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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

February 12, 2013
Examining the 49ers' biggest draft needs

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The truth is that, aside from kicker, the 49ers don't have any glaring needs this offseason. It's the reason they went to the Super Bowl. The best teams, however, address future problems before they become problems, and that's what the 49ers -- who are expecting 14 picks -- have an opportunity to do this offseason. I'll provide some names to follow at the combine (it starts next week!) later.

Defensive line: Justin Smith's injury provided a glimpse into the future, and it was not a pleasant one. As soon as Smith left a Dec. 16 game with a torn triceps, the 49ers defense began to hemorrhage yards and points, and the bleeding didn't stop during the playoffs. Smith is expected to make a full recovery from surgery to repair the triceps and should be on hand for training camp. But he also turns 34 this year and is entering the final year of his contract.

The 49ers haven't used a high draft pick at this position since Kentwan Balmer, a true draft bust, was taken 29th overall in 2008. Instead, they've bulked up on undrafted free agents in the hope that one or two would become keepers. Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams, Will Tukuafu and Tony Jerod-Eddie all are interesting players but none has stood out to this point as someone who could one day replace Smith or even be an impactful every-down starter. Meanwhile, both Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois are set to become unrestricted free agents.

Finally, this year's draft appears very deep along the defensive line, and seven potential prospects (names to come later) may be available or within striking distance when the 49ers pick at No. 31. That is, supply and demand seem to be converging in 2013 for the 49ers.

Wide receiver: Quick -- who will be lined up as the team's No. 2 wideout when the season begins Sept. 9? Randy Moss, who ended the 2012 campaign in that position, is not under contract. Mario Manningham, who is the most experienced of the candidates, is coming off an ACL tear, one that occurred late in the season. At this point, the safest answer is A.J. Jenkins, who -- say it with me -- dropped the only pass that went his way during his rookie year.

Forget about big-named free agents like Dwayne Bowe. It's very difficult to see the 49ers paying top-market prices for a wide receiver when Michael Crabtree's extension is looming. (Percy Harvin only makes sense because the 49ers possibly could rent him during the final year of his rookie contract). The long-term solution is far more likely to come through the draft. What the 49ers need is a No. 2 wideout who is fast enough to stretch defenses and sturdy enough to hold up to a 16-game schedule, something neither Manningham nor Kyle Williams has proven to this point.

Cornerback: No, Chris Culliver's bad game earlier this month does not elevate this position, and, no, the 49ers are not going to part ways with Culliver. He is very much what the team wants in a starter -- a big, sturdy corner who until the Super Bowl was having an excellent season.

What the team needs is more players with Culliver's profile. For one, cornerbacks always will be in high demand because of the way offenses pass the ball and because they tend to get hurt. (The 49ers have been very lucky in this regard). Furthermore, starter Tarell Brown is signed only through 2013 while the other starter, Carlos Rodgers, turns 32 in July. (In my most humble opinion, the 49ers should give Brown a meaty extension and have him take over Rodgers' nickel role, which often calls for the quickness and speed Rodgers doesn't have anymore). The 49ers don't necessarily need reinforcements at this position yet. But the best teams address needs before they even become needs.

Others:

Tight end: The 49ers need two very good tight ends to make their run-first offense tick. If they lose Delanie Walker to free agency, they'd only have one who fits that description..

Kicker: David Akers is due to earn more than $3 million. Does anything more need to be said?

Quarterback: Jim Harbaugh once compared himself to a bird watcher when it comes to NFL quarterbacks -- he knows what to look for when identifying the rare ones. With Alex Smith set to leave and Josh Johnson currently on the Browns roster, the 49ers could use their collection of draft picks to find another passer.

Offensive tackle: The 49ers have an abundance of guards and centers. But if either Joe Staley or Anthony Davis went down, starting guard Alex Boone would have to kick out to tackle.

Safety: Dashon Goldson probably will be back. But the team still is looking for future starters at the position. The draft is deep at safety.

Outside linebacker: Like cornerback, a team never can have too many quality pass rushers. There are a lot of names behind starters Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, but Parys Haralson, Clark Haggans, Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson all have question marks.

-- 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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