ILB Navorro Bowman, 91 overall. It used to be that a middle linebacker was a big, hulking figure who banged heads with fullbacks and pulling guards in a limited space on the field. When Ray Lewis came out of college in 1996, scouts looked at his frame, which at that point was 6-0, 235 pounds, and figured he was too small for the position. He fell to pick No. 26. Lewis is widely viewed as the best inside linebacker of the last decade, but even he hasn't fully erased the skepticism NFL decision makers have when it comes to small inside linebackers. Before Patrick Willis was drafted in 2007, both Mike Nolan and his top lieutenant, Mike Singletary, wondered if the Ole Miss product would be able to hold up at the position and questioned his selection.
The 49ers hope that Bowman is another player in Lewis' and Willis' mold. The 49ers traded down from pick No. 79, where the Chargers to selected Donald Butler, a more prototypical middle linebacker, to pick Bowman at pick No. 91. He's 6-0, 242 pounds but fast. (Willis, who once chased down a wide receiver from behind, challenged him to a race this spring and barely won). Like Willis, Bowman also played a different position in college, one that didn't require him to fight off as many blocks and wade through as much traffic as he will be required to do in the NFL. Bowman fared well toward the end of spring drills and even jumped a route for an interception that, had it been a game, would have turned into an easy touchdown. It was a sign that his understanding of the playbook was beginning to improve and he was starting to take advantage of his speed. But no one will know if Bowman's selection was genius or folly until he and the rest of the 49ers put on pads in training camp and engage in contact drills. That's when Willis first began to turn heads three years ago.
RB Anthony Dixon, 173rd. It's hard to give a good assessment of Dixon, the first of the team's three sixth-round draft picks, because he was dealing with a hamstring strain through much of the June sessions. From what we've seen of him, it's clear that he has more shake and bake in his style than fellow tailbacks Frank Gore and Glen Coffee. That's the good news. The bad news is that this is the 49ers, a team that hates shake and bake. (see: Sheets, Kory). The coaches here want their backs to take one cut and go up field. Their mission this offseason is to transform Dixon, a 233 pounder who runs at times like a smaller man, into more of smash-mouth running back.
The question has been posed to me a number of times whether Dixon can/will overtake Coffee for the role of No. 2 running back. I don't think so, at least not at the start of the season. A rookie running back may dazzle when he has the ball in his hands, but whether he gets playing time depends on how quickly he can learn and master pass blocking. Coffee does this well already while Dixon is just learning. His hamstring injury also means he didn't have a chance to make up any ground in June.
TE Nate Byham, 182nd. Last year at this time, I wrote a blog with the following headline: "P.M. Practice: Pascoe Impresses." In it, I described then rookie tight end Bear Pascoe's big day, one in which he caught everything thrown his way - about half a dozen passes. As OTAs wound down, I wrote that Pascoe had been one of the team's more impressive rookies.
Pascoe, of course, was released two months later. (We beatwriters have turned his name into a verb. If a draft pick gets cut, he is "Bearpascoed." The point is that when it comes to the 49ers' No. 3 tight end, a position that is 95 percent blocking, May and June practices don't mean squat. Byham didn't jump out during the most recent OTAs, but as the Pascoe lesson shows, it doesn't matter. Whether Byham makes the team or not depends on what he does when the real hitting begins in August.
Yes, both Byham and Pascoe are sixth-round picks. But Pascoe was mostly known as a pass catcher at Fresno State. Byham seems to relish blocking. At 268 pounds, he was the heaviest tight end taken in the April draft. And he said all the right things after being drafted. "I like to bloody noses," he said upon being selected. "I don't shy away from contact. I'm going into the hole and I'm trying to hit somebody. I think that's what makes me unique. There's not too many tight ends these days that want to go in there and try to hurt somebody. I'm trying to inflict pain when I'm in there as a tight end."
But as Pascoe showed last year, just because you're a draft pick doesn't mean you make the squad. Byham's competition is J.J. Finley and Tony Curtis. Finley (6-6) is a big target who has made strides as far as his blocking and his overall strength since the 49ers acquired him in 2008. Curtis is the most athletic of the three, and is most similar in style to Delanie Walker.
Still to come: WR Kyle Williams and CB Phillip Adams.
Congratulations to former 49er Pro Bowler Walt Harris, who signed a one-year deal today with the Ravens.
-- Matt Barrows