I know, the 2012 NFL season isn't even over yet and I'm already talking about the NFL draft, held in April, 2013. Wayyy too early, right? Well there's no such thing. We know Trent Baalke, Tom Gamble, and the scouts are all watching film, visiting schools, attending games, and have been doing-so all season long. So why's it too early for the fans to have an eye on the draft?
No matter how good your team is, where the season is headed (the tank, or the Super Bowl), you need a good draft to keep good stock on the shelves. For the 49ers, they already have a lot of stock, evidenced by rookies who have rarely even put on the jersey this season...and we're talking about first and second-round picks, here.
While there are some free agents on the team, we know the 49ers prefer to go with experience and that they'll push hard to re-sign the guys without capable backups waiting in the wings. Of course, we don't know just how ready some of these potentially capable backups are...so that will become more evident in free agency.
Nonetheless, the team still has needs, upcoming FA's in future seasons, upgrades that could be made, etc. It's fair to assume that most of the starters will remain in their roles in 2013, guys like Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, the offensive line, Bruce Miller, and probably nine or ten guys on the defense. Why mess with a good thing, right?
This leaves very little playing time for rookies and even fewer spots as backups. Recent draft picks remain signed and are promising in those roles. Guys like LaMichael James, A.J. Jenkins, Ian Williams, Kendall Hunter, Kyle Williams, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney, etc.
So with so few spots on the roster, even as a backup, what should the 49ers do in the draft? It's simple: Move up.
The 49ers need guys that could be ready to play in as little as half a season, much like it's 2012 draft class is currently being called-up due to multiple injuries. There's also the previously mentioned future FA's who will leave in seasons to come. The team needs guys they feel could start very soon, if needed. You find those guys in the top four rounds, generally.
Look at what the 49ers have done in recent drafts in rounds one through four:
Those are all starters or major role players in their third season or less, and a few of them are Pro Bowl-level guys already.
Take a position like CB, where the team is solid but not superior. Carlos Rogers is getting farther from 30 years old every day and has played lazy in 2012. Tarell Brown showed glimpses in 2011 but has been average in 2012. Chris Culliver looks to be the future on one side, but the depth isn't strong.
Or what about defensive line? Isaac Sopoaga is a free agent, as is Rickey Jean-Francois. Justin Smith becomes a FA after the 2013 season and is nearing his mid-30's. We haven't seen much of Ian Williams, Will Tukuafu or Demarcus Dobbs other than pre-season, so how ready are they and who would be their backups even if they were good enough to all-three be starters?
Delanie Walker is also a free agent after this season and has had a very up-and-down year. The 49ers multiple formations are based on guys who can do it all. You can't just plug in a big lug of a TE for Walker and expect the same results on offense. The team needs a versatile player who can block as well as blow past linebackers in the passing game.
The need for excellent backups and potential starters is great. The team doesn't have the roster space to slowly develop a lot of guys, either. Knowing they're not likely to cut a top-four-round draft pick, they might as well get the best players they possibly can. With an expected 14 picks (including compensatory selections likely to be awarded for Josh Morgan, Adam Snyder), the 49ers need to move-up and get as many top-four-round picks as they can, then use the un-tradeable comp picks to fill-out the training camp roster (aka "camp fodder").
This is what I would expect to happen in April, unless the 49ers decide that they are willing to part with some of the current young players on the squad in lieu of an entire crop of draft picks in 2013...certainly a possibility, but they've cultivated these guys, invested in them for a few years already now. I can't see many of them not returning.