A scout's eye view of the 49ers draft: Part 1

How did the 49ers do in the 2007 draft? Former NFL scout Russ Lande, draft analyst and author of GM Jr. Guide to the NFL Draft, gives his insights on every 49ers' pick and his general overview of San Francisco's draft class of 2007. In Part 1, Lande talks about his reasons for a B+ overall grade for the Niners, then goes in-depth on his analysis of first-rounders Patrick Willis and Joe Staley.

SFI: Many draft analysts and so-called experts have universally claimed the 49ers had the best draft weekend of any NFC team, and are right up there with the Cleveland Browns as having the best draft of any team in the league. What's your take on the overall quality of San Francisco's draft, and where does it rank among the other NFL teams?
Russ Lande:
I thought they did a good job. I would give them a B-plus. The reason I wouldn't give them an A is because I think one of their first-round picks, Joe Staley, is really going to struggle for a few years. Other than that, I think they hit home runs. The thing they really hit on was that on the second day they got a lot of guys that are good football players. They did really great. They may not be the perfect test guys, but when you look back on what they did in college, they really got some good football players. I think they have a chance to get two or three starters out of their second-day picks, which is really rare nowadays. In the fifth round I think they got a corner, Tarell Brown, who was one of the top 10 or 12 corners in the draft.

SFI: Why do you think Patrick Willis' draft stock was on the rise right up until the moment the 49ers selected him with the No. 11 overall selection in the first round?
RL:
He was definitely rising up. I think during the season people liked him, but they didn't love him. But at the Combine and at the Senior Bowl, he pretty much showed that while there were other good linebackers in this draft, he's clearly the top inside guy. And that's pretty much what he did – he solidified himself as the top inside linebacker. So most teams said, 'OK, even if he's not a superstar, he is a very good player. He showed that he was a good athlete at the all-star games, there are no other inside linebackers that we like as much as him.' There were some other good ones, but a lot of teams I think had Willis as their No. 1. I think that is why he has moved up, because there were really not a lot of impact linebackers this year.

SFI: Does he give the Niners good value at No. 11 overall?
RL:
I think it's a little high for Willis. If I were picking, I would have preferred to get him in the 20s.

SFI: What's the book on Willis?
RL:
He's not a franchise linebacker, but Willis is tough, competitive and smart, and brings great intangibles to the Niners - his effort and hustle will raise the level of play of his teammates. He's always around the ball. He is not an elite athlete but makes plays all over the field. He has to learn to use his hands better to shed blockers, and he lacks elite speed, but he reads and reacts to plays quickly, which helps him play faster than expected. He drops into coverage well.

SFI: How do you expect Willis, who played primarily in a 4-3 defense in college, to make the transition to San Francisco's 3-4 defense?
RL:
He is one of those guys that really has great versatility. A lot of teams look at him as a weak-side linebacker; a lot of teams see him in the middle. He's well built, thickly built for his measurements (6-foot-1, 242 pounds). When you see his measurements - you think he's decently built, but when you see him on the hoof, he's a real rock-solid guy. I think he really fits into almost any defense in the NFL. He can play a 3-4, 4-3, weak-side or middle. I don't think he is ideally suited to the strong side.

SFI: How aggressive is Willis going forward and taking on blockers?
RL:
Oh, yeah. He is going to attack the line. He is going to make violent hits when he has a chance. He is definitely a going forward-type guy.

SFI: Can Willis beat our incumbent veteran Derek Smith for a starting position in his rookie year?
RL:
If they get him signed on time, I think he will start, no question. He's smart enough, he's well built, and he has all the tools to start early. He's a rock. He's one of the guys who has been in the lineup forever. He's going to start quickly and be a good NFL player from Day One. What may happen is that they may get to training camp and Willis may be outstanding, but Smith may still be one of their top four linebackers, so they may put Smith back inside and let Willis play outside just to get their best linebackers on the field. Willis is athletic enough that he can play any spot in the 3-4, but Smith is strictly an inside guy, because he doesn't have speed.

SFI: Does Willis have Defensive Rookie of the Year potential?
RL:
He definitely has a chance at it. He's going to get on the field and play a lot. He's definitely one of the five or six guys who have rookie of the year possibilities.

SFI: Is it easier for a rookie LB to play inside or outside?
RL:
It's a little easier outside, because on the inside you have to make a read instantaneously, otherwise a guard is on top of you and the traffic builds up real fast. On the outside, you have a little more time because the blockers are not right on top of you. For an inside guy to make the transition and step in right away, if he has any issue learning the defense - and I'm not saying Willis will - but any rookie may have trouble learning the defense because it's a big jump up and so fast, it hinders you more inside than it will outside.

SFI: Some analysts say Staley has more upside than any offensive tackle taken in the draft. Do you agree with that assessment?
RL:
No doubt. The reason I question the pick is mainly that he is a guy who, if you had talked to any scout back in late January that had broke down film on him, most of them thought he was a third- or fourth-round guy because at Central Michigan he got beat. It wasn't like he was a dominant butt-kicker, he was just a good lineman. And if he's getting beat at Central Michigan, what is going to happen in the NFL? I know he worked out great and I don't think there is any question that he is a top athlete, but he is not yet a polished football player.

SFI: So you think they may have reached a bit by trading into the bottom of the first round to get him?
RL:
I thought they reached a little bit, especially when I look at a guy like Tony Ugoh, who went at the top of the second round, who I think is probably a better athlete and he played at Arkansas, but he didn't run a 4.78 (40-yard dash) or whatever it was (that Staley ran), and doesn't look as big as Staley. To me, Ugoh was the second-best tackle in the draft, and better than Staley.

SFI: Is Staley better as a run blocker or in pass protection?
RL:
Probably in pass pro. He's generally a good pass protector, but he has some work to do. He doesn't consistently do the same things. He's not aggressive with his hands. He tends to catch rushers a good amount of the time. You can do that at Central Michigan or even Michigan and be fine, but when you get to the NFL you've got to use your hands aggressively to be successful.

TOMORROW: In Part 2, Russ talks about San Francisco's other first-day picks and why he feels the 49ers may have done better on the second day of the draft than any other NFL team, why he feels getting veteran WR Darrell Jackson for a fourth-round pick was a steal for the team, and how San Francisco did compared to its other division rivals in the NFC West.


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