Will tricky transformations backfire on SF?

The 49ers aren't exactly trying to cut corners on the road to respectability, but they're taking calculated risks as they try to transform a losing franchise by betting on the prospective success of a collection of individual transformations. It's either an ahead-of-the-game show of foresight, or a display of presumption & hubris that could keep the team spinning its wheels and running in place.

But, considering where they're coming from – and that's at the bottom of the NFL's talent pool – you can't blame the Niners for taking some chances.

And, by the appearance of things this spring, it could all work fabulously.

Fourth-round draft pick Michael Robinson took to the running back position like a magnet takes to steel. Sixth-round pick Delanie Walker bounced from fullback/H back to tight end and looks like he can do some damage at either position. And pass-rushing dynamos Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson – while it's going to take them time to convert from the defensive end position they played in college – at least settled into their flexible linebacker roles in the team's 3-4 defensive set without looking too flustered.

After scoring an impact player with top pick Vernon Davis, the 49ers – with holes everywhere on their roster – didn't draft for need. They drafted for talent.

Because talent wins in the NFL, even if sometimes you have to teach it a new position to play.

So the Niners went for Lawson with their second first-rounder and Haralson in the fifth round, which really wasn't much of a stretch because both have the skills to play on the edge and project well from 4-3 college ends to 3-4 outside linebackers.

But then – with a sure-fire opportunity at the top of the fourth round to grab a prospect who could contend immediately at a position of need – the 49ers took Robinson, an excellent athlete who had made his name as a college quarterback at Penn State in 2005. That's about where most scouts had Robinson going in the draft – as a receiver.

The 49ers then put him at running back, one of their stronger positions where Kevan Barlow, Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks already are fighting it out for playing time.

It looks like a shrewd call. Robinson was as impressive as any newcomer on the field during San Francisco's spring practice sessions. He could help the team in a myriad of roles in seasons to come – including this season. He is what's called an upgrade in talent – just like the 49ers said when they called him the best athlete available when they went on the clock.

"I'm at ease with it," Robinson said of the switch. "I'm an athlete. I ran the ball at quarterback, so it's not that big of a difference"

And the experiment with Walker – a big, dominant wide receiver at the Division II level in college – also appears to be passing the test. The Niners announced on draft day they were moving him to fullback/H back, and he spent some time there in the spring before it was determined his legitimate run-after-the-catch skills could be better utilized at tight end, the position he will play entering training camp.

In their quest to experiment with talent and find hidden gems, the 49ers also took a flyer on undrafted rookie Onye Ibekwe, a 6-foot-8 prospect the team will try at tight end. The thing is, Ibekwe hasn't played football since he was in high school. He played basketball in college at Long Beach State.

"I can see when I watch him that football isn't there yet," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said earlier this spring. "But it can come. He's a great developmental project. He's got something going for him and I think he's got the hunger to do well and prove himself."

It all looks good in helmets and shorts in June, but the fact is the 49ers are rolling the dice with these personnel moves.

They're doing it because they have to, because it's a chance to get better faster, and this hardly is the first time they've bet on the come since Nolan and Scot McCloughan took control of the personnel decision-making.

"It's always a little tricky converting a guy, because you haven't seen him do it," McCloughan said.

The 49ers already know this all too well.

They spent a fifth-round pick last year on Rasheed Marshall – like Robinson, a quarterback who was his college conference Player of the Year before being drafted. Marshall was supposed to come in and impact the team's weak group of receivers and return game. He bombed in both roles. He is very close to elimination from the roster, and it's difficult to see him making the team this summer.

This method of experimentation isn't confined to incoming talent. The 49ers turned 2002 first-rounder Mike Rumph – a cornerback by trade – into a free safety last year because they believed he was one of their best four defensive backs and they wanted to get him on the field.

Rumph bombed at the position, and it was a setback for the defense as the team scrambled to replace him after just three September games in which the Niners allowed a staggering 1,107 passing yards.

As they say, you can't always change a player's position and expect a positive outcome. But that's a price the 49ers are willing to pay to get better, even if the strategy backfires every now and then.


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