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49ers tread on shaky ground before draft

An earthquake-prone region has experienced an NFL tremor.

San Francisco general manager Scot McCloughan's dismissal just five weeks before April's draft sent shockwaves across the league and rocked the 49ers' front office. Head coach Mike Singletary and two assistant personnel directors (Trent Baalke and Tom Gamble) are now handling what is the lifeline for any quality NFL franchise - something the 49ers haven't been in years.

"When you lose someone like Scot, it's one of those things where it's going to create a little bit of a shake here and there," Singletary admitted Wednesday at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando.

The 49ers were on terra firma after an 8-8 finish last season - the team's best record since 2002. Quarterback Alex Smith finally started to show why San Francisco made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis solidified his standing as the second coming of Ray Lewis. Tight end Vernon Davis and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin enjoyed their best seasons. There was even stability on the coaching staff, a problem that plagued the 49ers for most of the past decade.

And then the ground gave way last week with McCloughan's removal.

49ers owner Jed York said the "mutual parting" stemmed from a "private personal matter." If the rumors circulating about why this happened are true, a move needed to get made despite the lousy timing.

That is still no consolation for 49ers fans who believe the franchise has taken a major step backward. Singletary flashed a polite smile when I asked about the perception that the sky was falling in the Bay Area.

"The most important thing for us to do is stay focused on the goal at hand -- becoming a great organization and a contender to go to the Super Bowl," he said. "I don't know what the perception is and I'll never really know because I don't pay attention to it. I focus on our team. I know how our players and coaches feel. We just have to continue to go forward and let all those other things fall by the wayside."

Easier said than done.

The 49ers claim almost all of their scouting was done and the draft boards set before McCloughan's dismissal. Maybe so, but there's more to the draft than player reports and rankings. Running an orderly "war room" on draft day and being deft enough to make trades quickly is something of a GM art form.

McCloughan was proving he could handle that task after being promoted to general manger in 2008 following three years under then-coach Mike Nolan as San Francisco's personnel director. Like any GM, McCloughan wasn't perfect. One example is the selection of 2008 first-round pick Kentwan Balmer, who has the earmarks of being a bust at defensive end. McCloughan also had the tendency to sign free-agent players without much input from San Francisco's coaching staff, which sometimes created bad personnel fits.

Yet overall, McCloughan upgraded the team's roster. He also swung a draft-day deal with Carolina last year that netted San Francisco an extra 2010 first-round choice in what is regarded as an extremely deep class of talent.

Tom Baalke, a 12-year NFL talent evaluator and McCloughan's top assistant, now has final say on what San Francisco does with its nine picks, including the No. 13 and 17 selections. Singletary and pro personnel director Tom Gamble also will make a greater contribution in filling McCloughan's shoes.

Singletary's increased involvement will raise some red flags. Even though he was a Hall of Fame linebacker who should recognize positive traits at the position, Singletary has allowed that he didn't push the 49ers to draft Willis in 2007 because he was unimpressed by the college film. It was McCloughan who convinced Singletary to take a second look and then pulled the trigger on the pick.

More than analyzing game tape or pre-draft workouts, Singletary said his strength is "work on the back end." That means digging behind the scenes to unearth a prospect's true character. Singletary's honesty, integrity and blunt candor help solicit sincere answers.

"I'm always looking for what is it that I don't know about," said Singletary, who is entering his second full season as San Francisco's head coach. "Who is it that I need to talk to? Who is the point person in this kid's life that I need to get to, to find out the real personality? As far as how good a talent evaluator I am, I think it really boils down to having all the pieces in place. The more pieces to the puzzle you have, the better talent evaluator you're going to be."

It doesn't take Mike Mayock to dissect what San Francisco needs most in the draft: Offensive line help, particularly at right tackle. The 49ers also could use young blood in the secondary - a cornerback with kickoff-return skills would be ideal - and along the defensive front seven.

If they can fill some holes, the 49ers should still be ready to challenge Arizona for NFC West supremacy. The Cardinals took a major step backward this offseason with quarterback Kurt Warner retiring and two key defensive players - linebacker Karlos Dansby (Miami) and safety Antrel Rolle (New York Giants) - signing elsewhere.

But while losing players hurts, the same goes for front-office turnover at such a critical time of the offseason. How the franchise handles this draft and ultimately addresses the general manager position will go a long way toward determining whether the 49ers crumble or remain on solid footing.