plenty more beef before all is said and done Sunday afternoon.

"If I was to anticipate where I think the draft is going to fall (Sunday), I think you'll see us taking a lot of big guys on both sides of the ball," Nolan said. "People with hands in the dirt. That's what I anticipate. I won't guarantee it. But as I look at the board, that's where I think our football team will go."

That's where the 49ers went on Day 1 after selecting Smith, with Nolan immediately taking measures to protect the team's big investment instead of searching for the playmakers the team needs at receiver and in the secondary with its first-day picks.

The Niners could have found a top-notch prospect at receiver, cornerback or safety with the No. 33 choice in the second round. In fact, Oklahoma free safety Brodney Pool – who seemingly would have been a perfect fit at a position of need for the Niners – went to Cleveland on the very next pick. But Nolan opted instead for a top interior candidate in Michigan's David Baas, who can play three positions along the line and already is being compared to center Jeremy Newberry for his toughness and nasty demeanor.

Even taking running back Frank Gore with the first pick of the third round was designed as a measure of protecting Smith by surrounding him with players who will absorb some of the focus of opposing defenses.

"Because it was my focus to take Alex Smith with the first pick, it kind of goes without saying to support him it makes sense to (take those players) with those picks," Nolan said. "It will make sense with the rest of our picks as well."

Nolan wasn't kidding. He didn't stop with Gore in the third round, though that presumably was San Francisco's final pick of Day 1.

Instead, with another big offensive lineman the 49ers really liked still on the board, Nolan maneuvered a late trade to make sure the team got him. The Niners sent the first pick of the fourth round – a selection with significant trade value since it opened Day 2 of the draft – to Philadelphia to move back into the third round ahead of the compensatory portion of that round.

It also cost the 49ers the first pick of the sixth round, but the net result was Oregon's 6-foot-6, 325-pound Adam Snyder, another versatile offensive lineman who can virtually fill in at four positions.

The porous offensive line that let down the 49ers so often in 2004? It has been upgraded dramatically if these young prospects step in and step up like the team expects them to.

The focus on building from the point of attack is not surprising. It's what Nolan has been doing since he arrived, making left tackle Jonas Jennings his first acquisition in free agency, then moving three 2004 holdover starters to new positions on the line where the new coaching regime feels they will be most effective.

"This was a very important pick for us," Nolan said after maneuvering to grab Snyder instead of using that pick to grab a projected starter at positions where the Niners could use a definite upgrade. "Now we have a center-swing-guard and a tackle-swing-guard as well. This is a good thing for us as far as depth and versatility within the depth. We needed to address that."

And so the 49ers did. Cosmetically, it didn't do nearly as much for appearances as the flashy acquisition of Smith at No. 1. But Nolan could care less about that. Take trust that he knows the Niners need a bunch of big guys and hard heads to handle the construction necessary to turn the team into a thing of beauty again.


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