First, First Round Pick: Mike Nolan continued to go his own way constructing a 3-4, eschewing the traditional model of elite linemen first, undervalued tweener DE/LB sometime thereafter, that has been so successful in New England. You don't want to judge a system before it's had a chance, but I wonder who will be keeping the blockers off all those playmakers in the linebacking corps. Super talented LB prospect of last year, Manny Lawson, didn't make a huge impact despite amazing athleticism, recording only 2.5 sacks as the designated pass rushing LB. Willis is much more refined in his skills and shouldn't need the adjustment Lawson will, so he should be a good barometer of how well this curious mutant 3-4 will function, but I'm skeptical. Remember tackles are a poor judge of a player's ability and if Willis nets 100+ next year it might just mean that rushers are consistently getting 5-10 into San Fran's second level. Adam Carriker seems like the more logical choice here, especially when you consider a starting ILB is as likely to come from the third round as the first (23% vs. 23%), and more than twice as likely to come from the second through fourth (48%). Willis is considered a top talent, but by no means an elite talent at linebacker. He's not particularly strong in coverage, something most 3-4s count on from their ILBs. The story goes that Nolan fell in love with Willis during the Senior Bowl, it is often said that you want to go after "your guy" when drafting, but not irrationally. As Tim Ruskell recently proved, the best way to draft is not to get stuck on any one player, but to identify a number of guys at each of your positions of need and let the draft dictate where and whom you draft.
Best Pick: Easily, Joe Staley with the 28th pick. I wrote this guest piece for Niners Nation explaining why trading up to get Staley was such a wily move. It boils down to position, talent and money. Staley is a top talent at a premier position that gets paid like a premier position, the 49ers were able to draft him for 28th pick money. Things I didn't say over at Fooch's blog, but I think are worth mentioning: The major reason I see Staley as being more valuable than Levi Brown is that Brown's strength is run blocking and Arizona, accordingly, plan on moving him to left tackle. Run blocking is an essential part of a tackle's duties, but the reason top tackles (usually left tackles) get the big bucks is that they protect the quarterback's blind side. That's vital for a functioning passing attack (remember, passing >> rushing), but, much moreso, it's vital for keeping your marquee offensive position healthy. Left tackle is like a security system you pay to protect a priceless possession. Last year, Hawk fans could understand the importance of top line play all to well, when Walter Jones--hurt no doubt by the revolving door at left guard--allowed a career worst 10.5 sacks. Not surprisingly, Matt Hasselbeck got hurt. If Levi Brown is not considered a top pass blocking talent, how can he be considered a top offensive tackle talent?
Other fine picks include Jason Hill, who was supremely effective in college but had doubts about his speed, well the combine put that to rest. His route-running is still suspect, but Hill has heretofore had very poor quarterbacks passing to him and could see marked improvement in that department paired with a more competent passer. Hill has great potential and I wouldn't be surprised if he's not seeing more snaps than Ashley Lelie by the second half of the season. Ray McDonald is good fit at end, offering a little size to occupy blockers and a little speed to shoot the gap. Joe Cohen is another DE/DT tweener that is more of a one gap defender, but can be useful in the right system. Dashon Goldson is big for a DB and will compete for a gunner job on special teams--in a pinch he can used as a run stuffing safety. Tarell Brown will also contribute on special teams right away, but will never likely be a starting DB.
Worst Pick: No real bad picks here, though I'm not thrilled about Willis as I've explained. Thomas Clayton doesn't sound like an NFL rusher to me, but a sixth round pick with good potential can't be knocked. Jay Moore is all size and no ability, but might find a home getting spot starts at DE. The Niners even managed to get their 2008 first round pick back.
Final Grade: The ten thousand pound elephant in the room is Darrel Jackson. Jackson represented wasted salary for the Hawks and getting anything for him, especially considering his mounting injury problems, was a good move. But, for San Francisco, acquiring Jackson was an even better move. Jackson is immediately San Francisco's best receiver and go-to guy. A fine hybrid of possession and #1, Jackson is a huge boon for a team that was otherwise overly reliant on overrated burner Lelie and tools monster Vernon Davis. If a silver lining exists for Hawks' fans it's that, one, many top wide receivers have joined new clubs only to flop. And two, Jackson's tendency to run before he catches can be hell on inaccurate quarterbacks. Alex Smith saw a big bump in his completion percentage (50.9 to 58.1) but much of that can be attributed to dump offs and screens; and an unsustainably low percentage in his rookie season. Smith is still very rough, and was one of the worst starting QBs in football last season.
San Francisco just pulled off a once in a lifetime draft. Picking up two franchise players in the first and value throughout while pilfering their fiercest rival's number one receiver. Still, despite their record, the Niners were a long way from competing last season. If Nolan's mutant 3-4 works, Smith continues to show marked improvement and Jackson clicks, this team won't just be challenging Seattle for the division next year, they could be competing for the Super Bowl for years to come. A +