NFL Draft: Have West Coast Offense, need quarterback

Perhaps no fan base in NFL history has experienced such a wild shift in its quality of quarterback play quite like the 49ers faithful.

For more than two decades, they watched Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia run the timing-based West Coast Offense with precision.

During a 22-season stretch (1980-2001), a Niners quarterback ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in passer rating on 21 occasions. They led the NFL eight times and led the NFC during 11 of those seasons.

Now? The once-spoiled fan base has been sickened by one of the NFL’s most incompetent offenses (details to follow).

Of course, there is reason to hope for a return to glory: An offensive-minded head coach from Stanford has been hired and he’ll run the West Coast Offense.

Now comes the hardest part.

Will a quarterback soon follow who can make the attack function like a symphony?

The Niners will obviously use a high-round draft pick on a quarterback.

Will it be a cannon-armed, first-rounder such as Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert?

Or will they draft for defense at No. 7 overall and target a potential second-round pick such as TCU’s Andy Dalton? And what’s up with Washington’s Jake Locker, who was viewed as a potential No. 1 overall pick at this time last year? And could Auburn’s Cam Newton really be a West Coast quarterback? And …

WHY IT’S A NEED: The 49ers are the only NFL team without a 3,000-yard passer since 2002.

The 49ers and Bills are the only teams to not rank higher than 23rd in the NFL in total offense since 2003.

The 49ers and Bears are the only teams without a 1,000-yard receiver since 2003.

The 49ers are one of seven teams to not have a quarterback ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in passer rating since 2001.

Any questions?

WHAT BAALKE SAYS: In his recent interview on KNBR, general manager Trent Baalke said it’s difficult to have a rookie quarterback ready to step in and play immediately, particularly if that quarterback played in a spread offense in college.

Gabbert and Newton, two of the top quarterbacks on the board, are both spread quarterbacks. Of course, so were St. Louis’ Sam Bradford, Cleveland’s Colt McCoy and Denver’s Tim Tebow, who all earned high marks as rookies this past season. (And, yes, Alex Smith played in the spread at Utah).

“These guys coming in from the spread offense and not playing the game the way it’s played at this level, the transition is more difficult than in the past,” Baalke said. “That’s why I think you see some of these guys taking longer to develop and in some cases not being able to develop.”

Baalke suggested he’s already ruled out certain quarterbacks based on the offense the Niners will install and the specific qualities Jim Harbaugh wants in a signal-caller.

“He will be a great resource,” Baalke said of Harbaugh. “He understands exactly what he’s looking for at the position, which makes our job on the personnel side that much easier. You can rule out certain guys based on the needs of the position relative to the system we’re going to run. And you can concentrate on the guys that fit the system.”

So what qualities are the Niners looking for? Baalke didn’t tip his hand, but he might have offered a few clues when asked about the ranking of quarterbacks at the top.

“I think when it all shakes out there might be a stronger grouping than some people may recognize at this point because I think each of them brings a different element of strength to the table,” Baalke said. “Some are pure passers with big arms that may not have the intangibles you’re looking for. Others may not have the same stature, the same physical skills, but they have all the intangibles you’re looking for.

“The character. The work ethic. Mental capacity. Decision-making qualities. So I think when you get down and you really start breaking them down, that’s where you’re looking for that guy where you say ‘OK, this guy really fits our system. He may not have all the physical characteristics of this other guy, but mentally and intangible-wise, he’s exactly what we’re looking for.’”

Hmmm. It’s hard to trust what general managers say – or what they seem to say – leading up to the draft. But it sure sounds like Baalke and Harbaugh could be targeting a savvy quarterback dripping with intangibles.

WITH THE SEVENTH PICK IN THE 2011 NFL DRAFT: Given the question marks surrounding the top quarterbacks, their need for a pass-rusher and a cornerback and Harbaugh’s reputation for developing QBs, it’s not hard to envision the 49ers waiting until the second or third round to select a signal-caller.

Then again, Gabbert, viewed as the No. 1 quarterback prospect at the moment, has the size (6-4, 235), arm strength and some of those intangibles. He’s tough (played as a sophomore with a high ankle sprain), intelligent (two-time academic All-Big 12 selection) and has a strong work ethic.

But is it a concern that he threw five touchdowns and six interceptions in his last six college starts?

Locker, who played in a pro-style offense, has good size (6-2, 228), arm strength and athleticism (4.4 40-yard dash). But there are questions about his accuracy (never completed more than 58.3 passes) and his disappointing senior season during which he threw for fewer than 72 yards in four of 12 games. Harbaugh saw Locker complete 7 of 14 passes for 64 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 41-0 loss to Stanford.

As for Newton, he played in a very basic spread offense at Auburn in which he typically didn’t throw until a receiver came open. His lack of polish, however, could be offset by his ridiculous size (6-6, 250) and ability. In his only Division I season, he became the third quarterback in major college football history to throw and run for 20 touchdowns in a season.

Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett, the fourth player in SEC history to throw for 3,000 yards and 30 TDs in back-to-back seasons, is another huge (6-6, 238), big-armed prospect. NFL scouts will do their homework to see if Mallett’s arrest for public intoxication in 2009 is a cause for concern. He is being projected as later first-round pick.

WHAT THE DRAFTNIKS SAY: ESPN’s Mel Kiper in his first mock draft: Gabbert (No. 5), Newton (No. 10), Mallett (No. 25), Locker (not a first-round pick).

ESPN’s Todd McShay: Gabbert (No. 3), Locker (No. 8), Newton (No. 10), Mallett (No. 16).

The rankings from Mike Mayock of the NFL Network: 1. Gabbert, 2. Locker, 3. Newton, 4. Mallett.

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