This is my Saturday news story on the 49ers’ Day 2 draft picks.
SANTA CLARA — Analysts thought the 49ers’ biggest needs were on the outside, at cornerback and at wide receiver. Everyone thought that.
Everyone except the 49ers.
San Francisco spent its first five draft picks building up the middle of its team. The 49ers drafted a safety, a running back, a center, an inside linebacker and a guard.
In the first round, the 49ers drafted a safety — Jimmie Ward. He will cover slot receivers in the middle of the field next season.
In the second, the 49ers’ drafted a running back — Carlos Hyde.
He’s not a finesse, outside runner like the 49ers’ current backup running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Hyde is a 230-pound battering ram.
“I would describe my game as ‘violent,’ ” Hyde told Bay Area reporters on a conference call Friday evening.
It’s strange to think of the running back position as a need for the 49ers. They consistently have one of the best running games in the NFL.
But Frank Gore turns 31 on May 14.
He had one of the worst seasons of his career last yar, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry.
Gore’s 2013 season got worse as it went on.
He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry over his final six games, and just 1.08 yards per carry against the Seahawks in the NFC championship game. The 49ers can’t rely on him to carry the load like he used to.
If Gore continues to decline, Hyde could become the starter as soon as next season.
“I’m definitely going to compete to get that starting job and keep that running game alive that Frank Gore brought to the 49ers,” said Hyde.
In the third round, the 49ers drafted a center, an inside linebacker and offensive tackle.
The center was Marcus Martin from USC. The 49ers took him with the 70th pick after trading down with the Jacksonville Jaguars from pick No. 61.
“My versatility allows me to play anywhere inside on the offensive line, whether it’s at left guard, right guard or center,” Martin said on a conference call.
With the 77th pick, the 49ers drafted inside linebacker Chris Borland from Wisconsin. The 49ers already have two of the best inside linebackers in the NFL — Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Borland could back up those two for most of his career.
But Bowman will miss the first half of the season as he rehabs his surgically repaired ACL.
The middle of the defense is so important to the 49ers that they spent a third-round pick just to replace Bowman for half of a season.
For good measure, the 49ers drafted a guard with the final pick in the third round — Brandon Thomas from Clemson. He won’t even play for the 49ers next season.
He tore his right ACL in April. The 49ers still preferred him to the receivers and cornerbacks that were available in the third round.
Before day two of the draft started, the 49ers traded for veteran receiver Stevie Johnson. Johnson turns 28 on July 22 and has produced three 1,000-yard receiving seasons during his NFL career.
But he is not a speed receiver. He is a possession receiver who excels in the slot, meaning the middle of the field, just like the 49ers’ two current two starting wideouts — Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.
The 49ers still have not added a speedster who can run down the sideline and beat a defense deep.
This should not surprise you.
Trent Baalke revealed his draft philosophy way back in February at the NFL combine. “You want to take away the middle of the field,” he told reporters at a press conference.
“The best way to do it is having strength up the middle. If you can do that in the game, you stand a very good chance of winning week in and week out. So we place a big emphasis on that.”
When the third round ended Friday night, Baalke held a press conference in the 49ers’ defensive meeting room.
He was asked if he had planned to fortify the middle of the 49ers in this draft.
“Big in the middle wins a lot of football games,” Baalke said. “We felt we did that.”