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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 18, 2010

NFL draft: All eyes on 49ers’ Baalke in this year’s draft

AP Sports Writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Trent Baalke insists the San Francisco 49ers aren't going to look a whole lot different just because he's the new man making the big decisions.

Same philosophies on both sides of the ball.

Still, all eyes will be on Baalke as the 49ers prepare to pick twice in the first round of Thursday's NFL draft, first at No. 13 and again at No. 17.

That attention is expected during the draft, and even more so in the case of the Niners this year.

The franchise is minus a general manager after the abrupt departure of Scot McCloughan last month. If Baalke does everything right running his first draft, he might just earn himself the GM title before the season starts.

Team president Jed York called it a "mutual parting" with McCloughan, though the timing was strange considering he left the organization a month before the draft. York insists he has all the confidence in Baalke — the Niners' director of player personnel — to move the team forward following an 8-8 finish last year, coach Mike Singletary's first full season in charge.

There was talk of playoffs following a 3-1 start but San Francisco struggled on the road and regularly lost in heartbreaking fashion.

So far, Baalke is pretty tightlipped about what San Francisco might do.

Yet upgrading the offensive line will be among Baalke's first tasks, with Idaho guard Mike Iupati — the top guard in the draft — and Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis on his radar. The Niners need another tackle, but Baalke also has stressed that he is all about picking top talent no matter the position.

He wouldn't reveal whether the Niners believe Iupati could make a smooth transition to tackle.

"We value Mike as a good football player and a good offensive lineman. Where he fits within the offensive line — whether it's tackle, whether it's guard — we're going to keep that opinion to ourselves at this point," Baalke said. "But we think he's an awfully good football player."

Baalke had the 49ers' board of potential picks 95 percent done a week ahead of time.

And he already made one splash. On Friday, San Francisco traded its fifth-round selection, the 145th overall choice, to the Miami Dolphins for receiver and return man Ted Ginn Jr. That move fills one void that was a priority for Singletary this offseason after San Francisco's special teams struggled on kickoff and punt returns all season.

Singletary has long called the offensive line a work-in-progress. If the 49ers are finally going to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they need stability from that unit starting in Week 1.

The line has been hampered by injuries to key players in recent seasons, and San Francisco allowed an NFL-worst 150 sacks over the past three years.

"We need to be one of the strengths of our team this year," left tackle Joe Staley said. "We have all the talent in the world and we're excited to move forward with the guys we have here, and if we decide to bring in a guy through the draft, we're going to welcome him with open arms and bring him into the fold."

In what is considered a deep draft, Baalke figures there will be talented players available in every round.

Landing an offensive lineman who can be an immediate impact player will be the Niners' mission with one of those first two selections.

"I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you when everybody would get picked. I think you can realistically expect five or six offensive tackles to be gone in the first round," Baalke said. "Now, will that happen? I don't know. But I think that's a realistic number."

Baalke and Singletary took a three-day scouting trip together last month, including a stop at Oklahoma's pro day. Singletary considers himself a good judge of character, and has been more involved in the process of meeting players this spring.

"Mike is very thorough. A lot's been said about him being able to look across the table and get a great feel for the guy, which he does have an uncanny knack to be able to do," Baalke said. "That's not all he does. He makes a lot of phone calls, he does a lot of research, he goes above and beyond what most coaches will do in terms of really trying to know guys that he's interested in. I look at it as a positive. There's no negative side to it."

Being thrown into a more high-profile position after years behind the scenes, Baalke clearly is still guarded with most everything he says.

So don't expect any hints on who might be at the top of his list.

"I'd rather not tell you what our belief is and tip our hat in any way, shape or form," he said.

"If you're prepared, you're able to do things. And I think we are prepared. As an organization, once again, we feel very good about where we're at."