We are officially into draft week as the 2012 NFL Draft is only a few days away. Starting Thursday evening, the San Francisco 49ers and the rest of the NFL will look to take one more step forward in preparation for the 2012 season. Some teams will be looking to re-build the core of their team, while others will often be adding more complementary players. While these players can be incredibly important over the course of a 16-game season, for teams adding more for depth than starting needs, they are in a bit of a position of luxury compared to some of the more downtrodden teams in the league.
After years of struggles, the 49ers have emerged in 2012 as one of the latter teams looking to complement what is developing into a very strong team core. Although the team has had its share of question mark draft picks at times, they will still send out upwards of 16 of their draft picks among the 22 offensive and defensive starters. Daniel Kilgore is the only real significant question mark, but if he claims the right guard spot in training camp, he will be the 16th starter.
Given that this draft is more about depth than immediate need, it is understandable that some folks are less than enthused about it. Although we all know draft grades immediately after the picks, and even a year or two after the draft, are of little value, this is still a "what have you done for me lately" league. While the 49ers will not necessarily get huge immediate production from their 2012 NFL Draft class, this is still an incredibly important draft for the team.
Aside from potentially needing a right guard, this draft provides a chance to develop significant depth behind an already strong starting lineup. The 49ers have added plenty of solid starters in recent years, but the depth behind those starters leaves some question marks, particularly with some up and down moments in recent drafts. The 49ers 2011 draft class is looking quite strong only a year removed with a solid mix of starters and reserves, but that is making up for some up and down moments in some of the previous drafts.
Pro Football Focus put together a rundown of the 49ers 2008-2010 drafts (h/t MichaelClutchtree) and it goes to show how valuable the surrounding drafts were. The 2008 draft only has one player remaining in Larry Grant, and he left and then returned. The remaining class consisted of DE Kentwan Balmer, OG Chilo Rachal, S Reggie Smith, C Cody Wallace and WR Joshua Morgan. Not so pretty.
The 2009 draft still has some potential, but it was another one that featured more misses than hits. The 49ers grabbed Michael Crabtree in the first round and he is still developing. He has not met many expectations, but he has shown improvement. 2012 will mark his fourth season in the league and is a big one for him. In the seventh round, the 49ers grabbed Ricky Jean-Francois. While RJF has not been able to work his way into the starting lineup, he has been an incredibly significant reserve along the defensive line. Other than that, the class included RB Glen Coffee, LB Scott McKillop, QB Nate Davis, TE Bear Pascoe and S Curtis Taylor. Whoops.
The 2010 class has had some big hits and some ugly misses, but the jury is still out on the totality of it. The first round saw the 49ers move up a couple spots to grab OT Anthony Davis, and then use their second 1st round pick (from Carolina) on OG Mike Iupati. While Davis has struggled quite a bit at times, he showed improvement from year one to year two. A full offseason with the new coaching staff makes year three incredibly important in his development track. While draft grades often require a good four to five years to gain some traction, we will hopefully get a significantly better idea of where Davis is at and where he is headed by the end of this season.
The second round saw the 49ers grab Taylor Mays and well, the less said about that pick, the better. The third round was a home run pick as NaVorro Bowman emerged as an All-Pro in his second season. It will be interesting to see how teams game-plan against the Bowman-Willis combo and how Bowman responds to teams more specifically game-planning against him.
The rest of the 2010 class has some questions marks that will likely be figured out in some form or fashion this year. Anthony Dixon has been a standout on special teams, but has not been the kind of complementary running back the team was hoping for with the pick. It was only a sixth round pick, but it would still be nice to get a bit more out of Dixon in the running game. Nate Byham put together some solid moments in his rookie year, but is coming off a knee injury that wiped out his 2011 season. The 49ers will likely add a tight end at some point this week, but even if not, Konrad Reuland will get a chance to compete with Byham for playing time.
Kyle Williams was the third of their sixth round picks in 2010. While he will be historically attached to his two fumbles last year against the Giants, he remains an interesting talent as a wide receiver. He is facing an uphill battle for a roster spot given all the recent additions and expected additions later this week in the draft.
Given the struggles in adding much more depth between 2008 and 2010, the 49ers will be looking for a few key reserves to come out of this draft. It remains to be seen how many long-term starters are added, but for 2012, beyond maybe a right guard, it will be all about filling up the reserves this year. This could make trading all the more likely. While seven draft picks is not exactly an excess of picks, for the 49ers roster, it provides a chance to make more of an impact either in terms of moving up for a stronger reserve option, or dealing away picks for higher picks in subsequent years when there might be more holes in the roster.