A scout's eye view of the draft: Part I

Former NFL scout Russ Lande, draft expert for The Sporting News and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft, answers questions for SFI regarding the upcoming college lottery. Can the 49ers strike gold as they did in the first round last year? What must the Niners get out of this draft and how much will forfeiting a fifth-round draft pick hurt? Russ talks these issues and more in Part I.

SFI: The 49ers picked up a defensive rookie of the year and a 16-game starter at offensive tackle in the first round of the draft last year. Is it conceivable they still can get another starter with their late first-round selection this year?
Russ Lande: I think there's definitely a possibility. The reality is of a first-round pick, if he doesn't start as a rookie, he should at least be in there making a contribution. With the lack of talent they have at a lot of positions, he should be able to at least contribute, and they should be able to get a rookie that either starts or sees a lot of playing time, contributes early and be a part of what's going on in the organization. The interior offensive line could use help, the defensive line could use some help. I think getting a starter is definitely doable for them, no question.

SFI: Are the 49ers in a position now to take the best available player when they go on the clock, or should they target specific positions of need with their first-day picks?
RL: I think it's sort of a misnomer now to say by need or whatever. What happens now with most teams, until you sit in the draft room when you get four picks away from your selection, there's usually about five or six guys bunched together that you start debating which guy do you need the most, and you pick that guy. It's very rare that you have just one particular guy that you shouldn't bypass. And it's very rare that in those five or six guys in the group you're considering, that one of them can't fill some type of need. Usually, when your pick comes up, you have three, four guys that have an equal grade, and you take the guy that fits best.

SFI: What do you think is the most important thing for the 49ers to get out of this draft?
RL: The biggest thing is you have to get a solid starter. That's the No. 1, biggest thing. You can't miss. You don't have to hit a home run, but you can't miss. That's one thing you have to watch out for. You can't make a mistake. You have to take more of the sure thing than the risk. The more you make a mistake, the more you set your franchise back.

SFI: Alex Smith. Vernon Davis. Manny Lawson. Patrick Willis and Joe Staley. What's your impression of the talent the 49ers have been able to acquire in the first round of the draft over the last years during the Mike Nolan/Scot McCloughan regime?
RL: I think you can look at the last two guys as clearly a success. Prior to those two, I don't think you found guys that have clearly proven themselves. Alex Smith, Manny Lawson … those guys are still unproven. Davis … he's not an elite tight end. He flashes, and no question shows talent, but he's not a guy that gets you real excited yet. He hasn't proven himself to be as good as where he got picked. He believes he's a superstar when at this point he's really either average or below average. Lawson, to me, is one of those coming out of college that was more an athlete than a football player and he still has to show than he can do everything. I think two of them are home runs, I think Smith and Davis aren't short on talent, they show some stuff but they haven't shown it consistently enough to be considered a good player yet.

SFI: How much do you think it will affect the 49ers that they recently were penalized a fifth-round selection in this year's draft for alleged tampering with Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs, and also had to swap positions with Chicago in the third round, dropping five slots in that round?
RL: More than anything, they could have gotten a pick for dropping that many spots in the third round. And that really hurts if you're targeting a guy in that area. Now they might have to do something to get the guy they really want right there. Any time you lose a pick outright, that hurts. Losing any pick hurts. You only get seven of them to start. There's a number of fifth-round picks who come in and start, and a lot who come in and contribute. Any time you a pick, it's not good. That's for sure.

SFI: The 49ers have had 29 selections over the past three drafts but are now scheduled for just six this year. Should they attempt to package their picks this year in an attempt to move up in the selection order?
RL: I'm always of the belief that you do what your board tells you. When you get a few picks away, and there's only one or two guys you feel are elite kind of guys, or are guys you really like, you have to go get them. If there's talent equivalent to your pick, then you have to stay there. If you don't have to give up a whole lot to get your guy, then go get him. If there's talent that's equivalent to your pick, then you have to stay there. It's risky when you go into a draft with the philosophy you have to move up or trade down to be successful.

In Part II, Russ talks about whether the 49ers can find starter-quality players at positions of need with their first two selections, discusses who are the best receiver prospects available, what kind of talent the 49ers can find in the middle rounds, what kind of depth there is at the team's top positions of need, gives his evaluation of San Francisco's quarterbacks and whether the team might use a pick there and also discusses a sleeper pass-rushing prospect who could fall to the team in the middle rounds

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