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49ers Pre-Draft 53-man roster projection and draft needs

If you look back over the 3+ years Niners Nation has been around, I don't think I've ever actually mocked out every single pick in a given 49ers draft. It's not that I don't find that kind of exercise valuable. It's just that my knowledge of college football players is relatively limited. Any projection would be a rather blind stab in the dark.

However, in focusing in on our 49ers, I do see value in trying to project out the positions the team will address over the course of the draft. Accordingly, I thought I'd move up our first 53-man roster projection to now. In the past I waited until July, but really, why bother with that? This projection is a bit different than our summer projections. This projection will allow us to see the specific positional units that are short of players expected to make the 53-man roster. So, this won't be a list of 53 men.

After the jump I've posted some of our major bubble players, and a breakdown of each position with draft projections, and close with some positional projections for the draft.

QB (3): Alex Smith, David Carr, Nate Davis
RB (3): Frank Gore, Glen Coffee, Michael Robinson
FB (1): Moran Norris
WR (5): Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr., Jason Hill, Brandon Jones
TE (2): Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker
LT (2): Joe Staley, Barry Sims
LG (1): David Baas
C (2): Eric Heitmann, Cody Wallace
RG (2): Chilo Rachal, Tony Wragge
RT (1): Adam Snyder

DE (5): Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, Kentwan Balmer, Demetric Evans
DT (1): Aubrayo Franklin
OLB (3): Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson
ILB (4): Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes, Scott McKillop, Matt Wilhelm
CB (3): Shawntae Spencer, Nate Clements, Tarell Brown
FS (1): Dashon Goldson
SS (2): Michael Lewis, Reggie Smith

Special Teams
K: Joe Nedney
P: Andy Lee
LS: Brian Jennings
KR/PR: Ted Ginn Jr.

Positional projections for the draft are at the bottom of this post.

In putting together the initial projection, I came up with 45 players (Offense: 22, Defense: 20, ST: 3) that I'm fairly certain will make the 49ers roster at this point. Much can change in the coming months, but I'm comfortable with what I've posted so far. I've left a few names off that I think have a good shot at making the roster, but am not comfortable putting in a "lock" category. We're left with 8 roster spots, and fittingly enough 8 draft choices. Before getting into each position, here are many of the players sitting on the roster bubble.

FB Brit Miller
DE/DT Ricky Jean-Francois
DB Curtis Taylor
WR Dominique Zeigler
TE Tony Curtis
OT Alex Boone
OLB Diyral Briggs

We've discussed the QB position to no end, so I'm not going to re-hash it. Alex Smith is going nowhere. David Carr signed a 2-year deal and the team needs a veteran backup. Even if they drafted a rookie QB, there's no way they go into the season without Carr as the backup. Nate Davis appears to have a lot of work to do, but I think he's sticking around. MM mentioned the team could try and slide him onto the practice squad, but I think he is on the roster in 2010.

Draft potential: I know there has been a lot of talk about Jimmy Clausen ending up with the 49ers, but I'm just not seeing it right now. There are several teams ahead of the 49ers that need a QB, and given how close the 49ers are to the playoffs and greater success, I'm hoping they don't use one of their first rounders on Clausen. At the same time, if they don't grab Clausen, I do think they grab a quarterback to give Davis some competition in training camp. However, I'd lean towards last round or two, or even undrafted free agents (UDFA).

Running Back
Gore, Coffee and Robinson are not going anywhere. Gore is Gore, the team is not cutting their third round pick one year into his career, and Robinson remains a special teams standout.

Draft potential: Last year the team went with Coffee and then grabbed Kory Sheets as an undrafted free agent. This year, much of the talk has been around guys like C.J. Spiller in the first round, or Jahvid Best in the second round. Whatever route the 49ers take, I'd imagine it would be some kind of speed guy. For those who know their college running backs, what other speedsters are out there for later rounds?

I included Norris on the roster, but Brit Miller remains a very intriguing player, and one who sits on the bubble. I don't see any reason the team keeps two fullbacks at this point, but I suppose anything is possible. However, this will be a training camp battle that is sure to keep our attention.

Draft Potential: There has been talk of Toby Gerhart moving over to a fullback role, assuming he doesn't continue on as a regular running back. Whatever the case, the earliest I see the 49ers grabbing a fullback is among the UDFAs.

Wide Receiver
The addition of Ginn moves Dominique Zeigler into a precarious bubble position. One could argue Brandon Jones and Jason Hill are right there with him as well. After all, Hill has spent a fair amount of time in Mike Singletary's doghouse and Brandon Jones had an abysmal first season in San Francisco thanks to injuries and the addition of Michael Crabtree. Personally though, I really believe both Jones and Hill will be on the 53-man roster come week 1 of the regular season.

