As the 2013 draft approaches, NFL teams are designing their draft day strategies in order to be ready come April. For a few reasons, the San Francisco 49ers are one of the more interesting teams entering this draft. They have one of the more stacked, successful and youthful teams in the league, and they are flush with draft picks.
The Niners lead the league with 14 selections, but will also be gaining pre-draft interest with Alex Smith as a bargaining chip.
However, another fascinating aspect about San Francisco is their draft prowess. A characteristic that really isn't discussed is how their draft perspective differs from most other teams. The Niners staff has a three-dimensional outlook when analyzing incoming prospects.
Sometimes they can look at a player and see beyond what's on film. One of the key traits they value is versatility, and this has been magnified upon instances when they've drafted players with the intent on converting them.
The 49ers have seen players change positions; obviously some more than others:
- TE Delanie Walker (Central Missouri) was once a wide receiver
- LT Joe Staley (Central Michigan) was once a tight end
- OLB Aldon Smith (Missouri) and FB Bruce Miller (Central Florida) were once defensive ends
- RT Anthony Davis (Rutgers) was a right guard and left tackle
Each player bounced around and underwent position changes at different times, but that shows how applicable the method is. It can be done arbitrarily in someone's career and still yield positive results. More often than not, it is the coach's intuition and not the player's decision.
When it comes to successfully converted players, Smith and Miller were the two shining examples as of recent. As rookies, Aldon Smith had to standup and learn to play rush linebacker, while Bruce Miller transitioned to the opposite side of the football.
If you have a strong coaching staff and plenty of draft picks, this become a good strategy to employ in the later rounds of the draft. Ultimately, it is a low-risk, high-reward way to find value at the backend of the draft, where most teams typically strike out.
The Niners converted an undervalued defensive end into a top-end full back. They've also revealed a strategy by converting late round offensive tackles into interior line prospects. In the past, converting basketball players or defensive ends into tight ends has been a popular choice. These are just a few examples of ways San Francisco can get value from the later rounds.
By doing this, they can get the physical traits, measurables and character desired for the position. There is no rule that they have to conform to the traditional draft-and-develop process.
Trent Baalke should be able to find first-rate role players that can contribute in one, if not multiple phases of the game. And ideally, they would be worthy enough of being groomed for a starting position one day.
The credit has to go to Jim Harbaugh and this coaching staff he assembled. With the experienced and innovative minds the 49ers have in place, this become an option, which makes them more versatile, and ultimately more dangerous on draft day.
San Francisco should be on the prowl for freak athletes, that when it comes to football, they just get it.
The 49ers need a tight end, as well as defensive linemen and pass rushers. From this group of needs, finding a big pass-catcher or a situational rusher may be the easier course. Also, they're always in the market for an athlete with straight-line speed and lateral quickness.
San Francisco should look to possibly convert a hybrid at tight end. And they should broaden their horizons and really explore the NCAA landscape, which includes college basketball. For those that don't recall, Tony Gonzalez played basketball at Cal and Antonio Gates played basketball at Kent State.
These were two of the best TEs in the past decade, and Gonzalez being one of the greatest of all-time.
This is a great way to find players with size, athleticism (particularly agility and explosion) and great hand-eye coordination. Basketball players also understand schemes, which includes finding and exploiting gaps in defenses. By going this route, San Francisco can really find a threat opposite Vernon Davis, which would add a new dimension to this offense.
And that same size and athleticism can be used for an X-factor in the front seven.
The 49ers would do themselves some good by acquiring another situational rusher in the draft this year. Trent Baalke and the Niners scouts can once again search for a physically gifted prospect; someone that is strong and lengthy but has great burst.
Denard Robinson, Michigan
Conversion: QB > WR/KR
This is not much of a mystery player, but he is worth the mention, regardless. Robinson was a track star playing quarterback at Michigan, but in the NFL, teams will look to convert him into a more traditional playmaker. If there is a staff that could both find a place for Robinson and adequately develop him at a new position, it would be the 49ers.
San Francisco could find a role for Robinson in this Pistol-heavy offense, which employs a lot of options and misdirection out of the backfield. He could also immediately help fill a need at kick return.
Joseph Fauria, UCLA
Conversion: TE > DE/OLB
There are a few things to like about Fauria.
As the nephew of former NFL TE Christian Fauria, football is in his bloodline. The makeup of a transitional player necessitates versatility, so you want to look for that pure football player. Fauria fits the criteria.
He is also a massive, raw prospect at 6'7", 257 pounds, offering a tremendous combination of size and athleticism. He brings a lot of physical upside, and for someone projected to go between the 7th round and undrafted, he is worth the look.
If the 49ers were to look to transition him, or someone like him, he could best contribute as a situational rusher in year one. Between Vic Fangio, Jim Leavitt and Jim Tomsula, they could hone his skills, instruct him in the position and show him how to use his rare size and athleticism against his opponents.
Fauria was also a touchdown machine at UCLA, and could be utilized as a two-way player. He does not have to be the No. 2 TE full-time but he could fill in on situational downs, including third-and-longs and red-zone attempts.
The problem with this methodology is that there is no film on them at the new position. It is a fairly bold move that necessitates a lot of pieces falling in place.
Also, not every player brings that kind of versatility or adaptability. It is difficult to learn the nuances of a completely different position all of a sudden. And to do so takes the right kind of mind and the right kind of character - it's not just based on physical abilities.
However, the reason the 49ers should pursue it is because of the amount of picks available as well as the coaching staff in place. With one of their dozen late-round picks, they can acquire a high ceiling, project player for Jim Tomsula, Reggie Davis or one of the many other skilled position coaches to mold.
Have any ideas for NFL draft prospects the 49ers should convert? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below.