The 49ers will emphasize defense in this year’s draft, coach Mike Nolan said at a media lunch in Santa Clara on Thursday. Because the draft is deep at a position of need for the Niners, defensive end, either Nebraska’s Adam Carriker, a favorite of those doing mock drafts, or Jamaal Anderson of Arkansas is likely to be their first pick.
Carriker is 6-foot-6, 296 pounds, with the kind of character Nolan prizes. Anderson, coming out early after his junior year, is 6-5, 284 and runs a 4.79-second 40-yard dash.
Personnel chief Scot McCloughan said he could see Anderson growing to 320 pounds in a couple of years, without losing his speed.
Nolan said he is fielding calls regularly from other clubs wondering if they’d be interested in trading up or down, but neither seems likely. They already have four extra picks, so trading down isn’t attractive when they can get a quality player they need at their current position. Trading up to get into the top five?
"You have to figure how much that’s going to cost you [in a higher rookie contract]," said Nolan. Translation: "We won’t do it."
Not all the picks will be for defense. The 49ers also need a deep threat to help quarterback Alex Smith, and the draft is deep in wide receivers. The 49ers could pick up a receiver like Jason Hill of Washington State, a former Sacred Heart High School star who runs a 4.34 40, or Southern Cal’s Steve Smith (4.4) in the second or third round.
Both McCloughan and Nolan emphasized the importance of the draft.
"I learned that from Ron Wolf at Green Bay," McCloughan said. "You have to look 3-4 years down the road, not just for this year. Of course, it’s easier for a personnel guy to say that than a coach."
But Nolan agreed.
"We try to complement the draft with free-agent signings and we like what we did this year. But the draft is the backbone of the team."
In fact, Nolansaid he held off on free-agent signings last year because he wanted the two compensatory draft picks the Niners have this year after they lost Julian Peterson and Andre Carter.
For each 49ers pick, McCloughan selects four players who might be available and ranks them in order.
"Scot’s been very good at that," Nolan said. "At least one of the players has always been available."
That’s important because Nolan doesn’t believe in drafting a player higher than his ranking just to fill a need.
"You just wind up with a lot of backups when you do that," he said. "I’d rather draft a guy even if we’ve already got a guy at his position if we can get a better player."
This year’s draft will be quite different — and more difficult — said McCloughan.
"The first couple of years, we had so many holes, whoever we drafted the first day was going to be a good choice, either as a starter or a solid backup," McCloughan said. "Now, there are tougher decisions to make."
Said Nolan: "I want to get in a position where even a first-round pick won’t necessarily be a starter his first year."
The 49ers are getting closer to that, but they’re not quite there yet. So, whether it’s Carriker or Anderson in the first round, either one should be a starter at some point in his rookie season.