When the San Francisco 49ers made their first round selection, the internet collectively exploded into rage and confusion, before (the majority) coming to its senses and realizing that Aldon Smith is not at all the essence of a bad selection. Was the seventh overall pick a little too early to select a guy like him? At face value, sure, but he'd have gone within another five picks, so is that really reaching at all? Plus, with Von Miller off of the board to the Denver Broncos, Smith was arguably the second best outside linebacker on the board, depending on where you see Robert Quinn of North Carolina. It's telling that more 3-4 teams passed on Quinn, who eventually went to the St. Louis Rams at 14th overall, where he'll play defensive end in their 4-3 defense.
Simply put, Smith fit exactly what Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke were looking for, and he fills a huge need, perhaps San Francisco's biggest need at this point. Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense won't work without someone like Aldon Smith, much the same way that Harbaugh and Greg Roman's brand of the west coast offense won't work without a capable signal caller. They're hoping that Colin Kaepernick can be that go, so they took him in the second round, trading up to get him, perhaps over the Oakland Raiders. The verdict will be out on that pick with about two years of deliberations, while Kaepernick matures. 49ers fans will collectively hope that the jury isn't hung, as it has been for more than five years with the likely-returning Alex Smith.
Everybody sees trades differently, but this writer is inclined to believe that the Kaepernick trade is a good one at this point in time, being aggressive for your potential quarterback of the future is the best time to do it. In round three, they took Chris Culliver, thus filling their top three needs in the first three rounds, which deserves some kind of commendation, but the Culliver pick is certainly a head-scratcher, considering the other defensive backs still on the board and Culliver's limited name value. It's not that he'll turn out badly, it's just that he's a perceived reach at this point. When you look at it, the 49ers actually addressed four of their top five needs in the top five picks, when they took Daniel Kilgore in round five, they got a guy with a lot of upside and ability to start at center in the future, a position of need for San Francisco. Let's list the picks and take a look at these guys.
San Francisco 49ers 2011 NFL Draft Selections
Round 1: Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri (7th overall)
Round 2: Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada (36th overall)
Round 3: Chris Culliver, CB, South Carolina (80th overall)
Round 4: Kendall Hunter, RB, Oklahoma St. (115th overall)
Round 5: Daniel Kilgore, G/C, Appalachian St. (163rd overall)
Round 6: Ronald Johnson, WR, USC (182nd overall)
Round 6: Colin Jones, DB, TCU (190th overall)
Round 7: Bruce Miller, FB, Central Florida (211th overall)
Round 7: Michael Person, G, Montana St. (239th overall)
Round 7: Curtis Holcomb, DB, Florida A&M (250th overall)
How does this draft haul appear at face value? It does look a little impressive with Kaepernick wedged in therea nd Hunter in the fourth, but it's clear this is a draft that is tailor-made for one specific general manager and head coach combination and not something you'd see replicated elsewhere. Time will tell if it is a winning combination or if it's too much favoritism and deviation from the general consensus.
Biggest Sleeper: Kendall Hunter
Hunter is 5'7'', and fell far in the draft because of that size, but you can bet somebody else would have taken him in the fourth round if the 49ers hadn't. Vastly considered to be an early-second rounder pre-draft, Hunter fell to no fault of his own, and that's why the pick has so much value, and why he's such a big sleeper. Right now, Frank Gore is the feature running back in the 49ers offense and that's not about to change, but the backup position, currently with Anthony Dixon slotted into it, is definitely up for grabs. Most are of the opinion that Hunter will challenge and beat Dixon, and that he'll see the field early and often, with potential of taking over for Gore in the future as a feature back. Hunter has a lot of talent and could surprise defenses early ... the perfect sleeper.
Head-Scratcher: Chris Culliver
A couple of the later round picks don't appear to have much developmental potential when it all comes down to it, but how much can you scratch your head over a seventh round pick? Not a whole lot, as it happens, so we're going with Culliver as the head-scratcher of this draft. When Culliver was picked, Johnny Patrick, Shareece Wright, Davon House, and Brandon Burton were all on the board, and they all projected to be better picks at that point. Culliver is right in the middle of safety and corner, and with such a big need at the CB position, one would think that the 49ers would get a guy more specifically suited as a corner, but who knows at this point?
Potential For Most Playing Time In 2011: Kendall Hunter
He brings a different dynamic to the offense than Frank Gore, and everyone else is still a little raw. The player to challenge him in regards to most playing time is first-round pick Aldon Smith, but he has a new position to learn and could only be in on some third downs early on. Hunter has a chance to get a few carries a game, and if he excels, he should get more and more, perhaps turning it into a two-back offense. He won't take the starting job from Gore, unless Gore is injured, which at this point remains a possibility.
Quick 2011 Projections
Aldon Smith: In on third downs early on, looks good rushing the passer, but is lacking as an outside linebacker. Projects to make the transition easier than some others who do so due to athleticism and range, will have a good year.
Colin Kaepernick: Will only see the field if the starter (likely Alex Smith) is struggling.
Chris Culliver: Likely will see time early on in the nickel, getting many opportunities to show he belongs and that he can take a starting role away from somebody like Shawntae Spencer. Will be battling with Tarell Brown.
Kendall Hunter: A few carries a game with potential for more, Hunter will put up good stats that leave 49ers fans excited for 2012 and optimistic about a future where Frank Gore is no longer around.
Daniel Kilgore: Has a learning curve to overcome, but if David Baas is gone to free agency, Kilgore could challenge for a starting role at either center or right guard. He certainly has the physical traits to do so, which will help him get past the learning curve.
Ronald Johnson: Immediately will put Kyle Williams on notice and has potential to see the field due to the new dynamic he brings to the offense as a slot receiver. Is fighting an uphill battle, but could definitely win it with some nice catches in the preseason.
Colin Jones: Has a solid chance to make the team as a special teamer with his great speed and athleticism, could be fighting with Tramaine Brock for a spot on the roster. Maybe the 49ers don't carry as many corners in 2011 and neither of them make it, however.
Bruce Miller: Being converted to a fullback from a defensive end, Miller still stands a chance to make the roster and even decisively win the starting job from Moran Norris if he has a good offseason training camp, providing there even are said camps.
Michael Person: Very outside chance of making the opening day roster, it really depends on what happens in free agency with players like David Baas and Tony Wragge. Maybe Person is more ready than we believe, and can make it, but the safe bet is practice squad at this point.
Curtis Holcomb: He'd have to shine early and often in the preseason in every kind of special teams role to be considered for the opening day roster.
Value: B-, Need: A, Overall: B+