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May 9, 2011
Strong hand: Winners from the 49ers draft

Hello, Patrick Peterson. So long, Nate Clements. That would have been the likely scenario if Peterson, the LSU cornerback, had slipped to the 49ers at pick No. 7 in the draft. That he didn't - he was taken two spots earlier by division rival Arizona - not only increases the chances that Clements returns to San Francisco for a fifth season, it strengthens his bargaining position by a considerable margin.

clements.bmp

After all, general manager Trent Baalke said that the 49ers were targeting the cornerback position early in the draft. "Our game plan all along was to do exactly what we did," Baalke said on XM Blitz radio when the draft ended. "Either address the corner position or the pass rush position, whichever we felt we could get the most value from with the first pick and then circle back and pickup the quarterback."

With Peterson gone, Baalke and the 49ers opted for a pass rusher, Missouri's Aldon Smith. Cornerback Prince Amukama still was available, but judging by where he ultimately landed - No. 19 - it's clear that the media valued Amukamara more highly than did NFL teams. The 49ers did not take a cornerback until 73 slots later when they selected South Carolina's Chris Culliver. A day later, they rounded out their draft class by taking Curtis Holcomb out of Florida A&M in the seventh round.

Culliver is being eyed - initially at least - as a nickel cornerback. Holcomb will compete against other late-round and undrafted cornerbacks like Phillip Adams and Tramaine Brock. That is, the 49ers did not solve their pass-coverage issues - they ranked 20th against the pass in 2008, 21st in 2009 and 24th in 2010 - in the draft.

The team certainly could add a cornerback in free agency. (I'll address Nnamdi Asomugha (again) below). But as we all know by know, free agency is a bit theoretical at the moment. Moreover, the 49ers have few options on the roster other than Clements when it comes to starting cornerbacks. Clements could earn roughly $15 million in 2011, according to CSN Bay Area, which is a massive sum. The 49ers still could - and likely will - ask him to renegotiate. But his hand is far stronger today than it was two weeks ago.

Other 49ers who came out of the draft stronger than when they went in:

* David Baas, center. After Alex Smith, Baas might be the 49ers' most heavily pursued free agent. The team's cupboard is terribly bare at center. Baas and Tony Wragge are unrestricted free agents; Eric Heitmann's status is up in the air because of a lingering neck issue. Adam Snyder took a few snaps last offseason and is certainly smart enough to play the position. But he was a college tackle who played tackle and guard in the NFL. Meanwhile, two draftees - Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person - are being eyed at center but also didn't play there in college. That is, no one on the roster has any meaningful experience at a position that must anchor a young line. Re-signing Baas - or signing an experienced veteran - is a top priority.

* Aubrayo Franklin, nose tackle. For the second straight year, Franklin is an unrestricted free agent, and for the second straight year, the 49ers did not find his replacement in the draft. Franklin will turn 31 in August, and his bargaining position may not be as strong as Clements' and Baas'. The team also has more options at his position. They certainly could go into the season with Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois as their nose tackles. But that scenario would leave them looking for a starting left defensive end. (Demetric Evans also is an unrestricted free agent. The fact that the 49ers took no defensive linemen increases Evans' value, too). Moreover, the 49ers players, notably defensive leaders Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes (yet another UFA), are comfortable playing next to and behind Franklin.

* Manny Lawson, outside linebacker. It's a bit counter-intuitive considering that the 49ers used their top draft pick on an outside linebacker, but it's possible that free agent Lawson gained leverage in the draft. Lawson has not turned out to be the pass rusher the 49ers thought he would be when they drafted him in 2006. But he's very good in coverage and he's excellent in pursuit of ball carriers, which might make him an excellent complement to Aldon Smith, who becomes the team's designated sack master. Lawson's fate likely depends on how incoming defensive coordinator Vic Fangio feels about Ahmad Brooks. (Lawson is a five-year veteran. If free agency is held under the 2010 rules, he would be restricted and almost certainly would be back for 2011).

********************
Here's my sense of the Asomugha situation: Like every other team in the NFL, the 49ers would love to have him on their defense. But they would be loath to get into a bidding war with big spenders like the Cowboys or Redskins. Perhaps Asomugha likes the Bay Area, is impressed by the 49ers and gives the team a home-town discount. Or perhaps the 49ers conclude that the difference between what they might have to pay Clements (see above) and what Asomugha wants is worth the cost. There will be discussions for sure, but Asomugha is likely to land elsewhere.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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