49ers preparing for the draft: LB

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

Current players: OLB Manny Lawson, ILB Patrick Willis, ILB Dontarrious Thomas, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Parys Haralson, ILB Brandon Moore, ILB Jeff Ulbrich, OLB Jay Moore, OLB Roderick Green, ILB Dennis Haley

State of the position: The name is Willis. Patrick Willis. Give the guy a red cape or something. Willis was simply super in his debut season last year, and in fact had one of the most spectacular seasons ever by a San Francisco rookie defender, or any rookie linebacker in NFL history for that matter. Willis was the highlight of San Francisco's disappointing 2007 season as the NFL's runaway leader in tackles, recording a record-shattering 226 according to 49ers' statistics. It wasn't just the numbers Willis recorded on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro honors, it was the way he did it with his inimitable, all-out controlled, ball-seeking style. Willis is a leader and a special player, and the San Francisco defense already revolves around him, which needless to say gives the 49ers a solid nucleus at this position. The rest of the unit around him, however, must improve for the 49ers to have success defensively. Derek Smith, the team's leading tackler from 2001-2005, began the season as the starter next to Willis inside but faded as the year wore on and was subsequently released during the offseason. Ulbrich started two games next to Willis late in the season, and he's one of the candidates to fill the void that exists with Smith's departure. Brandon Moore, almost a forgotten man in the defense last year after his breakout 2006 season (when he led the team in tackles and sacks), also will contend for that position, as will newcomer Thomas. On the outside, the 49ers are anxiously awaiting the return of Manny Lawson, who appeared headed for big things in his second season before a torn knee ligament wiped out his season after two games. Parys Haralson displayed some progress in Lawson's place as the season progressed, and he will be in the mix for significant playing time even after Lawson returns. Free-agent newcomer Tully Banta-Cain was a disappointment as the regular starter on the right side, where the pass-rushing prowess he displayed during his final season in New England never really materialized with the 49ers. Banta-Cain had a strong training camp, but he followed that with only three sacks during the season, and San Francisco simply needs more from the position. In fact, the 49es need more pass-rush push from both outside linebacker positions. Banta-Cain will face competition for his job this summer, and it could come from somebody the 49ers bring in through the draft.

Position draft need priority: Moderate/High

Last linebackers drafted: Patrick Willis, 2007 first round, No. 11 player selected overall; Jay Moore, 2007 fourth round, No. 104 player selected overall

Why the 49ers will draft a linebacker: They need to add talent to compete at the position both inside and on the outside. They also need to pump up their pass rush, and the primary guys who can do that play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Why the 49ers won't draft a linebacker: A prospect to their liking doesn't fall their way in the selection process, and the Niners go instead for the best player available when they select that plays another position.

When to address: Second, third, fourth and sixth round

Who's out there: The 49ers, as they always do, are looking at some pass-rushing college defensive end who would transition to outside linebacker in the NFL, but if Penn State's Dan Connor or USC's Keith Rivers drops to the end of the first round, either might be too good to pass up. Miami's Tavares Gooden is another top prospect that could be available at San Francisco's first two picks. After that, there's some good depth of quality, and the 49ers could find a gem in the middle rounds among a group that includes Florida State's Geno Hayes, BYU's Bryan Kehl, Michigan's Shawn Crable, Virginia Tech's Xavier Adibi, Georgia Tech's Philip Wheeler and LSU's Ali Smith. Inside, there are some real studs that might go before the 49ers are on the clock such as Tennessee's Jerod Mayo and Oklahoma's Curtis Lofton. Here, also, the 49ers could find a quality prospect in the middle rounds such as Nevada's speedy Ezra Butler-Beaton, UNLV's Beau Bell and Maryland's Erin Henderson, who has the size the 49ers covet to play the inside position next to Willis.

General manager Scot McCloughan says: "We have Manny Lawson back healthy, we have Parys Haralson and you have Tully (Banta-Cain). That's a pretty good group right there. If we can add to it through the draft, we'll do it. But we feel good about our outside linebackers. The best thing about what we have going now is that we have depth. Jay Moore's got plays in him bigger than life. Hopefully, he shows that he's what we need here. And hopefully, we draft one or two guys. For that position, we're not worried about it whatsoever."

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