Three years into the 49ers’ rebuilding program, personnel chief Scot McCloughan says,”We can be a pretty darned good team this year if we stay healthy.” But he knows the team is not yet a Super Bowl contender.
“I was lucky enough to be with a Super Bowl team in Green Bay,” McCloughan said, “and the Packers had a quarterback [Brett Favre] who had been in the league six years and had experienced the highs and lows. Our quarterback, Alex Smith, is still on a learning curve.”
McCloughan and 49ers coach Mike Nolan had never met before they started working together in 2005, but they’ve worked well together from the start.
“That roster had been just decimated,” McCloughan said. “It was worse than an expansion team. That first year, we were bringing in guys off the street [who had been cut by other teams and seemed on their way out of the league] and they were better than anybody we had.” (Even last year, the Niners signed Walt Harris in March after he’d been cut by the Washington Redskins, and he became their best cornerback.)
“Mike and I had agreed going in that we would have to build through the draft. A lot of times coaches, after a year of doing that, will panic and say, ‘I want to bring in some veteran players so we can win now.’ But Mike has stayed with it.
“That first year, we decided early that we had to take a quarterback with the first pick. We liked Alex’s mental toughness, and we still do. He’s hung in there in some difficult situations.”
Another early goal was to improve the offensive line. The 49ers drafted David Baas and Adam Snyder that first year, later signed veteran free agents Jonas Jennings and Larry Allen and traded up this year to take Joe Staley late in the first round.
“He was one of the 20 players we had listed who were worth a first- round pick,” McCloughan said. “He hasn’t played against the top collegiate competition, but we saw him at the Senior Bowl and he held his own. We think he has a chance to be a great player.”
The 49ers were active in the free-agent market this year, picking up cornerback Nate Clements, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain of Mountain View, strong safety Michael Lewis and wide receiver Ashley Lelie.
“We saw an opportunity to get defensive help especially, so we went for it,” McCloughan said. “Frankly, I hope we never have to do that again. I think you have to build your team primarily through the draft, so you have the chance to be a contending team year after year.”
The 49ers’ offseason has generally been a productive one. Losing offensive coordinator Norv Turner was a blow, but elevating quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler means there will be continuity in the offensive system. New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky should eliminate the need for Nolan to call defensive signals. The free-agent signings were good and the draft seems to be a strong one.
“This year, we’re going to have some very tough decisions to make on the 53-man roster,” McCloughan said. “That first year, we didn’t have 45 players we wanted.”
Like McCloughan, I don’t see the Niners in the Super Bowl, but they should make the playoffs.