Draft Potential: The addition of Ginn significantly lowered the chances of the 49ers adding a wide receiver in the draft. A guy like Marty Gilyard was a possibility, but Ginn fills that role at this point. I'd imagine the team will add some bodies among the UDFAs, but I'd be a bit surprised to see them add anybody during the seven rounds of the draft. Of course, drafting a wide receiver could be a sign of the lack of confidence in Jones and/or Hill.

Tight End
I think it's safe to say that Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker aren't going anywhere. I included free agent addition Tony Curtis on the bubble watch and was thinking of including Joe Jon Finley. Either of them would be primarily a blocking specialist. I think Curtis has the edge, but neither one is exactly a lock.

Draft Potential: There are some really talented tight ends in the draft, but given the 49ers depth with Davis and Walker, I don't think they'd invest much of a pick in what would amount to nothing more than a blocking specialist.

Offensive Line
The 49ers offensive line struggled quite a bit this past season and we know the team is looking to make upgrades. Adam Snyder seems destined for the bench, with David Baas potentially not too far behind depending on how the offseason goes. Chester Pitts remains a possibility as he'll be making any kind of decision after the draft is over and he's able to pass a physical. Even if the 49ers add a guard in the draft, Pitts could be a logical addition. The big question mark on the bubble is OT Alex Boone. A lot of people are hoping he can show some promise and make the roster, but it's really hard to tell what will happen with him. It's been reported that he's lost a lot of bad weight and is in excellent shape as he prepares for his second training camp. The question is whether it will be enough to make it past the practice squad.

Draft Potential: There are a lot of things in life I'm not sure about, but the 49ers drafting at least one offensive lineman in the draft is something you can take to the bank. In fact, I'm strongly convinced that one of the first three picks will be on an offensive lineman. The question is how many linemen they add. After all, they could potentially add a center that could spend time at guard waiting to replace Heitmann, assuming they can supplant Wallace. Whatever the case, we'll have plenty of new offensive linemen to discuss starting next week.

Nose Tackle
Aubrayo Franklin has not yet signed his franchise tag tender, but I'd imagine it will happen in time for training camp. Isaac Sopoaga and Kentwan Balmer have gotten some time in defensive tackle roles, but Franklin is without a doubt, the man in the middle. It's more a question of how long he'll be in that role for the 49ers.

Draft Potential: The 49ers don't exactly have a long-term answer at the nose tackle position. An occasional mock has had defensive tackle Dan Williams going to the 49ers, including Matt Barrows final mock before the draft. I don't think the 49ers go DT in the first round, but it's certainly an option for them. And while it would not fill an immediate need, it would certainly give the team a chance to figure out a long-term answer. Of course, the same argument could go for grabbing Jimmy Clausen, so I guess I've backed myself into an analytical corner. I'll stick to the theory of filling more immediate needs early on.

Defensive End
The 49ers defensive end position is a mix of talent and question marks. Justin Smith is a rock at the right defensive end position. However, the left defensive position has a lot of question marks. Isaac Sopoaga flies under the radar and I do know some folks (see Danny, Florida) that really don't like what he brings to the table. Behind Sopoaga you've got guys like Kentwan Balmer and Ricky Jean-Francois. Balmer tore his labrum late last year, but is supposed to be good to go for training camp. Although Balmer has yet to make a significant contribution, I don't see any reason he's not on the 53-man roster come September. He's inching towards bust territory, but he's still got time to turn it around.

Ricky Jean-Francois is a guy on the bubble in a big-time way. He made the 53-man roster out of training camp but didn't make his on-field debut until December 20. In the OTAs earlier this month, the team used him exclusively as a nose tackle. Part of that was probably due to the fact that Aubrayo Franklin was out having not signed his tender. However, if he can increase his versatility, it would seem to help his roster chances. I think he makes the roster, but the team might have other plans depending on what they grab in the draft.

Draft Potential: Although the team doesn't quite have a complete answer at left defensive end, I'm not sure how high they invest in a potential 3-4 defensive end. After all, it's generally not a very glamorous position and it doesn't seem like you'd invest a high pick in the position. I think the odds of much being added are fairly low, but a potential DE draft pick could provide insight into the team's thoughts on Sopoaga, Balmer and RJF.

Insider Linebacker
We know Bamm Bamm and Spikes will be manning the middle for the 49ers linebackers. McKillop and Wilhelm seem to me to be likely additions as backups and special teams options. McKillop had some spark on special teams last year, while Wilhelm has some starting experience, and was a solid fill-in when Spikes was hurt last year. Really, there isn't a whole lot of drama at this point at the 49ers' inside linebacker position.

