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Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois (95) and nose tackle Isaac Sopaga (90) both are entering free agency. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
The 49ers will have 14 picks in April’s NFL Draft, so this week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis is an important one for the team’s talent evaluators.
General manager Trent Baalke said recently that he and his staff took 17 days to put their initial draft board together, and this week’s up-close observations and interviews no doubt will lead to some reshuffling.
“You set your board and work diligently at it,” Baalke told the media.
So where will the 49ers be concentrating their attention? Here are the five positions of greatest need:
Defensive line: With Justin Smith getting older and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois entering free agency, the Niners have a strong need to get younger and deeper at this position. Even if the team were to re-sign Sopoaga or Francois, San Francisco needs depth here at a position that seemed to be worn out by the end of the season.
Wide receiver: Now that quarterback Colin Kaepernick has emerged as a prime-time player, he needs more options on the outside. Michael Crabtree is his go-to guy, but beyond Crabtree there are only question marks. Will Randy Moss return? Will Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams be up to speed after 2012 injuries? Will No. 1 pick A.J. Jenkins mature into a contributor? The 49ers need another strong wideout.
Cornerback: Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown make a strong tandem, but the Niners need more depth, and adding a young corner is a necessity. In a league where pass-first offenses are the norm, the Niners need another strong pass-coverage guy to join Rogers, Brown and nickel back Chris Culliver, who was inconsistent in the postseason.
Tight end: With Delanie Walker entering free agency, the 49ers need another versatile tight end who can back up Vernon Davis and contribute in power-blocking formations. Walker was a big contributor in 2012, and his loss will be felt in 2013 if the 49ers don’t bring in someone new.
Kicker: With David Akers covered in uncertainty – and with so many draft choices – the 49ers need to use a pick to find a young kicker who can compete with Akers or take his place.
In addition to the five most important positions, Baalke also no doubt will be busy listening to bids for quarterback Alex Smith – which could net even more draft choices. Though the 49ers like Scott Tolzien, last season’s No. 3 QB, if Smith were to be traded this offseason (or released), the team likely would spend a pick on a quarterback, as well.