Niners now turn focus to draft

With the big free-agent spending spree over, attention now turns to draft weekend for the 49ers and other NFL teams. It will be the final opportunity to fill remaining holes - or begin addressing them for teams that sat on the sidelines while others threw around gobs of money last week. The 49ers have thrown around some big money, but they also figure to be major players in the April 28-29 draft.

According to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, teams seeking wide receivers, defensive ends and offensive linemen should be able to find some immediate help from the collegiate ranks.

That's both good and bad for the 49ers, whose top needs on draft weekend are to find an explosive wide receiver who can contend for a starting position and exhibit potential to be a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver at the NFL level. The 49ers need an explosive defensive end who can wreak havoc in their 3-4 defensive scheme almost as badly.

But key positions like tight end and linebacker are frightfully thin when it comes to this draft class.

That presents no worries for the 49ers at tight end, even though the team recently lost the franchise record-holder for receptions in a season when veteran Eric Johnson joined the New Orleans Saints as an unrestricted free agent. But with 2006 first-round selection Vernon Davis now leading the charge at the position, the 49ers only need to look for backup help.

It's a different story at linebacker, where the 49ers are looking to fortify the position with multiple picks in this draft.

That leaves the team perhaps leaning heavy toward the linebacker position with its top picks, and likely considering trade opportunities with its abundance of mid-round picks to move up and target particular players. The 49ers would like to find an edge rusher who can compete for a starting role, but also an inside linebacker that can push aging Derek Smith for a starting position.

Calvin Johnson remains the No. 1 overall prospect, according to NFLDraftScout.com, and certainly a player the 49ers would love to bring into their organization to provide immediate impact. But he'll be long gone by the time San Francisco picks at No. 11 in the first round. He could, however, slip as far as the fourth pick (Tampa Bay) because of other needs of the teams selecting in the first three spots.

LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell remains the smart bet to land with Oakland No. 1 overall. The much hotter debate revolves around the only other first-round quarterback candidate - Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.

After a perceived drop down most teams' boards leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February, Quinn appeared to be back on the rise thanks to free agency and teams like Detroit (No. 2 overall pick) filling other holes.

All of this movement happened without Quinn throwing a ball in front of NFL personnel since the Sugar Bowl in January. He didn't go to the Senior Bowl and declined to work out in Indianapolis.

So there were plenty of interested observers when Notre Dame held its Pro Day on March 3. He threw 63 (59 completions) passes in front of representatives for all 32 teams. While the Browns, who had GM Phil Savage among their contingent on hand, came away impressed, several other accounts said Quinn failed to "wow" the NFL onlookers.

Quinn admitted there was room for improvement, although he said he was happy with his performance. Of course, the only opinions that matter belong to the personnel people of teams selecting in the top 10, where Quinn still figures to be picked.

The 49ers - who won't be looking for a quarterback in this draft - are counting on that likelihood, since it will push at least one prospect they are targeting to them at the No. 11 slot.

After signing five free agents at positions of need earlier this month, the 49ers can now target the best player remaining on the board in the first round - and there's a good chance either a wide receiver or defensive end/linebacker will be that player when the Niners go on the clock.

Defensive ends Jamaal Anderson of Arkansas, Adam Carriker of Nebraska , defensive tackle Amobi Okoye of Louisville (who could play nose tackle), linebacker Patrick Willis of Mississippi and receivers Ted Ginn of Ohio State (who also can return kicks) and Dwayne Jarrett of USC all are top prospects who could be seriously considered by the 49ers with their first pick.

Jarrett has recently slid down some draft boards because he is viewed as a receiver who - despite his formidable size and success at the college level - might not be able to make an immediate impact at the NFL level. But he still carries a universal first-round tag and is a prospect who could develop into a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver for a team such as the 49ers.

The 49ers can still grab two or three defensive starters in the draft, as they expect to own eight picks in the first four rounds, including two compensatory picks.

The focus for the entire offseason so far has been defense, and the team signed four players - cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain - during the first five days of free agency who will either be sure-fire starters this season or top contenders for a starting role and/or significant playing time.

Now, after that flurry of free-agency spending that included the signing of Ashley Lelie - a likely starter at wide receiver - the 49ers can now focus on filling their remaining holes in the draft, the beginning of which now is only 47 days away.


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