49ers gear up for another key draft led by Baalke

A year ago, Trent Baalke guided the San Francisco 49ers through

the draft for the first time and added a few key pieces to a team

favored to win the NFC West and reach the playoffs after a long

absence. His top two picks became immediate starters on a revamped

offensive line, while several others also made impacts as

rookies.

In Baalke’s second go-round, after a recent promotion to general

manager, his moves next week will be an even bigger deal: San

Francisco is in dire need of a difference-maker at quarterback. And

this could be the best chance to find that person in a time of

uncertainty with the lockout.

”It’s a critical decision,” Baalke said this week.

The 49ers have the No. 7 overall pick next Thursday night. They

are likely to use that first selection on a defensive player such

as outside linebacker and proven pass-rusher Von Miller or

cornerback Patrick Peterson – the kind of shutdown defender the

veteran unit could use in the backfield – if either is still on the

board. Or, it could be reliable run-stopping linebacker Robert

Quinn out of North Carolina.

But Baalke and new coach and former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh

will have their eyes on all the talented QBs in this draft to see

who might fit well into their West Coast offense.

While San Francisco has extended an offer – an ”olive branch”

as Baalke put it – to 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith to return

and compete for the starting job this year, the Niners still hope

to find their man of the future.

”Obviously, we need a quarterback,” Baalke said. ”When I made

that statement, that the quarterback of the future wasn’t on the

roster, you simply look at the roster, and we have one quarterback

under contract, and that’s David Carr. So we’ve got work to do,

whether it’s in free agency, whether it’s this draft, or whether

it’s in a trade. We’ve got to figure it out … I’ve got tremendous

confidence in Jim and the coaching staff to win football games with

whoever we bring in here.”

A college star at Michigan and a first-round draft pick taken

26th overall by Chicago in 1987, Harbaugh played 15 seasons in the

NFL for the Bears, Colts, Ravens, Chargers and Panthers.

During the evaluation process of potential draft picks, he put

the QBs through a quiz in which he had them draw up plays and

coverages to find out how they would handle different reads and

progressions in the offense.

”If you have the DNA of a quarterback, you have the ability to

figure things out,” he said. ”I don’t think there’s any one way

to know if a guy’s going to be a Pro Bowl quarterback, even a

starting quarterback. There’s a lot of factors, and I’m not

professing to have all the answers. You do the best you can and you

try to evaluate the quarterback like you do any other

position.”

Last year, Baalke selected right tackle Anthony Davis at No. 11

and then left guard Mike Iupati six spots later. Both started every

game for a team that underachieved and finished at 6-10 following a

surprising 0-5 start. The 49ers haven’t had a winning season since

their last trip to the playoffs in 2002.

Filling in some missing parts through the draft is the only

option considering teams can’t sign free agents during the lockout.

The 49ers also hold one pick in each of the second and third rounds

with a total of 12 selections, most of any NFL team.

San Francisco has two of its core players on either side of the

ball locked up to long-term deals: linebacker Patrick Willis and

tight end Vernon Davis. Baalke orchestrated those contracts last

year in what became a productive first few months as the team’s top

personnel chief. He certainly showed something to team president

Jed York, who this winter said he would launch a national search

for a new GM and wound up elevating Baalke right from within the

building.

Then, Baalke lured the biggest recruit of all – Harbaugh – to

move some 10 miles down the freeway from Stanford four days after

football’s hottest commodity had led the Cardinal to a 40-12

victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and a school-record

12 wins.

Everybody involved is eager to get going, and at this point the

draft is the first and only step until the lockout ends. York has

vowed to return this downtrodden franchise to its glory days of the

past when San Francisco was a perennial contender in not only its

division but for Super Bowl titles.

”We’re doing everything we can to prepare for the season and

we’re moving full steam ahead as if we’re playing,” York told fans

in a call-in forum Wednesday night. ”I’m really looking forward to

seeing what Jim can do with this team. I know it’s going to be very

special.”

With the unsettled labor situation, it’s hard for Baalke to

compare running this draft to going through the process a year ago

after he took over top executive duties following the abrupt

departure of then-GM Scot McCloughan. Still, there were experiences

he gained.

”I think the No. 1 thing I learned through the process is

you’ve got to stick to your beliefs. Every time you make an

exception, you usually get burned,” Baalke said. ”I think you

learn a little bit every year. You stick to the core values of what

you’re looking for.”

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AP Sports Writer Antonio Gonzalez contributed to this story.