49ers run long-term pattern on Day 2 of draft

On the second day, a new kind of draft pattern emerged for the 49ers. Not satisfied that prospects left on their board could come in and become true bona fide NFL starters at the weaker areas of the San Francisco roster, the Niners opted to select best athletes available Sunday, along with players who potentially could fill particular niches for the team. A puzzling strategy for a club still looking for fresh talent and starters at several key positions? Well, coach Mike Nolan doesn't think so.

And, ultimately, his opinion is the only one that counts.

So – after a successful first day that drew kudos from draft analysts far and wide – Nolan was unfazed Sunday when there was a reversal of feedback when he began the day by taking Penn State senior Michael Robinson with the third pick of the fourth round, then continued to follow an undefined path the rest of the way.

The 49ers had pored all night over the dozens of viable candidates available at that spot – several of them legitimate starting prospects at positions of need for San Francisco – just to select a college quarterback who many project as a receiver at the NFL level but the 49ers are bringing in to play running back? That's a good way to start sending those ‘A' grades from Saturday sliding fast.

Or so it would seem on the outside. On the inside at 49ers Central, Nolan was remaining true to his calculated and determined plan.

"He was a guy we targeted at some point when we laid out the draft board," Nolan said of Robinson, who the team envisions as a third-down back. "He was above (other prospects to begin Day 2)."

So, even though Robinson won't come in and start at quarterback – that's Alex Smith's job – the Niners grabbed him with a premium pick, the No. 100 overall. Even though he won't start at running back – that position belongs to Frank Gore and Kevan Barlow – the Niners spent their best Day 2 opportunity to acquire a starting talent on a guy with no defined position. Even though Robinson won't start at receiver, the Niners took him when a bushel of quality defensive prospects were screaming out to be had.

And then the second-guessing began.

When asked why the team had selected a niche guy such as Robinson so early on in the draft, Nolan replied, "I can't really say where we're trying to go with the team, because obviously things have to happen. As we're putting pieces together, this is something we want to put in it and we'll just see where it goes from there. I guy like (Robinson) is valuable to your football team in the long run."

In the long run. That's what Day 2 of the draft was about for the 49ers.

Day 1 was about immediate results, about prospects who could come in and not only start but make an immediate impact on the face and shape of the team. Nolan just didn't feel there were any more players out there that could do that in the final four rounds, even for his talent-challenged team. So he began aiming for players who may pay high reward in the future while providing a new dimension to the team in the now.

Why not shoot instead for a cornerback, a safety, a linebacker or one of the other positions on the team where the Niners can use a fresh talent to come in and provide an upgrade while vying for a starting role?

"It's extremely difficult to get a starting corner on the second day," Nolan said. And then, San Francisco's second-year coach started talking about holes. Holes, that is, among all the remaining prospects not picked among the first 97 on Day 1.

"The guys (selected Sunday) will have a few more holes in them," Nolan said. "Maybe it's a physical measurable they don't reach, or it could sometimes be a character thing, so they happen to bump into the second day. There's going to be holes in them as far as the ability goes and the play-making."

So, instead of shooting for a starting prospect at a position of need who has "holes," the Niners went for a playmaker with upside such as Robinson, a big and athletic prospect who set all kinds of records at Penn State as a passer, runner, receiver and occasional kick returner. Robinson impressed 49ers coaches with his ability, character and leadership qualities during Senior Bowl week in February, and there is talk that his many talents could even extend to the defensive side of the ball.

To put it succinctly, he's a 49ers kind of guy. A Nolan kind of guy.

And that's what San Francisco now is opting to shoot for as the draft gradually becomes more and more of a crapshoot on Day 2.

The Niners finished off their draft after Robinson by getting a quality value pick in Tennessee linebacker Parys Harlson in Round 5, then went the rest of the way for a collection of players with upside who also could be described as projects if you wanted to put it another way.

But in the end? Well, Nolan and the Niners got what they wanted out of the 2006 draft. Even if it didn't always satisfy observers who would have liked them to take more heralded players at clear positions of need instead of a few head-scratchers.

Remember Rasheed Marshall from last year? That's the kind of head-scratcher we're talking about. Nobody wants to see a guy such as Robinson turn into one of those, but there always is that possibility with San Francisco's approach Sunday.

"As far as the target going into the draft, the first thing we wanted to do – on the first day, in particular – was to get starters, to get people that were playmakers," Nolan said. "From there, we wanted to make sure we got guys with speed. Toughness was big for us. Football smarts. All these things were things that we're shooting for every day, but in particular that first day, because I think you get starters by getting those kind of guys. And then the second-day goal was to add players that we felt would compete in time for a starting position on our football team.

"I think it's evident that we've got a lot of character in the guys that we brought in. That's very important to us. So that was a big part of the draft on the first and the second day. I think we accomplished that up to the very end. I think there's a couple of guys later on that we know a little less about only because they are late guys. Other than that, I feel confident in them. It's a good group."

Time will tell on that one, just like it always does each year with draft classes. In the meantime, the 49ers will do it their way, even if that takes some temporary glow off the shining manner this San Francisco draft got started.


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