So in all the knee-jerk glory and perspective that is the NFL draft, it was hard to not hate the 49ers’ decision to pass up on the likes of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and, yes, Ryan Mallett. With the No. 7 pick in the first round, the 49ers brass decided to go with defensive end Aldon Smith out of Missouri — Gabbert’s teammate. With time, I’ve come to terms with their decision because, simply, after Cam Newton’s selection (at No. 1 overall) the quality of talent in the draft pool dropped significantly.
Stop for a second and think about the NFL draft in terms of value over need. (With all this time in New England covering the Patriots, that word is starting to stick with me.) The 49ers were drafting based on value. Value — not need — determined who they took at the No. 7 spot. And value, not need, is what kept them for choosing a quarterback in the first round. It’s widely known that the cost of an NFL quarterback in the draft is outrageous. With Newton as the top pick, the pay scale for the 2011 rookies is likely to blow the minds of every NFL owner if this lockout is ever resolved. (And a rookie wage scale may avert this problem in the future.) With the economics of the draft tied so closely into the maneuverability for franchises, particularly in free agency, passing on quarterbacks and running backs is almost the prudent thing to do when you’re drafting higher than the No. 3 pick.
(Why the No. 3 pick? Because 10 times out of 10 everyone knows who the No. 1 pick is and the guy competing with him. Then there’s always that peripheral guy. But after him, the draft experts will base all of their mocks on a team’s need. It’s almost as obvious as it is simple that three is the number. But I’m willing to relent here if I can be proved wrong.)
So when it came to the second round, and five quarterbacks had already been picked, the 49ers buckled down and selected Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick at No. 36. This, we’re told, is the man the 49ers had envisioned selecting all along. And in retrospect, that makes sense. If the 49ers had been drafting on need — which was universally agreed upon as a necessity for the franchise to better itself — than they would’ve jumped out of the gate and picked any number of quarterbacks, including Gabbert. But they had a plan, they held steady, waited awhile and nabbed the guy they knew would make it through the first round. That’s not just smart drafting, that’s indicative of a changing strategy and philosophies in Santa Clara. The 49ers are operating like they know what they’re doing. However terrible that sounds, it wasn’t the case before.
Before, it was “we’re going to put our faith in Alex Smith.” The 49ers had three of those drafts. That crippled the team and its fan base after posting a 21-27 record with Smith getting pulled more times than an unedited South Park episode.
It took a new coach and a new general manager to figure out what the other guys had been doing for years — adding value to their teams through the draft so that their talent isn’t top-heavy. The 49ers have been suckers for years in this regard, having a great offensive line without pass rushers; Having an abysmal secondary with a great linebacker corps; And having a No. 1 overall quarterback without a top-flight receiver. It appears that terrible draft strategy has changed and that is something good to look forward to. And I believe it has already equated itself to a top-end quarterback who can play Day 1.
At 6-4 and 230 pounds, Kaepernick is a heckuva player. He’s the only player in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and run for more than 4,000 as well. That athleticism will help him adjust to the pro game. At Nevada, Kaepernick played in a Pistol offense. So there are concerns about how he’ll translate under center doing traditional drops. But I’ve always felt that these are meaningless differences that fanatics clamor over. If he can play, he can play. And Kaepernick has shown that he can play football with great skill and ability. It’s the level of competition I’m worried about. And if I recall, the last quarterback the 49ers selected that played in a non-BCS conference is still on my Dead to Me List. So with time, those questions of ability and translation from college will be answered. But it’s nice knowing that the 49ers figured out the draft and got the guy they wanted while doing so in a relatively wise manner. Not many people following the Red and Gold are used to this, so it’ll take time. I know it took me awhile to come around.