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April 10, 2012
And the winner is .... 2012 draft crush revealed

I went into the Maine woods last week in search of peace, solitude and a draft crush. I emerged with poison ivy in the webbing of my fingers (it itches like the dickens) and a Stanford tight end clawing at my heart. Coby Fleener, please accept this metaphorical rose, for you are the 2012 Draft Crush (Wait several minutes for applause to end).


Before I get into Fleener's merits, let's address a reason why the 49ers should not draft him should he be available at pick No. 30: They don't need him.

The 49ers have perhaps the best tight end in the NFL in Vernon Davis and another very, very good one in Delanie Walker. Walker is the tight that moves around the formation -- in the backfield, on the line of scrimmage, as a wideout -- on various plays the same way Fleener did at Stanford. This, of course, is how Fleener would project for the 49ers, who run the same offense Stanford runs. That is, the 49ers already have two tight ends that are better than the best tight end on most other teams. In addition, they have Nate Byham, a third-year blocking tight end who has just about recovered from last year's ACL tear. The 49ers need a tight end as badly as they need a punter or a longnsnapper.

The answer to that dilemma is threefold. One, when Jim Harbaugh was at Stanford, the team effectively used three pass-catching tight ends, often on the same play. Two, the 49ers want competition everywhere. Heck, having one of the best longsnappers in the league, Brian Jennings, didn't stop the team from adding two -- count 'em, TWO! -- more longsnappers in the offseason. Three, Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next year. The 49ers always are cap-smart and should be able to re-sign Walker if they want. But crazy things happen in free agency. Just ask Alex Smith. Or Brian Jennings. (Allow laughter to subside before continuing)

Walker is very close with Davis. But he might be tired of playing second fiddle to Davis and may want a chance to be a team's No. 1 tight end, an opportunity he'd likely get if he were to hit the free-agent market. The 49ers offense wasn't as good when Walker was out late in the 2011 season with a broken jaw, and Fleener would be insurance that a tight-end-loving team like the 49ers never is short on talented tight ends.

When I watched Fleener at Stanford this past season, he reminded me of Jeremy Shockey circa 2002. It wasn't just the golden locks flowing from the back of his helmet. Fleener had an attitude on the field, a competitiveness, a certain ... mmm ... let's call it 'jerkish-ness' that made him stand out even on plays in which he wasn't thrown the ball. This is not bad thing. In fact, it's something that Harbaugh probably admires. (See: handshake; 10/16/2011).

Is Fleener a dominating blocker? No, but he's got good size, he's feisty and he can get better. Walker, who was a college wideout, was a terrible blocker when he first joined the 49ers. Today he's nearly as good as Davis.

And Fleener is an excellent receiver. He's the top pass-catching tight end in the draft, someone with such good hands and who runs such smart routes that the Cardinal sometimes lined him up as if he were a wideout. In fact he's faster than half of the wide receivers in this year's draft. He ran a sub- 4.5-second 40-yard dash at his pro day last month, and having Fleener and Davis on the field together promises to be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

He's also 6-6 and is an excellent leaper. Last year the 49ers finished 30th when it came to scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Fleener and wideout Randy Moss immediately would give the 49ers two fantastic options near the goal line.

By the time the 49ers pick, three or four wideouts may be off the board. And this is a draft that teems with wide receivers in the middle rounds. The tight-end class, meanwhile, is not nearly as deep and Fleener is the best one.

Here's one more reason to take Fleener: If the 49ers don't grab him, you have to believe that the Super Bowl champion Giants, picking two spots later, would see him as a perfect fit. On the 49ers' 2012 schedule would be Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Rodgers and Jermichael Finley and Eli Manning and Fleener. (Wait for murmurs of concern to die down).

I'll have more on the 49ers' possible first-round picks, such as LSU's Rueben Randle and Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill, in the coming weeks and how they potentially would fit into the 49ers' long-tern plans. But there can only be one draft crush, and his name is Coby Fleener. (Ovation should last 10 minutes; expect to be pelted by incoming bouquets. Exit stage.)

Draft crushes
2008: Carl Nicks
2009: Percy Harvin
2010: C.J. Spiller
2011: Von Miller
2012: Coby Fleener

-- Matt 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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