In a normal year, it would be hard not to see the No. 7 overall pick in the draft starting from Day 1. Of course, this is not a normal year, and a short offseason would make Smith's conversion from defensive end even more difficult. At the very least, however, he seems to be someone who could play on third downs early in the season. The 49ers are looking at Smith to play strong-side outside linebacker, but GM Trent Baalke acknowledged they could move him around just as the Missouri coaches did. With the Tigers, Smith mostly lined up at defensive end in a four-man front. But he also was strong enough to scoot inside. "The unique things he brings to the table is the ability to line up at various positions, whether it's on his feet, five technique, move down into the three technique position at times," Baalke said. "Just a lot of flexibility and versatility." If the 49ers moved Smith inside on third downs, they might pair him with another former Tiger, Justin Smith, along with Ahmad Brooks and another outside linebacker like Parys Haralson or Thaddeus Gibson.
Jim Harbaugh already has said that he expects Alex Smith, a six-year veteran, to beat out Kaepernick for a starting role. Like all rookies, Kaepernick must adjust to a complex new playbook, to the much faster pace of the game and to throwing passes into tighter spaces. Baalke last month spoke about his preference for allowing a rookie passer to apprentice behind a veteran. That's almost certainly the plan for Kaepernick, especially considering the 49ers are trying to lure back Smith with a one-year contract. However, there are ways of allowing Kaepernick to ease into the position in 2011. They could insert him in goal-line situations - like the Broncos did last season with Tim Tebow - or design other plays that would cater to Kaepernick's unique running ability.
The 49ers were clear that they drafted Culliver as a cornerback and not a safety. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Culliver has nice size. He also has excellent athleticism, which he displayed at the scouting combine. That combination makes him a good fit for a nickel cornerback, which likely will be his role early on. That the 49ers did not use one of their first two picks on a cornerback indicates that they either expect Nate Clements to return in 2011 or that they will find a starting-caliber cornerback in free agency. (Clements played nickel on third downs last year). Let the Nnamdi Asomugha speculation begin ....
He might be the most NFL-ready of the team's picks. The biggest question mark for a rookie runner is how well he can handle pass protection. Indeed, that's the reason why some talented tailbacks don't see much action early on. Baalke, however, said the 49ers were impressed with Hunter's one-on-one blocking ability at the Senior Bowl. He called Hunter a "four-down contributor" - that is, someone who also can help on special teams, specifically in kickoff returns. That's an area in which the 49ers struggled last season. Hunter, Culliver and sixth-round pick Ronald Johnson all could see work there. Frank Gore will be the 49ers' starting running back for the sixth-straight season. The question is whether Hunter or Anthony Dixon will be the top backup.
The 49ers are in need of swing interior linemen - guys who can play both center and guard. A year ago, they approached the season with two, David Baas and Tony Wragge. This year, both are unrestricted free agents. And even if the team re-signs Baas, he will be the starter at center. The 49ers need depth, and Kilgore is the top candidate. "He can play guard, center," Baalke said. "He's held up at left tackle, and did so very well against some very good competition. (Against) the University of Florida was probably his best game. That was the game that really attracted us to him. We like players that can step up in big games."
Johnson will have a leg up on the other receivers because he is already familiar with the routes and verbiage the 49ers will use having worked under receivers coach John Morton at USC. Said Jim Harbaugh: "He's going to have a big advantage - Ronald will - because he knows the terminology. He knows the system." While that likely won't be a big threat to someone like Michael Crabtree, it's a disadvantage to players at the bottom of the depth chart like Kyle Williams, Kevin Jurovich and Dominique Zeigler. Johnson also can return punts, something the 49ers wanted Williams to do last season.
The 49ers list seven safeties on the roster. The 2010 season ended with Dashon Goldson and Reggie Smith as the starters. Goldson is a free agent - perhaps a restricted free agent - so let's assume that he and Smith compose the starting tandem again. Taylor Mays is in an interesting spot. He's very familiar to Harbaugh and his staff, which may or may not be a positive. (In 2009, Mays' last year at USC, Stanford thumped the Trojans 55-21). The other three are Curtis Taylor, Chris Maragos and C.J. Spillman. The joke in the media trailer last year was that Spillman very well may have been the 49ers' top player because he was asked to do one thing - make tackles on kick and punt returns - and he did that job very well. That seems to be what the 49ers want from Jones, which is bad news for Spillman.
Miller, of course, has the most difficult conversion of all in going from college defensive end to NFL fullback. It's not without precedent. In 2009, the 49ers converted Brit Miller from college inside linebacker to fullback with notable success. Brit Miller is still playing the position. The 49ers feel that Bruce Miller has similar toughness and grit. The team's national scout, Matt Malaspina, worked him out as a fullback and raved about him to Baalke and Harbaugh. Said Harbaugh of his phone conversation with Bruce Miller: "He said, 'Coach, I'm a football player. Whatever you ask me to do, I'm going to do.' So he was very excited about it. He may also be a pass rusher, too. So we're not closing the door on any options with that youngster. I think he is a football player." Of course, if Miller successfully makes the conversion, that's bad news for Moran Norris. Side note: Miller led all defensive ends at the combine with 35 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. Aldon Smith had 20. (In fairness to Smith, his arms are 35 ½ inches; Miller's are 30 inches).
Like Kilgore, Person is a high-character, high-effort player who lined up at tackle on the college level but who the 49ers see sliding inside on the NFL level. "If you're going to be a back up lineman in the NFL, you have to have position versatility," Baalke said. "If we didn't feel they could offer us that, we wouldn't have made the decision to pick them." Again, the selection of Person could be bad news for Wragge depending on whether Baas returns or not.
This pick was a lot like 2011's final pick, Phillip Adams. Both he and Holcomb are decent-sized players who like to be physical. "I can make open-field tackles," Holcomb said. "Actually, I think that's my best thing. I can tackle well." That's good. Holcomb's best shot at making the team will be on special teams. He'll compete with Adams, Tramaine Brock and any other undrafted cornerback the 49ers bring to training camp.
-- Matt Barrows