Alex Smith

The case for Coby Fleener

As the 2012 NFL Draft approaches, and the bitter taste of the overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game still lingers in the mouths of 49ers fans, it’s time to put all those mock drafts aside and see what Trent Baalke, Jim Harbaugh and Co. have in mind for this year’s rookie class.

The 49ers will be returning all eleven defensive starters from the league’s best defense a year ago.  At some point you have to expect Justin Smith’s out-of-this-world play to decline, but it won’t be 2012.  You’d hope the same goes with Carlos Rodgers in the secondary and that the front office finds some solid players to become future starters, much like they did NaVorro Bowman a few years ago, in the middle rounds.

Love him or hate him, Alex Smith is the starting quarterback.  The team won’t spend a first-rounder on a running back and shouldn’t on a guard unless somehow David DeCastro falls to them (and he won’t).

What we’re left with is the need for a playmaker.  A guy who can step in from Day One and move the chains, take pressure off Alex and put points on the board.  Stephen Hill and Kendall Wright are a couple wide receivers the experts have coming to San Francisco, but a rookie wide receiver could have trouble finding the field if Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham play like they’re supposed to.

Additionally, BASG Guest Contributor Scott Warfe is correct in his analysis that, “aside from Michael Crabtree, the 49ers don’t draft WRs in the first round. I distinctly remember Baalke discussing drafting receivers on KNBR. During the interview, Baalke noted that good wide receivers could be found later in the draft.”

The biggest pass-catching playmaker on the team is Vernon Davis, at least until other teams take him away or he’s forced to pass block, which seems to happen much too often. Delanie Walker is a nice player, a capable second tight end who’s undeniably tough and holds up well as a blocker. He’d also be a great third tight end.

The 49ers should draft Stanford’s Coby Fleener with the 30th pick in the first round, assuming he’s still on the board (and one prominent Bay Area football beat writer I spoke to at Stanford’s pro day thought he would be gone by then).

Fleener is the new breed of tight end infiltrating the NFL, in the mold of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.  At 6’6”, 247 pounds and the potential to get stronger, it was almost surreal watching him clock 40-times between 4.42 and 4.45 at Stanford’s pro day last month. He’s sure-handed, has great leaping ability, and a high football I.Q.  More than that, Jim Harbaugh knows him well and knows exactly how he can fit into the 49ers system.

Fleener didn’t decide to make football his top priority (over basketball) until his senior year in high school where he used his experience as a power forward to haul in 34 passes for a school-record 706 yards and eight touchdowns at Joliet Catholic. A late commit to Stanford, Fleener systematically worked his way up the Cardinal depth chart, breaking out in the 2010 Orange Bowl where he caught three touchdown passes. He was Stanford’s best deep threat in 2011, consistently out-running linebackers and out-muscling defensive backs who tried to cover him.

Fleener can split out as a slot receiver as well as play in as tight end. The ability to have two of the league’s most explosive tight ends would take pressure off of Alex Smith and allow the offense to continue it’s run-first mentality while increasing the efficacy of the passing game.

We’ll find out next Thursday how this all shakes out, but my card is already filled out.  With the 30th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers should select Coby Fleener, tight end, Stanford University.

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