After four years with the San Francisco 49ers, Scot McCloughan finally has the unquestioned final say on draft day—or “the trigger,” as fired coach Mike Nolan delighted in calling it when it rested on his finger.
What McCloughan does with it Saturday should say plenty about the direction of his franchise.
McCloughan joined the 49ers in 2005 to handle much of the personnel-related dirty work for Nolan, the career assistant coach who was inexplicably put in charge of every aspect of the franchise. Now that McCloughan is the general manager, having been promoted over Nolan and finally directed to dismiss him, McCloughan is free to shape the 49ers in any way he chooses, albeit with ample input from new coach Mike Singletary.
McCloughan, a former minor-league baseball player and son of an NFL scout, has both major hits and big misses on his draft resume. Perhaps his best move was pushing for running back Frank Gore in the third round of his debut draft, but he also lobbied heavily for as-yet unsuccessful quarterback Alex Smith with the first overall pick in that same draft.
With his other first-round picks, McCloughan grabbed one major first-round hit in linebacker Patrick Willis in 2007, but two works in progress with tight end Vernon Davis and defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer. McCloughan has added depth in the later rounds, but acknowledges he has built his own philosophy about draft day during his years of work.
“We value picks in certain rounds differently than a lot of teams,” McCloughan told the 49ers’ official Web site. “That’s because of the past success in the draft that we’ve had, and what rounds and picks they were.”
The 49ers have no shortage of needs after their sixth consecutive losing season, and they’re determined to shape the roster to better fit Singletary’s belief in a run-first offense and a hard-hitting, 3-4 defense. With the right choices, starting with the 10th overall pick, San Francisco’s playoff drought could be over this winter.
San Francisco has nine picks, but just one in each of the first four rounds. McCloughan and Singletary have said little publicly about their shopping list, but a few needs are obvious.
The Niners haven’t built an above-average offensive line in McCloughan’s first four seasons, although Jonas Jennings deserves much of the blame. The left tackle got a seven-year contract and almost immediately headed to the injured list, constantly forcing the 49ers to plan around his extended absences until they released him this winter.
San Francisco has allowed 110 sacks in the past two seasons, causing problems for everything from their passing game to Alex Smith’s health. Although the Niners signed Marvel Smith recently to start at right tackle opposite Joe Staley, the wealth of talented tackle prospects in the first round—Baylor’s Jason Smith, Virginia’s Eugene Monroe, Alabama’s Andre Smith and Mississippi’s Michael Oher—could prove irresistible.
Although Parys Haralson shows signs of being a quality pass-rusher, San Francisco also needs another aggressive linebacker capable of providing a rush from outside for a team that hasn’t had a 10-sack player since early in the decade. With a defense built on quality linebackers, the Niners also need another option inside to help out Willis and Takeo Spikes, who occasionally could use a break from making most of the club’s tackles.
Four years into McCloughan’s tenure, the 49ers still need high-impact offensive skill players. Receiver is an annual area of need, although Josh Morgan and Jason Hill show signs of being competent given more experience.
Popular opinion varies widely on whether the 49ers should choose a quarterback in the early rounds to compete with Smith and Shaun Hill. If Mark Sanchez of USC is still on the board at No. 10, he’ll draw plenty of attention, but McCloughan seems equally interested in quarterbacks who would be available in later rounds.
San Francisco is almost certain to choose a big running back at some point early in the draft. With Singletary and new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye determined to run the ball aggressively in every game, they want a counterpoint to Gore’s shifty speed who can take some pressure off a talented back with a lifelong propensity for injury.
But each of these concerns could take a back seat in the first round if Boston College’s B.J. Raji is still available. His drug travails notwithstanding, the 49ers seem interested in exactly the type of nose tackle personified by Raji, who could make every San Francisco linebacker better by clogging up the line and penetrating into the backfield.
The 49ers also will unveil their new uniforms at the draft-day party. The team is expected to wear something resembling its everyday uniforms during the franchise’s best seasons in the 1980s before it fell into the decade-long decline of the York family’s ownership era.