Reviewing the Niners' Nolan/McCloughan drafts
The answer to that question, of course, still is a work in progress. In the NFL, it takes a good three seasons to accurately begin judging draft classes, and the Alex Smith/Frank Gore-led class of 2005 - the first in Nolan's debut as a head coach and McCloughan's coming out as a player personnel chief - just now is entering its third year in the league. But as they prepare for another "critical" session of building the 49ers the best way they know how - "the right way," both Nolan McCloughan have said several times - a look back at their first two forays into the college lottery indicates the team's head honchos are delivering on their promise, and - after an all-too-long stretch lingering at the bottom of the NFL - the Niners are poised to challenge for the playoffs again in 2007. But the team likely will need another strong draft to get there. At this point, it's not a stretch to say San Francisco's 2005 draft is shaping up to be a strong class, and the 2006 edition has the potential to earn the same distinction. Of those two drafts, 17 of 20 picks remain on the roster today, 11 have started at least one game and at least five - and potentially more - are franchise cornerstones of the present and future. Here's a breakdown analysis and review of the first two drafts of the Nolan/McCloughan regime: Best pick: For various reasons, Frank Gore scared off a lot of teams entering the 2005 draft, and one eminent national publication went as far as to say he was the most overrated running back in the draft. But the 49ers did their homework on the University of Miami product, who had major surgery on each of his knees before he'd even played his third college season, and McCloughan said he would have considered Gore with San Francisco's second-round selection - the No. 33 overall - if he could have justified to owner John York selecting a player with such a serious injury history that high in the draft. But when Gore still was available at the top of Round 3, the 49ers hardly needed their allotted five minutes to pounce on him, and after two seasons, Gore already is a Pro Bowl starter after leading the NFC in 2006 with 1,695 yards rushing, the highest total in the 61-season history of the franchise. Getting it right: The 49ers kept the suspense building until they went on the clock to begin the 2005 draft, but they already knew long before then that they'd be turning in Alex Smith's name with the No. 1 overall selection in the draft. Smith wasn't ready to be a starting NFL quarterback as a 21-year-old rookie, but he had the fortitude and character to fight through that difficult learning-on-the-job season, and after becoming the first San Francisco QB ever to take every snap in a season last year, he is showing vast potential to be the winning NFL quarterback and franchise foundation the 49ers need him to be. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers - the other top-rated QB that many observers had the Niners selecting No. 1 overall - has shown little development at Green Bay, and receiver Braylon Edwards - another name tossed around as San Francisco's top pick - hardly is living up to any kind of No. 1 status. To be fair, Rodgers still is waiting for his opportunity behind Brett Favre, but does anybody think the 49ers should have selected him instead of Smith now? Worst pick: The 49ers took a flyer on West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall in the fifth round in 2005, hoping the athletic prospect could help them returning kicks and perhaps develop into a complementary receiver, too. But Marshall ended up as a bust in both roles as a rookie and didn't make it to a second season with the team. He still is getting a look around the league, however, and currently is scheduled to go to training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers. This worst pick, however, is the only of the 20 that legitimately can be considered a bad pick, and any team would take that kind of percentage in the college lottery. Trading to their advantage: The 49ers traded the first pick of Round 4 (the No. 102 overall) and one of their sixth-round selections (No. 175) to the Philadelphia Eagles in the twilight hours of the draft's opening day in 2005 to move into the bottom of the third round with Philadelphia's No. 94 pick because they wanted to make sure they got offensive lineman Adam Snyder, whom the team didn't think would slip to the top of the fourth round. Snyder has proven to be a versatile, productive player who could be a line fixture for years to come. Last year, the team traded a second-round pick (No. 37) and a third-rounder (No. 68) to the Denver Broncos to move into the No. 22 slot of the first round and get linebacker Manny Lawson, who also appears to have a bright future as he grows along with the rest of the team. The physical phenom: He still must develop, but Vernon Davis has all the tools to be a terror in this league and adds a unique dimension from the tight end position that not a lot of other teams possess. Because of the broken leg that forced him out of six games last year, the 49ers didn't exactly get a good first-year return on their heavy investment in Davis, but he appears worth last year's No. 6 overall pick on potential alone, and is a player that possesses major upside as he matures. The sleeper picks: The 49ers had three second-day picks last year who all look like they could be worth well more than the price. The team's third sixth-rounder - LSU product Melvin Oliver - worked his way up the depth chart and into the starting lineup by the beginning of the season last year, and ultimately started 14 games while contributing to San Francisco's defensive improvement. Delanie Walker - who fought injury problems as a rookie - was the team's first sixth-rounder last year, and he has the potential to be a dynamic playmaker who could make people forget about Eric Johnson in a hurry next season as a complement to Davis at tight end. And Parys Haralson - if he can stay healthy - could be a steal as a fifth-rounder with his edge rushing skills that could be well showcased in the team's 3-4 defensive scheme. Still to come: 1. David Baas, the No. 33 overall selection in 2005, looked pretty good starting five games as a rookie, but he took a lot of heat for not being able to break into the starting lineup last season while seeing unheralded Tony Wragge pass him on the depth chart as a top line reserve. But Nolan says Baas still figures prominently in San Francisco's future plans, particularly with the status of starting guards Larry Allen and Justin Smiley in limbo with the team after this season. "Baas will become a big contributor as we move on," Nolan said last week. 2. Brandon Williams, taken in the third round last year ahead of several other players who could have helped the team, didn't do much as a punt returner as a rookie and didn't have any receptions. But the team still expects him to make an impact as a returner this season, if not at receiver. Developing nicely: 1. After a nondescript rookie season, 2005 fifth-rounder Ronnie Fields came on strong as a NFL sophomore and started nine games on the defensive interior last year before breaking his arm. He has the versatility to play both nose tackle and end in the team's 3-4 set, and if he isn't starting at one of those positions this season, he'll be a top backup at both of them. Solid selections: 1. Billy Bajema, taken with the last of San Francisco's four seventh-round picks in 2005, started as a rookie and was a valuable complementary tight end last season who will vie for the No. 2 role behind Davis this year. 2. Michael Robinson, taken in the fourth round last year, provides toughness and versatility as a backup running back and already is one of the team's core players on special teams. Projects: 1. Marcus Hudson, taken with the team's second sixth-rounder last year, has the potential to develop into a key contributor in the secondary in the future, but that day still seems a ways away. 2. Patrick Estes, taken in the seventh round in 2005, made a nice transition from tight end to offensive tackle, but this will be the year to see if the team can count on him as a top backup at the position or needs to go looking for someone else to adequately fill that role. 3. Marcus Maxwell, the second of the team's seventh-rounders in 2005, still looks the part as a big, athletic receiver. But looking the part and performing it are two separate matters, and Maxwell still is unproven in the latter entering his third NFL season. Incomplete: Vickiel Vaughn, the team's final selection last year, showed some promise at safety last year before a hand injury put him on injured reserve before the season started, giving the 49ers an opportunity to take another look at him this year. One and done: 1. Daven Holly, the team's first seventh-rounder in 2005, has the distinction of being the only draft pick of the Nolan/McCloughan regime not to make the team coming out of training camp. But he remains in the league and now is contributing with the Cleveland Browns, his third NFL team. 2. Derrick Johnson, the team's sixth-rounder in 2005, locked down a roster berth early in training camp and even made his way into the starting lineup as a rookie. But he couldn't make the cut last summer as the team looked to upgrade its lagging secondary. He also remains in the league with the Atlanta Falcons.
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