Who Will 49ers Pick?
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 12, 2006

WITH THEIR relative inactivity in the free agent market, the 49ers have clearly decided that the draft is the way to go, and coach Mike Nolan has been stockpiling draft choices, both for this year and next.

Who will the 49ers pick in the first round? Unlike last year, when they had the top pick in the draft and the only question was which quarterback they’d pick, the pre-draft speculation has been all over the board.

Some have fixed on Ohio State linebacker A. J. Hawk, who could be a replacement for Julian Peterson. Others have thought the Niners might take Texas safety Michael Huff with their sixth pick. One mock draft had the 49ers taking Maryland tight end Vernon Davis. Another even thought the 49ers might trade down with their pick.

I have no first-hand knowledge of any of these players, but I would make two general recommendations:

1) Don’t trade the first pick. Because Bill Walsh did so spectacularly well with the 1986 draft, when he kept trading down, many 49er fans think that’s the way to go. But the 49ers first-round pick that year was only the 18th. Walsh figured that there wasn’t much difference in a large pool of players available from the bottom of the first round through the third round, so he might as well get extra picks. He later said that his first pick in the second round, defensive end Larry Roberts, was the player he would have taken in the first round if he hadn’t made those picks.

When Walsh had a high pick, the second pick in the 1980 draft, he traded down and got fullback Earl Cooper and defensive end Jim Stuckey, both of whom made contributions to the 1981 Super Bowl champion but were not outstanding players. He’d probably have done better to keep that pick, as he did the next year when he picked Ronnie Lott. When you have a pick in the top 10 in the first round, you should always go for a player who has a chance to be a star.

2) Go for the player with the highest relative value. That would seem to be Hawk, because he has the speed (4.59 in the 40) which would make him an effective pass rusher from the edge. Huff is a very good player, but if you’re going to take a defensive back that high, it should be a shut-down corner, not a safety. (Lott started as a corner and was a very good one before being shifted to safety.) Though the 49ers sorely needed a passcatching tight end last season, that position is never the one you start the building process with – and the 49ers will have that filled if Eric Johnson is healthy.

ESPECIALLY SINCE the new Collective Bargaining Agreement raised the salary cap, the 49ers were expected to be big players in the free agent market. They made two good signings, wide receiver Antonio Bryant and veteran guard Larry Allen, but that was it.

There were at least two factors involved. One was that some players the 49ers pursued signed with other clubs, probably because they weren’t confident the 49ers will turn around quickly.

But there was also an organizational philosophy, explained by Nolan at the recent NFL meetings, to avoid the traps of the past, when the 49ers fell into Salary Cap Hell.

There are two very different ways to build a team in the NFL: through the draft or through free agency.

The Raiders have taken the second path in recent years. It worked when they brought in Rich Gannon and Bill Romanowski, who were both leaders, and they got to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season. But we have seen the downside of that strategy since. The free agents who are brought in usually have a primary loyalty to themselves, not the team. When Gannon went down early in the 2003 season, the Raiders started unraveling. Just past the midway mark last season, the Raiders gave up on the season and lost their last six games.

Nolan has brought in one player, Bryant, who has had problems with other teams, but he is young and hopefully will mature. Allen is a solid veteran who can set the right example for the younger players.

From the start, Nolan has talked of wanting to build a team of players who “bought into” his system. He’s gotten rid of those players he didn’t want, and others who didn’t agree with his system (or assistant coaches) have left on their own.

Now, he is free to build his own kind of team. I’m sure he will be stressing character issues in scouting evaluations, and with a team built through the draft, he’ll be able to install his own philosophy.

IT WILL BE interesting to see how this plays with the 49ers fans.

Last year, there was great excitement because Nolan was a fresh face, yet one with a tie to the 49ers’ past through his father, Dick. Having the first pick in the draft generated more excitement, with the debate over Smith and Rodgers.

There wasn’t much excitement in the season, though the team finished strong. (Which disappointed those fans who were hoping for another first pick in the draft.) Smith was clearly not ready to start in the NFL, though I think Nolan was right to trade Tim Rattay to make room for him. Smith is only going to learn the NFL by playing, and last year’s experience should be helpful, painful as it was for him and everybody watching.

Now, the 49ers have a new ticket pricing strategy which is in line with pricing for other teams, with the best seats priced higher than the less desirable ones, but which has the effect this year of punishing those fans who have been the most loyal. The “sellouts” last year were artificially generated, with the team buying up unsold tickets, probably more than anybody admitted. The 49ers might have to buy up even more this year to keep the home games on local television.

The one ray of hope is that the 49ers have been in this bleak position before but bounced back. They were way down in the early ‘60s but got into the playoffs three straight years, two of them in the NFC Championship game, under the first Nolan, 1970-72. They suffered through consecutive 2-14 seasons in the late ‘70s, but Walsh got them on the Super Bowl path in 1981.

Can Mike Nolan have similar success? I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I think he learned some valuable lessons last year and he has a definite plan. Keep your fingers crossed.

OOPS! My mistaken reference yesterday to the Giants-Braves Sunday game being played at Candlestick was simply an error, not nostalgia for the ‘Stick! I corrected it late in the day.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section later today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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