Drafting for need is the wrong approach early

We can probably agree that heading into the 2005 draft, the 49ers had the worst roster in pro football.

The club was coming off a two-win season. Their only Pro Bowl player over a two-year stretch was long-snapper Brian Jennings, who was added as a “need” player after the ’04 season.


Terry Donahue’s drafts as general manager provided us with some lessons. And the No. 1 lesson is that teams should never draft for need in the first round.


At the time, the selections of Reggie McGrew, Mike Rumph, Kwame Harris and Rashaun Woods all made perfect sense. In those particular years, those were all picks that filled needs. If this blog was around back then, I’d guess a lot of people would be congratulating the 49ers on filling holes at spots where players were needed.


But were they the best players available?


Team needs change from year to year. It is short-sighted to pass up a really good player at one spot just to fill a need at another. If that decision is made in the first round it goes beyond short-sighted. It can be disastrous.


I don’t believe the 49ers have erred in that way during Scot McCloughan’s tenure as general manager.


In 2005, it was a unique situation because of the No. 1 overall pick. Economics are involved. Since the money has started to explode, it is difficult for teams to justify making such a huge investment in a position other than quarterback.


It’s the same situation the Lions are in this year when there is no clear-cut No. 1 choice. The thing that gets overlooked is that the 49ers had a plan to make it work. They wanted to sign a left tackle in free agency. Jonas Jennings was the best player available, and the team took no chances and signed him to a big-money contract. But the money was wasted on Jennings, who rarely got on the field.


The one thing that has been debated is whether the 49ers made the right choice in quarterbacks. The first 23 teams passed on Aaron Rodgers before the Packers landed a pretty darn good player. But, let’s face it, Rodgers is lucky he was not drafted by the 49ers. He landed in a great situation.


The next three years, I believe the 49ers took the best players they had rated the highest on their boards. They would’ve selected A.J. Hawk, but took Vernon Davis in ’06. Later in the first, they grabbed Manny Lawson. The 49ers were so thin at that point, any position would’ve been a position of need. In 2007, the need pick was Adam Carriker. Instead, they went with Patrick Willis. Last year, they selected Kentwan Balmer instead of the “need” pick of a wide receiver.


And, of course, this strategy doesn’t always work. While their margin for error is better, teams still have to hit the mark on the players they choose. But it is the right approach. Just look at the 49ers’ failed drafts that set the team up for failure for most of this decade:


1999 – Defensive tackle Reggie McGrew at No. 24. This was not a great year for defensive tackles, but the 49ers felt they needed somebody to get ready to take Bryant Young’s place. The next defensive tackle (Russell Davis) was taken 24 spots later by the Bears. Among the players taken shortly after McGrew were cornerback Fernando Bryant and defensive end Patrick Kerney.


2002 – The 49ers were going to take a corner. It was either Lito Sheppard or Mike Rumph at No. 27. When the Eagles took Sheppard, the 49ers went with Rumph. The next CB wasn’t taken until late in the second round (Travis Fisher by the Rams). The 49ers didn’t have a whole lot of options, though. Among the players taken shortly after Rumph were tight end Jerramy Stevens, and offensive linemen Marc Colombo and Kendall Simmons.


2003 – This one was a killer. The 49ers felt they needed an offensive tackle. They selected Kwame Harris at No. 26. The next tackle was taken at No. 37, Jonathan Stinchcomb. But there were a lot of good players on the board when the 49ers selected. They could’ve had running back Larry Johnson, linebacker Nick Barnett or . . . cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.


2004 – The 49ers traded back twice. They moved from No. 16 to No. 31, where they selected receiver Rashaun Woods. The next WR taken was 19 spots later, Devery Henderson. The 49ers picked Woods over linebacker Karlos Dansby and guard Chris Snee.


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As I understand it, the 49ers have a vertical and a horizontal draft board. The vertical board is used early in the draft to rank the best players available. As the draft progresses and there becomes less and less separating the players, the 49ers move to the horizontal board that is arranged by position. That is when they can compare, for instance, the top-rated outside linebacker vs. the top-rated running back before making a decision.


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Here’s a look at the 49ers’ position-by-position needs.


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