The 49ers are another team on the cusp of playoff contention. They compiled an 8-8 record in 2009, but six of their losses came by seven points or less. A solid draft could push San Francisco over the hump. Unfortunately they will have to do it without general manager Scot McCloughan, who took an extended leave of absence due to personal issues just over a month before the draft. The team will rely on director of player personnel Trent Baalke and director of pro personnel Tom Gamble to make solid choices come draft day.
San Francisco will make two selections in the first round after acquiring the Panthers' top pick in a trade during last year's draft. They have choices in every round except for the fifth. The team currently holds picks No. 13, 17, 29, 79, 113, 182, 206 and 224.
Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith finally had some success last season. He completed 60.5% of his passes for 2,350 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Shaun Hill, who entered the season as the starter, was traded to Detroit in the offseason, in some ways showing a commitment to Smith. Still, the biggest weakness of the 49ers has always been at quarterback. Smith may or may not be the answer, but if Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen falls to them at 13, it will be hard for San Francisco to pass on him.
The 49ers struggled to find an identity on offense last season and finished ranking 27th as they gained 290.8 yards per game. Head coach Mike Singletary wanted to feature a power rushing attack, but the emergence of Smith led them to shotgun-spread formations. San Francisco will try to maintain balance on offense this season, but needs to improve up front. Right tackle will be a high priority, where Adam Snyder started 16 games but struggled in pass protection. Singletary wants a nasty offensive line that can physically impose its will on the opposition. One such player who more than fits that description is Mike Iupati of Idaho, whom the team hosted on a pre-draft visit. Iupati played guard in college, but could move to right tackle at the next level and Singletary will love his tenacity. The team has also met with Rutgers' tackle Anthony Davis, a massive road-paving run blocker. Offensive guard is another position that could use an upgrade, where starters David Baas and Chilo Rachel are inconsistent.
Frank Gore had another productive season, rushing for 1,120 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. Running back isn't a pressing need, but San Francisco could use a nice complimentary back to Gore. Glen Coffee is a power runner similar to Gore and wasn't effective in his rookie campaign. Drafting a change of pace guy in the later rounds could pay dividends.
On defense, the 49ers were stout against the run, but struggled to cover as they ranked 21st against the pass. The top need is finding a shutdown cornerback to start opposite Shawntae Spencer. Nate Clements started the first six games of the season but was demoted in favor of Tarell Brown before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Brown started four games and was replaced by Dre' Bly. Bly started the final six games of the season, but is 32-years old and wasn't re-signed in the offseason. San Francisco may opt to address this need with one of their two first-round picks.
The linebackers are a solid group, but some improvements can be made. The 49ers employ a 3-4 scheme but lack the relentless edge-rusher that is vital to its success. Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson are the starters and Ahmad Brooks sees plenty of action in reserve. Those three provided good production last season, combining for 17.5 sacks. Still, one can't help but think how much more effective the defense would be with consistent pressure. Drafting a disruptive hybrid linebacker/defensive end-type would be a nice addition to the unit.
The last task on San Francisco's to-do list is finding a reliable return specialist. Not only could the 49ers not gain yards on punt returns last season, but fumbles cost the team two games. They desperately need a dependable return man that can catch the ball and gain positive yards.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: DT Aubrayo Franklin (franchised at $7.003M)
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WR Arnaz Battle (wasn't re-signed), CB Dre' Bly (wasn't re-signed), DT Aubrayo Franklin (franchised), CB Walt Harris (wasn't re-signed), T Tony Pashos (wasn't re-signed), S Mark Roman (wasn't re-signed), T Barry Sims (re-signed for one year), LB Jeff Ulbrich (retired), LB Matt Wilhelm (re-signed for one year)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: LB Ahmad Brooks (received second-round tender at $1.759M, re-signed for two-years at $4.225M), G David Baas (received original-round tender at $1.226M and signed), CB Marcus Hudson (wasn't tendered)
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: RB Thomas Clayton (wasn't tendered), K Ricky Schmitt (wasn't tendered), K Shane Andrus (wasn't tendered, re-signed for one year)
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: T Barry Sims, LB Matt Wilhelm, LB Ahmad Brooks, G David Baas, K Shane Andrus
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Darry Beckwith, WR Ted Ginn Jr (via trade with Miami), QB David Carr (signed for two-years at $6.25M), CB Karl Paymah (signed for one year)
PLAYERS LOST: WR Arnaz Battle (signed with Pittsburgh), QB Shaun Hill (via trade with Detroit), CB Marcus Hudson (signed with Panthers), T Tony Pashos (signed with Cleveland), K Ricky Schmitt (signed with Tennessee), CB Dre' Bly, CB Walt Harris, S Mark Roman, LB Jeff Ulbrich, RB Thomas Clayton
RIGHT TACKLE -- Getting better up front is a high priority for Mike Singletary's team and right tackle is a weakness. Adam Snyder struggled last season and the team should be looking to replace him with one of its two first-round picks. The 49ers were reportedly targeting a right tackle last April before Michael Crabtree fell into their laps.
CORNERBACK -- San Francisco featured three different starters at the cornerback position opposite Shawntae Spencer. Nate Clements suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Tarell Brown was far from solid and Dre' Bly left in free agency. The 49ers need to find a shutdown corner to improve a secondary that struggled at times in 2009.
QUARTERBACK -- Alex Smith had his most productive season to date as he passed for 18 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. The former top-overall pick will try and build on that success in 2010, and should further benefit from having the same offensive coordinator in place for consecutive season for the first time in his career. Still, quarterback has been the team's glaring weakness for some time, and it will be hard to pass on a player like Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame if he falls to them at 13.
RUNNING BACK -- Frank Gore enjoyed another successful year and became the first player in team history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in four consecutive seasons. He should be eyeing another big campaign in 2010. However, the team has little quality depth behind him. Glen Coffee was just a rookie last season but had minimal success and has a straight-line running style similar to Gore. The team could use a nice change of pace back in the later rounds of the draft.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER -- Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks are all solid, but none of them are outstanding. The 49ers could really take things to the next level on defense with a top-notch edge-rusher.
RETURN SPECIALIST -- San Francisco needs a reliable return man that can secure the football and gain positive yards.