Free agency will shape what 49ers do in draft

The 49ers enter free agency knowing they have the No. 6 selection in the first round of the NFL draft to fall back on. While the team plans to make a splash during the FA period and bring in at least one and possibly more front-line starters, the Niners also know they can find that kind of player with their top pick, which will help them in their stategy on the open market.

If he still is available when San Francisco picks, the 49ers should select North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, and - even with the draft still seven weeks away - it's safe to say they probably will if he still is around at No. 6.

The 49ers have so many holes to fill and so little depth that they can almost always take the best player on the board, regardless of position. The exception might be at quarterback, where they do not need to sink a high draft pick into that position after taking Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall selection a year ago.

If one or more of the top quarterbacks expected to go early in the first round still are around at No. 6 - and that's quite possible - the 49ers also will seriously trading down for more picks. But not too far down. They still want to get one of the cream picks in this draft crop, and that level of sure-fire star talent begins to fall off about the middle of the first round.

Don't be too surprised to see the 49ers draft exclusively defensive players on the first day. They are in dire need of pass rushers, a starting cornerback and they'll probably need to fill some holes at linebacker.

Those are all areas they'll try to address first in free agency, but Williams would fill the first need in the draft, and he has the potential to better - and also provide immediate impact - than any pass rushers available on the open marekt.

Williams would provide much-needed help in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Eight of the 49ers' 28 sacks last season came from defensive end Bryant Young, a 12-year pro, who showed signs late in the season of tiring.

If Williams is chosen before the 49ers get a chance at No. 6, the 49ers would then lean toward Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk, who appears to have all the qualities to excel in the team's intended 3-4 system.

The 49ers made a big play before free agency began when they re-signed middle linebacker Derek Smith to a three-year, $14 million deal that includes a $6 million signing bonus. The 49ers figure to still be in the need for linebackers in the draft because Julian Peterson, Andre Carter and Brandon Moore all are expected to test the free-agent waters now that the FA period has officially begun.

When the 49ers released cornerback Ahmed Plummer, it created a starting job. The 49ers do not have a legitimate starting cornerback to be matched with Shawntae Spencer. Because this draft is strong at cornerback, look for the 49ers to take someone at that position with their second or third pick. They could also add a starting safety in the draft.

Expect what they are able to do to upgrade their secondary in free agent to provide the guidelines for how many DBs the 49ers draft and where the team drafts them.

The 49ers need to surround Alex Smith with better talent on offense. This is not a good draft for receivers, so they might be hard-pressed to find someone to step into one of their top three slots.

That makes keeping restricted free agent Brandon Lloyd - who has been tendered a one-year offer at the high amount of $1.6 million with a first-round pick as compensation - a high priority in the upcoming weeks. But despite the high tender, Lloyd already is attracting interest from other teams - notably the Washington Redskins - may be able to get a nice return in a trade for his services.

But that would leave the team needing to replace Lloyd with another experienced veteran in FA, and that likely won't be easy with the market this year weak in talent but high in teams looking to find some.

The passing game also should be addressed at tight end, where the 49ers received no production a year ago. Four tight ends combined to catch just 20 passes for 158 yards and no touchdowns. The 49ers figure to select a pass-catching tight end as late as the fourth or fifth rounds. They'll also look for a veteran fit in free agency.

As much as the offensive line was maligned a year ago, the 49ers head into this offseason feeling good about the young talent assembled there. If left tackle Jonas Jennings is healthy, the 49ers' line could be much improved. Still, they could use some depth at the tackle spots.

The 49ers have nine draft picks, with extra picks in the sixth and seventh rounds. They might be awarded a couple other compensatory picks. Vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan needs to put together a draft in which nearly all of the 49ers' picks make the team and at least two come in as immediate starters for a club that went 4-12 last season.

But that's seven weeks down the road. The 49ers will make a legitimate effort to fill some of their holes in free agency first.

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