Draft Potential: However, depending on who falls where, the draft could make things interesting. Does the team look at Rolando McClain early on? if not, where or when, if at all, do they add potential inside linebackers? They certainly need somebody to replace Spikes at some point as he only has so many years left. At the same time, who knows if they really even need to address the concern at this point.

Outside Linebacker
The 49ers' OLB position produced some interesting answers last season, but was it enough? Haralson, Brooks and Lawson are not going anywhere. While none absolutely blew things up stats-wise, they combined to be a solid trio of outside linebackers. At this point, the big question is whether Diyral Briggs will be on the roster next season. After starting 2009 on the practice squad, Briggs moved onto the 53-man roster in late October. He got some good press during training camp and the preseason, but he was fairly quiet during the season. If the team adds one of the many OLB options on the board, Briggs will find himself in a big-time battle for a roster spot.

As I was writing this, the 49ers signed Travis LaBoy to a 1-year deal. When healthy, LaBoy can be a very solid addition to the pass rush. He played in a bit of a platoon basis, but still managed solid stats. Of course, the injury concerns remain, which makes the one year deal good enough in my opinion. This will lead to an intriguing training camp battle between LaBoy and Briggs. Throw in potential draft choices and it will be a dog-fight.

Draft Potential: It seems like a good chance that the 49ers draft an outside linebacker at sLaome point over the three days of the draft. Guys like Sergio Kindle and Brandon Graham have been mentioned as possible first round picks. Personally, I remain a big fan of the 3-headed monster already on the roster and would rather let Briggs work in as the 4th OLB. I just don't think the team's pass rush needs a first round pass rusher. Yes it would help, but even without one standout pass rusher, the rush was still fairly solid.

As the 53-man projection above shows, there are really only three cornerbacks that we can project on the roster with any level of certainty. Of those three, Nate Clements is probably the least certain at this point. I think he's going to be around in 2010, but people could conceivably make arguments for him to get cut before September. Beyond those three, the team has Karl Paymah and Keith Smith. Both have 5+ years experience in the NFL, but neither is exactly a stand-out DB talent. I suppose they're bubble candidates, but neither impresses me enough to include them on the bubble list for now.

Draft Potential: Like offensive line, I think we can agree with a certain degree of certainty that the 49ers will be drafting at least one cornerback in 2010. The team let Marcus Hudson walk, opening up a roster spot, and leaving the team with only three roster-worthy corners. Guys like Joe Haden have been mentioned as potential CB options. There are several intriguing options at cornerback, so it will be interesting to see when the 49ers decide to pounce on a corner.

The safety position is another one that discovered some answers in 2009, but left some questions to be answered. Dashon Goldson stepped up in the starting free safety role, finally relegating Mark Roman to the bench or replacing a hurt Michael Lewis. Additionally, I've been reading that the 49ers two safety positions are fairly inter-changeable, which means if the team decides to add another safety, they have flexibility in the type of player they add.

The question at the position is two-fold: 1) What is the long term health of Michael Lewis, and 2) How will the depth fill out? Reggie Smith was drafted as a cornerback, but converted over to safety (a move many expected on draft day). However, he really hasn't quite succeeded in his safety role, and it seems like the time still doesn't really know what they have with him. The injuries haven't exactly helped matters. On the other hand you've got 7th round pick Curtis Taylor. Taylor was given some playing time but ended the season in injured reserve. Of the two, Smith seems more or less assured a roster spot, while Taylor could find himself in a battle. This would be especially true if the 49ers add a safety early on in the draft.

Draft Potential: There are a variety of safety options both at strong and free safety. Eric Berry is of course the "prized" safety, but then you've got guys like Earl Thomas and Taylor Mays as potential first round picks. After that there's a bit of a drop-off, so the 49ers could certainly use later picks on the safety position. I think the odds are high the team drafts a safety at some point, but I'm really not sure how high at this point.

Special Teams
The big 3 of kicker, punter, and long snapper are locked up for the foreseeable future. There's no debate on that. The addition of Ted Ginn Jr. would seem to provide a solution for the return game. It's possible he won't work out, but I'd imagine he'll get every opportunity as the punt and kick returner.

Draft Potential: C.J. Spiller has been a guy who's had a ton of discussion here. The 49ers could still grab him because his explosiveness on offense would be much appreciated. However, he might have been bumped down on the Big Board with the addition of Ginn. This would be even more true of a guy like Mardy Gilyard. Gilyard sounds like a guy who could get a chance to be an NFL return man, but I'd imagine for the 49ers, he's been bumped down.


So, given all this, with eight picks, what positions will they address? If I had to provide an educated guess (which is all this really is) I'd say the team drafts two offensive linemen (one OT, one OG), two defensive backs, two linebackers, one running back, and one defensive lineman. I think two linebackers because you can roll them over to special teams; same with the defensive backs.