During the time surrounding the NFL Draft, there is a level of optimism and anticipation that elevates the NFL’s draft over the drafts for other sports. Fans from all 32 teams have had time to digest what their team had done the previous season and find reasons to get excited for the upcoming year. We tune into the draft coverage awaiting to either agree or dispute whatever Mel Kiper say about our favorite players or teams. Sometimes, Kiper will convince us that our team’s later-round picks will become stars, increasing our optimism to the point that we’re ready to buy Super Bowl tickets and put in our leave slip for the end of January and first week in February. Most of the time, fans don’t even pay attention to who their team draft after the third-round, until they make a play in game that helps the team win. Well, training camp hasn’t started, but the Niners late-round picks have my attention already.
Rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Glen Coffee will receive the most attention heading into camp and deservingly so, but the later-round picks will serve in roles that may have bigger impacts during the season. Five of the Niners’ seven selections were drafted in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds and they might prove to be what the Niners need to make it back to the playoffs.
Arguably, the 49ers’ biggest strength is their group of linebackers led by Pro Bowler Patrick Willis and that group was upgraded this April. The 2008 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Pittsburgh’s Scott McKillop, was drafted 146th overall in the fifth round by the Niners. Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes are the returning starters, but you can expect to see McKillop in the rotation, especially when the Niners are looking to stuff the run.
With head coach Mike Singletary looking to turn the 49ers into a smashmouth running team, the Niners drafted a north-south runner, Glen Coffee, in the third-round and a tight end that can block like a lineman, Bear Pascoe, 184th overall in the sixth round. Pascoe, rookie from Fresno State, not only blocks, but was key in the Bulldogs passing attack leading to his back-to-back All-WAC honors. Pascoe will also free up fellow tight end Vernon Davis to get vertical and put pressure on opposing teams’ defenses when the Niners play in two tight end sets. Pascoe might prove to be the Niners best pick.
The Niners used both of their seventh round picks to select former LSU standouts safety Curtis Taylor, 219th overall, and defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, 244th overall. I can’t say for certain that either player will receive sufficient playing time, but if they do they can make an impact. Neither player will impress you with their combine workouts, but their game tape will. The one thing that both of these players possess is football intelligence, especially safety Curtis Taylor. Taylor doesn’t cause havoc, but is always in the right place to make the play, and then make it, which is important because safeties should never be caught out of position. Ricky Jean-Francois was inconsistent at LSU, but when he’s good, he’s great. Jean-Francois was the Defensive MVP of the 2008 BCS Championship Game and if he was a consistent player, then he would have gotten drafted on the first day.
Quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Alex Smith are in a battle for the starting spot and the loser will be rewarded with the second spot on the depth chart. Veteran Damon Huard will most likely be third, but this leaves no room for their 171st overall pick Nate Davis. No problem. Nate Davis is not ready to be a starter, but can eventually become a player like Jeff Garcia, only better. Davis needs roughly two seasons to sit, learn better mechanics, and to understand NFL style defenses. He may not play a game in the 49ers uniform, but if he plays at the right time, then he can be a starter for a many years.
With the exclusion of Michael Crabtree, none of the 49ers’ draft picks wowed the scouts with their workouts, even though Crabtree missed workouts due to a toe injury. The Niners were consistent with their picks drafting smart players that fit a role on the team. If they put in the necessary work to get better, then the 49ers are on their way to reclaim their spot on top of the NFL.