Joe Staley attended his first-ever NASCAR race this offseason. In February Staley saw the Daytona 500 and met a number of the drivers. He chatted with Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip, but his favorite driver was Tony Stewart. Why? “He’s kind of a (jerk), which I can appreciate,” Staley said. Except he didn’t use “jerk.” He used a certain two-syllable anatomical word that I can’t repeat in this space. But I wish I could because it’s precisely why I like Staley and why I believe that, in the end, he will be worth the “controversial” trade that landed him last year. In short, I think the 49ers need more (jerks).
When I first started covering the 49ers, it was a team ruled by offensive linemen. Guys like Ron Stone and Derrick Deese and Jeremy Newberry were the police, both in the locker room and on the practice field. And they weren’t the friendly cops on the corner twirling their batons while giving lollipops to the kids. They got into fights at practice and were loud an obnoxious in the locker room. They were (jerks). But the rest of the team paid attention to them and that tough-guy swagger carried over to game day.
Since Newberry left, no one has stepped in to fill that leadership void. Staley has the potential. It was noted the other day that Staley was one of a handful of rookies who played every snap last season. What wasn’t noted is that Staley played through an assortment of ailments, including a broken thumb and never made a peep. He gained confidence throughout the season, and as he did he started to show the swagger and feistiness the offensive line needs. Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan have been looking for someone to set the tone for the offensive line since they arrived in 2005. They may have finally found that guy in Joe Staley.
So I think that the 49ers made a good move by trading what turned out to be the No. 7 overall pick to New England so they could grab Staley last year. But it’s damn close. The 49ers, of course, are hurt by the fact that they played so poorly last season and that there seem to be exactly seven top-tier prospects in this draft. In fact, several mock drafts have the Patriots taking USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (the best player at the Senior Bowl) or Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston (the best player at the combine).
You also have to consider that had the 49ers not traded for Staley, they could have used their second-round pick last year on another well-regarded tackle, Tony Ugoh. The Colts, of course, grabbed Ugoh after trading with the 49ers. Is Ugoh as good as Staley? Only time will tell. The 49ers obviously didn’t think so, and Ugoh did miss five games last season because of injury. So when assessing the trade, you really have to compare Staley and whomever the 49ers select at pick No. 29 this year with Ugoh and whomever is taken at pick No. 7.
The economic impact of the trade also needs to be noted. Top 10 selections get paid an obscene amount of money, so much that several team officials, including Indy’s Bill Polian, say the system should be changed by possibly adding an NBA-like slotting system. The 49ers, in other words, feel they nabbed a Top 10-caliber player but are paying him Bottom-10 (of the first round) money.
You also can argue that Staley helped the 49ers land their biggest offseason acquisition. Upon joining the 49ers, new offensive coordinator Mike Martz raved about two players: running back Frank Gore and Staley. Martz has touched on the same theme several times since – his aerial success in St. Louis had as much to do with pass protection than it did with the quality of his quarterbacks and receivers.
-- Matt Barrows