Niners preparing for another impact draft

The 49ers are looking for 10 good men - or maybe fewer if they can work a trade during the next eight days to move up in the college lottery. As the day of draft decision grows closer, the Niners already have their board squared away, and their philosophy remains the same as the moment Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan arrived on the scene two years ago.

Nolan made that perfectly clear Thursday during a luncheon at team headquarters when he and McCloughan, the team's personnel chief, talked with the media about the upcoming draft - one that will be consequential in the team's hopes to continue its rise back to NFL prominence.

Just like the first two drafts on which the team's young head honchos collaborated.

"The draft is critical, as Scot and I both believe it's really what the 49ers will be built around," Nolan said. "We'll supplement our football team through free agency and some other things, but the draft needs to be an area that we're successful with each and every year."

Particularly this year. After adding to the team's core by doling out almost $40 million in guaranteed money last month to five free agents - each of which will be a starter or contend for a starting role - the Niners hope to fill in the remaining cracks and put some finishing touches on their roster, the kind that still are necessary to transform the not-long-ago-downtrodden team into a true playoff contender.

With the No. 11 overall pick in the first round, the No. 42 overall in Round 2 to go along with two picks in the third round and four in the fourth, the 49ers have an optimum opportunity to once again improve their roster at both the top and bottom ends.

While not saying the team's top picks will be instant starters - as pretty much has been the case since the Nolan regime arrived in 2005 - Nolan does expect to be able to add some first-day prospects that will immediately factor in the team's lineup and its quest to break into the postseason for the first time since 2002.

"We're confident in (this) draft that it will be a successful draft and we'll add, as we call them, impact players," Nolan said. "It's too early to know if they'll start. That will be determined during (organized team activities, minicamps) and training camp. But we do believe that we'll add impact players to our football team, which is what we have done in prior years."

Of course, the 49ers aren't tipping their hand about which way they're leaning at the top of the draft.

San Francisco would like to get an impact receiver out of this draft, but that doesn't appear likely at the No. 11 slot, by which time Georgia Tech phenom Calvin Johnson will be long gone. Though there are plenty of other promising prospects at the position, none of them figure to be of high enough value to the 49ers if they stay at their current spot.

Because, as Nolan says, "We'll draft the best available player. Who that will be at 11, I'm not really sure."

Or maybe the 49ers won't even be at 11. Names such as Adam Carriker, Alan Branch and Patrick Willis - three of the draft's premier defenders who all could be there when San Francisco selects - were being tossed around Thursday, but the Niners could always decide to trade down if the players they've targeted for that pick already have left the board when they're on the clock.

Or decide to trade up.

With the extra picks in the third and fourth rounds, the 49ers have plenty of ammunition to do so.

Last year, the 49ers traded second- and third-round picks to the Denver Broncos to grab an extra first-rounder to join the No. 6 overall selection they already had by virtue of their 4-12 finish in 2005. Those two first-rounders turned into tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Manny Lawson - two instant starters who figure to be roster fixtures for years to come.

McCloughan says the 49ers have 20 players graded as first-round talents on their board - which is about average for any year - which indicates if the 49ers trade down with their first pick, it probably won't be too far.

But, McCloughan said, "I guarantee one of those (20) still will be there at 33 (the first pick in the second round). That's the way it is every year. Everybody has different boards."

But - particularly with an improving roster and the need to find impact quality rather than quality depth - there is more of a likelihood the Niners will package their plethora of mid-round picks to move up in the first day before the draft, or to move up and grab a prospect they like during it.

"There's always discussion leading into the draft," Nolan said. "Last year, we just decided to pull the trigger early enough with Denver because we felt it was good for us as well as they thought it was good for them. But there's discussions all the time. It can happen the next eight days if it were to happen; it could also happen the day of the draft. I'm not saying it's going to, but that's things you talk about.

"We're always open to any way to make our football team better. There's no indispensable player, or coach for that matter."

The 49ers even have the ammunition to move up high in the top 10, where an elite player at a position of need surely will be waiting, though that might deplete the draft arsenal they have stockpiled for this year.

"A lot of it depends on the cost," Nolan said of making a play for a higher pick. "We're willing to do anything. But the cost is always an issue. It's like buying a car, I guess you could say. We certainly don't fall in love with players to that extent - I think that's a mistake people make. We have a value on guys, we have a value on picks and we stay pretty true to that value."

And value is what the 2007 draft will be all about for the 49ers as they add another layer of young prospects onto a roster they're trying to get thick with talent.

"Every time we pick this year - as we found the first two years - there will be a good player on the board," McCloughan said. "We just have to identify who it is."

And that ongoing process is about to come to its fruition.


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