The Niners do not figure to target quarterbacks, running backs or tight ends with their early selections. But every other position is in play during the early portions of the draft.
Although the 49ers have not received strong quarterback play in recent seasons, the club still holds out hope that Alex Smith can emerge into a winning NFL quarterback. Coach Mike Nolan touts Smith's record of 7-5 in his last 12 healthy games.
San Francisco started last season 2-1 before Smith sustained a separated right shoulder on the third play of the fourth game. He returned but was ineffective, and eventually opted for season-ending surgery. Smith will compete with Shaun Hill for the starting job. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz handpicked J.T. O'Sullivan to enter camp as the No. 3 man.
The 49ers don't need a running back with Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster filling the top two spots. But the 49ers could look for a bigger, short-yardage back in a later round of the draft.
Tight end is not an issue, as the 49ers expect bigger things from Vernon Davis, the team's first-round selection in 2006. There also is some quality young depth behind Davis in Delanie Walker and Billy Bajema.
The 49ers' first two draft picks come at Nos. 29 and 39. At those spots, they could target an offensive lineman, defensive lineman, linebacker and wide receiver.
The 49ers like their starting offensive line, but the club has little depth behind left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Adam Snyder, center Eric Heitmann, right guard David Baas and right tackle Jonas Jennings.
Jennings left the team for a week last season, missing one game. Then, he sustained an ankle injury that ended his season after just five games. The club has decided to move him from left tackle to right tackle because they believe Staley is more reliable and able to tough out injuries.
The 49ers need someone to be available as Jennings' backup because he has yet to play a 16-game season since entering the NFL in 2001. The 49ers could have some options at No. 29.
Boston College tackle Gosder Cherilus had a standout season in 2006 at right tackle before struggling at left tackle in 2007. He might be available when the 49ers go on the clock.
General manager Scot McCloughan has noted that the draft appears to be especially deep in offensive linemen. He said the 49ers will have opportunities to select a good offensive lineman in each of the first four rounds.
The 49ers could also go after a pass-rusher with one of those selections. The best candidate might be outside linebacker Quentin Groves of Auburn, whom McCloughan personally scouted last month at his pro day. The 49ers also planned to have a pre-draft visit with Groves.
The club is not scared off by a recent outpatient procedure Groves had to correct a potential heart condition.
Defensive line is also a priority for the 49ers. They might look toward North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer or Notre Dame's Trevor Laws early in the draft. Laws recorded 100 tackles last season. He impressed the 49ers' coaching staff at the Senior Bowl.
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The 49ers do not have their own first-round pick this season after a trade a year ago sent it to the New England Patriots for the right to select Staley at No. 28. The Patriots, picking in the 49ers' spot, own the No. 7 pick. But the 49ers do not regret the decision.
"As a matter of fact in looking back over it, I still think it was a very good decision to trade up," Nolan said. "We drafted two of the top 10 players from a year ago. Patrick Willis, without question as Rookie of the Year, was one of them.
"And after taking a look at the rookies who played last year," Nolan continued, "Joe Staley was also one of the players we felt was a top-10 player."
That doesn't appear to be a biased opinion. Staley played every snap at right tackle for the 49ers as a rookie, and played well. In fact, he might have been San Francisco's best offensive lineman by the end of last season. He is scheduled to move to left tackle this season.
The 49ers got back in the first round when they traded their second-round pick a year ago to the Indianapolis Colts, who selected tackle Tony Ugoh. The 49ers' first selection in the upcoming draft comes at No. 29, the pick they got from the AFC playoff semifinalist Colts.
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When Nolan arrived on the scene in January 2005, he declared that the team's goal in the first season was to win the NFC West. He had a banner placed outside the team's locker room with Xs through the helmets of each of the 49ers' division opponents.
Nolan has changed his tune this season. After three years under his guidance, the 49ers have a 16-32 record.
"Until you achieve something, it's a little bit premature to be talking about it. And so our approach this year is going to be one day at a time, one practice, one game," Nolan said.
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The 49ers plan to carry over a lot of their current salary-cap cushion to next year. That is why they inserted an incentive clause in reserve defensive back Donald Strickland's contract to pay him approximately $7 million if he blocks 15 punts this season.
All special-teams incentives are considered likely to be earned. When a player fails to reach a likely-to-be-earned incentive, the cap credit counts toward the next season.
So the 49ers had around $18 million in cap space. After Strickland's incentive was counted toward this year's cap, the 49ers are down to $10.76 million in cap room.
They gained a $2.3 million cap credit for 2008, one of the smaller figures in the league, by using a similar incentive in Roderick Green's contract.
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Among the players the 49ers planned to have for pre-draft visits are defensive linemen Derrick Harvey (Florida), Phillip Merling (Clemson) and Lionel Dotson (Arizona), linebackers Quentin Groves (Auburn) and Shane Simmons (Western Washington), cornerback Dwight Lowery (San Jose State), receivers DeSean Jackson (Cal), Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma), Cameron Colvin (Oregon) and Davone Bess (Hawaii), quarterback Dennis Dixon (Oregon), and center Ryan Wendell (Fresno State).
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The 49ers hired Dave Fipp as assistant special teams coach. Jeff Rodgers, who formerly held that position, recently left the club to become special-teams coordinator at Kansas State.
Fipp joins the 49ers after three seasons with San Jose State. He served as defensive coordinator during his final year and previously held the title of co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for the Spartans.
Notebook: Plenty to accomplish with six picks
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