49ers preparing for the draft: QB

As the 49ers prepare for the April 26-27 NFL Draft, here's an analysis of the team at the quarterback position, looking at San Francisco's draft needs and why the Niners may or may not use one of their six selections at this position, what rounds in which the team should think about a quarterback and some of the prospects available that the team may consider.

Current players: Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, J.T. O'Sullivan, Drew Olson

State of the position: The 49ers felt pretty good about what they had at quarterback entering last season, but 2007 turned out to be mostly a horrific year that answered no questions about Alex Smith or his long-term viability as the team's franchise quarterback, and also exposed Trent Dilfer as a way-past-his-prime backup who couldn't perform effectively when given a chance to take over as the starter after Smith suffered a separated throwing shoulder in Week 4. That injury essentially doomed Smith's pivotal third NFL season and led to offseason surgery. Smith now is back and throwing, his recovery on schedule, and he could be full go by the team's post-draft minicamp that begins May 2. Smith still has a lot to prove and this could be his make-or-break season under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the fourth OC Smith has had in his four seasons with the 49ers - but also possibly the best and most able to help him reach his potential. Smith still is being groomed as the QB of the team's present and future, but San Francisco will give seventh-year veteran Shaun Hill a legitimate opportunity to compete with Smith for the starting position this spring and summer. Hill earned that opportunity in both surprising and impressive fashion last year after Dilfer went down with a concussion, going 2-0 as a starter in December and completing 68 percent of his passes while recording a 101.3 passer rating. Hill, throwing the first regular-season passes of his career, proved effective with his quick release and pinpoint accuracy while also reading defenses well and making good decisions. Those are all things the 49ers would like to see Smith do better. The Niners released Dilfer in March and then signed veteran free agent J.T. O'Sullivan, who worked with Martz in Detroit last season and will be with his ninth NFL organization since joining the league in 2002. Sullivan has better knowledge of Martz's system than Smith and Hill and is a solid candidate for the No. 3 role behind them. Sullivan's competition for that job currently is youngster Drew Olson, who spent five weeks on San Francisco's practice squad last year before finishing the season on the 53-man roster as the team's emergency third QB, earning a new contract for 2008 and a chance to land somewhere again on the team's roster.

Position draft need priority: Low

Last quarterback drafted: Alex Smith, 2005, No. 1 overall selection in first round

Why 49ers will draft a quarterback: It might be time to start thinking of a contingency plan in case Smith can't make it as the team's long-term solution at the position. There could be some promising value selections available at the end of the draft's first day, and new coordinator Martz likes having a young quarterback around to develop and nurture while he works with his front-line guys.

Why 49ers won't draft a quarterback: They appear to be set at the position for 2008 with the Smith/Hill/O'Sullivan lineup and Olson a candidate for the practice squad if he can't beat out O'Sullivan. And besides, the 49ers only have six selections and need to focus on other areas that need the help.

When to address: Third, fourth, sixth or seventh round

Who's out there: Boston College's Matt Ryan figures to be the first QB off the board and possibly a top 5 pick. Delaware's fast-rising Joe Flacco and Louisville's Brian Brohm are next in line among the top prospects, and both figure to be gone by the second round. Michigan's Chad Henne has had a good offseason and also may have climbed into the second round. He'd be a good value pick in the third round, where the 49ers may have some interest if he's still there at their selection. The 49ers more likely will have a shot at USC's John David Booty, Kentucky's Andre Woodson, Tennessee's Erick Ainge or Hawaii's Colt Brennan in the third round as developmental prospects who may have future starting potential. One of those guys figures to slip into the fourth round, too. There are several prospects the 49ers could take a flyer on in the late rounds, including five who played their high school football in the San Francisco Bay Area - Oregon's Dennis Dixon, San Diego's Josh Johnson, Miami's Kyle Wright, Nebraska's Sam Keller and Stanford's T.J. Ostrander.

Expert analysis: "Whether the 49ers decide to draft a quarterback, I think a lot of it will depend on what Mike Martz wants to do. It will come down to what he thinks. If Martz looks at the quarterbacks he has now and says, 'You know what, this guy of the two, he's not going to fit the system,' then I could see them take a guy on the first day that they might look to develop if their (others) don't pan out. But I think the odds of that are slim. I think in the later rounds, I do think Martz will pick a quarterback that he likes and that others don't that he will try to make his pet project. I wouldn't be shocked if Martz went and got a guy because it seems like he has always liked to develop a young guy while he's working with the starting guys." -- Former NFL scout Russ Lande, draft expert for The Sporting News and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft



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