I’ve seen a lot of mixed reactions to the 2011 Niners draft, ranging from excitement to utter despair. I wanted to share a few of my admittedly crazy thoughts that I’ve formed while watching the 49ers select talent this year, while also taking into account their last few seasons and the beginning of the Harbaugh coaching era.
Going into the draft, the Niners had three major needs to address:
They definitively addressed the OLB position, following a similar plan to last year. When their major need in the 2010 draft was patching up the O-line, Baalke and company were aggressive in pursuing their men and drafting first-rounders to build their O-line around. In 2011, they followed the same path, using their first round selection to select a guy to build Fangio’s pass rush around. The pick was definitely out of left field when I first heard it called, but once it set in I think it makes a lot of sense. He’s the kind of guy Fangio needs for the diverse schemes he runs as Aldon can play both in a 3-4 or 4-3 when called upon to do, and his intangibles seem to be very strong. The guy was mocked pretty consistently as a Top 15 pick who’d probably land at 11 with Texans, so I don’t think a shift of 4 spots is much of a reach, especially considering the Niners weren’t able to trade down. Might as well get their man while they could.
QB has arguably been their biggest area of need for years, and they’ve essentially solved it. They now have a QB of the present (Alex) who allows them to have a bridge to the QBOTF (Colin). I understand a lot of people are going to moan and groan upon seeing Alex come back again, but it makes sense. Let’s be clear, Alex is a better option for a variety of reasons than any other QB from trade or FA, including Kolb. For one, he had a better QB rating than Kolb did in 2010 despite the fact that Kolb had access to vastly superior coaching and a more stable environment. Numbers aside, and the fact that Alex is a better choice than guys like Bulger or Palmer, he’s already familiar with the team and players, has developed a good rapport with Harbaugh, and honestly he deserves to have a chance to finally work with a competent offensive HC on the Niners. Colin provides the future for the position and is probably a piece of clay that Harbaugh can mold into the QB he has wanted to use in the NFL for years. The marriage there should be special.
Basically, with the first two picks of the 2011 draft, the Niners were able to solve two of their biggest needs and got the building blocks there for years to come.
Which brings us to the rest of the draft following those two picks, and the big question of why pick so many raw projects? Harbaalke never said this and maybe it’s a leap of mine, but I think it points to a larger truth: both guys feel like the roster as it currently stands, especially with the additions of Aldon, along with Alex + Colin as the solutions for the QB problem, is practically complete.
Shocking you say? Maybe. I know there are many people who won’t be satisfied ‘till we have a Pro-Bowler and future HOF’er at every position. But I see it like this: this is a team that went 14-18 over the last two seasons despite being the worst coached team in the NFL during that time. They were 9-3 against the NFC West during that stretch.
Besides the evidence of the product on the field throughout the 2010 season, there was a particular moment that really made me go “Well damn, this may be one of the most poorly coached teams in history” regarding the Singletary-era Niners (along with the Nolan era too I suppose). It was right around the time Tomsula had been inserted for the final game of the season and players were talking about how they were too tense and scared under Sing. The particular thing that struck me, and I can’t recall which player said it, but there was a quote from a player that, I paraphrase, essentially was “The great thing about Tomsula is that we feel prepared; we’ve been practicing scenarios such as being forced to start near our own goal line and other bad situations.” All I could do was go “lolwut?” and shake my head. This was one of the most poorly prepared teams in franchise history, and I think even the relatively small sample size of Tomsula’s one game shows the difference between Singletary’s coaching and what the team looks like under a competent coach.
Here’s how I see it. On the defensive side of the ball, the front seven is pretty much set. Justin Smith and Pat Willis are the anchors, Aldon should be the answer at OLB, and NT should be, at worst, okay for the year and can be upgraded next year if Franklin doesn’t return + the depth at the position flounders. On offense, they have the pieces at O-line they want to build around. Iupati looks like the long-term answer, and Davis has shown enough signs that he could develop into one too. Heitmann and Bass (if he returns) are fine at center, Staley is good to go. Chilo is really the only question mark on the line right now, and I feel he’s the reason Killgore and Person were brought on, to immediately compete with him while also providing depth and in Killgore’s case possible center of the future. The weapons are in place between Davis, Crabtree, Morgan, and Gore. Plus, the addition of Hunter through the draft is one of the more consensus picks I believe and brings an immediate impact to supplement the offense. QB is now taken care of too, unquestionably the biggest missing piece of offense. Throw in a competent coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball and I do not believe there are gaping wholes there.
Depth, competition, and versatility are probably the buzzwords for the 9ers draft this year. And I think that’s what sums up the 9ers draft picks this year. They’ve been adding depth to positions such as the O-line and secondary. Is the secondary in particular still the big area of need? I believe so, and in keeping with Baalke’s history I strongly believe that that is the area of need they’ll target during the first round of 2012. There had already been a rush on CBs during the 2nd round when they were focused on landing Kaep, so by drafting one in the third, I’m not too concerned that they preferred someone like Culliver over the available guys when there was no unanimous consensus. I don’t think Culliver was brought on to compete with Clements for the #1 spot, but again, to add depth to the position, be a ST player, versatility for different packages, and maybe compete with Spencer. The same goes for our 6th and 7th round picks. I do not believe they were brought in to start on a roster that the coaches and FO believe to be set, but again, to bring depth and all that stuff.
In conclusion, I believe the draft makes sense when looked at it like this: the early picks were done to solve immediate problems at OLB and QB while also bringing in help for Gore. I think fixing 2 of the 3 problems definitively is good in of itself; I get the impression that the secondary became next year’s target once PP was taken and they focused on OLB and QB with the first two picks. Now, when I say the roster is complete, I do not mean everyone is playing at a high level. But rather that Harbaugh and Baalke are happy with the guys they currently have in place and see this as team and roster that can be bred and groomed into a contender. Guys like Iupati, Davis, Colin, and Aldon as guys that will be brought up while mainstays like Gore, Davis, Willis, and Justin Smith anchor the team. They see that as the nucleus of the Harbaalke era while they add depth to that and continue adding pieces. In that sense, I see this draft as a success and why I think it’s a solid “B” draft. Two major needs solved, QBOTF selected, and pieces added that fit a clear scheme and philosophy.
Could this all spectacularly backfire and be looked back upon as the beginning of the end for the Harbaalke marriage? Yeah. But it also has the potential to be the kind of draft people look back on and go “Oh, that’s where it started.” I said this about the Aldon pick on another board:
I'm really warming on the Aldon pick though; I love what a bold statement it is for the Harbaalke era and the tone it set as their first pick. The whole pick makes it clear they're targeting guys that are smart, clean pasts, hard workers, love football, tough, guys that are raw but are willing to be molded. It could fail spectacularly as a first draft class or be looked back on as the first sign of the Harbaalke dynasty. I'm excited all the same. You don't draft a guy like Culliver unless you have a vision for your team and know where you want to plug guys in.
And I still feel the same. This is the kind of draft where the guys behind it clearly had a guiding vision behind it. Time will tell whether it’s a successful vision or not, but for now, I have faith in Harbaugh in company, loved the conviction they showed during the draft, and am excited about the solutions they brought to QB and OLB and really just want this stupid lockout to end so we can see how this all comes together. This is a team that almost went .500 while being "coached" in a loose sense of the word and was competitive with top teams like the Falcons and Saints. What's going to happen when they have a good coaching staff that has an offensive philosophy not rooted in 1985? Good things, I expect.