49ers 2007 draft/High needs: Linebacker
Current players: Manny Lawson (OLB), Brandon Moore (OLB/ILB), Derek Smith (ILB), Tully Banta-Cain (OLB), Jeff Ulbrich (ILB), Hannibal Navies (ILB/OLB), Parys Haralson (OLB), Colby Bockwoldt (OLB/ILB) Projected starters: Manny Lawson (LOLB), Derek Smith (LILB), Brandon Moore (RILB), Tully-Banta Cain (ROLB) The current situation: The 49ers are set at one outside position with Lawson and one inside position with Moore, and Smith and Banta-Cain have the potential to round out a solid starting group in the team's base 3-4 scheme as San Francisco's roster stands today. But the Niners wouldn't mind getting better at the latter two positions in the draft, which will be possible with their first-day selections, depending on how things fall. Lawson, though he did not provide the impact as a pass rusher that many expected from the first-round pick last year as a rookie, made a relatively successful transition from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker during his first pro season, displaying the kind of speed, range, technique and cover ability that make him a four-down player in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. After starting 11 games as a rookie, Lawson is prepared to make a much bigger impact as a NFL sophomore, and he could be headed for a breakout season. That's pretty much what Moore had last year after the 49ers found a home for him in the starting lineup next to Smith, who was supplanted by Moore as the team's leading tackler after a five-year run holding that distinction. Moore is primed for success at one inside position, and the 3-4 should make him even more of a visible playmaker. But the 49ers wouldn't mind upgrading over Smith, who still is a solid plug in the middle but seems to be on the decline after his 2006 season was hampered by an eye condition that limited his range of vision. Smith had surgery to correct that problem, but he turned 32 in January and has endured the wear and tear of a full decade in the NFL. He could have a bounce-back season in 2007, but that is no sure thing, and the 49ers wouldn't mind putting the heat on him with a bigger, faster youngster. Ulbrich, a former starter, is a solid backup on the inside, and Navies has the potential to play multiple positions. Both veterans are solid complementary LBs for San Francisco's system and wouldn't hurt the team if they are needed to step in as temporary starters. The recent addition of Bockwoldt also improves the team's veteran depth and roster competition at the position. Banta-Cain - who displayed starting ability and pass-rushing skills with the Patriots last season - will be given first shot to start on the outside opposite Lawson, even if the 49ers use a high pick at OLB. Haralson's rookie season was doomed by injuries, but he's a true edge pass rusher with starting potential, and he'll get another long look this summer as long as he proves he can stay healthy. When to address: Second, third and fourth rounds Who's out there: With the assured move to the 3-4 this year after two seasons of experimenting with the scheme despite deficient personnel, the 49ers need more linebackers. So, like at the receiver position, they could use multiple selections here. There's a lot of talk that Mississippi product Patrick Willis is such a stud - and so impressed San Francisco coaches during their week of coaching at the Senior Bowl - that the team simply won't be able to pass on a defender with early Pro Bowl potential at No. 11. Willis looks like a perfect fit in San Francisco's system, and some say he could be set up for Rookie of the Year status if the 49ers pass on other positions of need to take Willis and plug him into the middle of their developing defense. The rub on that approach is the 49ers don't really need an inside linebacker with their top pick. But Willis could bump Smith as a starter and give the unit a more formidable playmaker. A more prudent approach for the team, however, would be to look for a top product at outside linebacker after the first round who could compete with Banta-Cain and Haralson for the starting role opposite Lawson. The 49ers would like to see Florida State's Lawrence Timmons or Penn State's Paul Posluszny slip to San Francisco's No. 42 slot in the second round, but that might not happen. There's a pack of promising prospects the 49ers can look at with their multiple picks in the third and fourth rounds, including Georgia's Tony Taylor, South Florida's Stephen Nicholas, Florida's Earl Everett and Oklahoma seniors Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer. Penn State's Tim Shaw also has potential as an edge rusher. On the inside, there's quite a fall-off after Willis, but Florida's Brandon Siler and Florida State's Buster Davis are speedy first-day prospects and Michigan's David Harris, Clemson's Anthony Waters and Hampton's Justin Durant - a dominant player at the Division I-AA level who could be a sleeper - each could be a fit with San Francisco's plethora of fourth-round picks.
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