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San Francisco shoots for a return to relevance

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

As a veteran talent evaluator mentored by the masterful and cunning Ron Wolf, 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan is well versed in the art of pre-draft deception. For NFL decision-makers, the rules when it comes to talking about possible picks are pretty simple: Say as little as possible, and when you do reveal information to the media, dishonesty is the only policy.

So as I sat with McCloughan at lunch last Friday at a restaurant near the Niners' Santa Clara training facility and inquired about his dream scenario for the upcoming draft, I was naturally skeptical about the sincerity of his response, even though I'd assured him I wasn't writing about his team until after the fact.

"I know who I want, and it's Michael Crabtree," McCloughan had answered instantly. "To me he's a home run, an impact player who gives us something we don't have. Now, I realize he's not supposed to be there when we pick [10th overall], and I'm not going to trade up to get him. But this draft is so weird, and there are so many different scenarios floating out there, that I could see it happening."

McCloughan's reply had been so definitive, I decided to press him a little. Was his desire to select Crabtree so great that, if nine teams passed on the former Texas Tech receiver and the 49ers were on the clock, he'd immediately phone in the pick to the team's representative in New York City and land his man?

"Probably not," he answered, "because what I really want is to trade down and end up with another No. 1 for next year. And the reality is, if we're sitting there at 10 and he's still on the board, I think we're gonna get some calls. If a team wants to trade next year's [first-round pick] to get up to get him, that's gonna be awfully hard to turn down."

I'm sharing these details about our exchange because it reveals several important personality traits about the man trying to bring the 49ers back to prominence: First, unlike so many of his peers, McCloughan is not a liar. Second, whether he turns out to be right or wrong about Crabtree, he's a self-assured scout who, like Cheap Trick, knows what he wants and knows how to get it. And finally, during a frenzied but calculated stretch on Saturday, he was shrewd enough to exceed even his own wildest wishes by landing both Crabtree and a second 2010 first-round pick.

As McCloughan said Monday afternoon, "It's awesome how it turned out. If you'd have told me at lunch that I'd get Crabtree and a '1' for next year, I'd have laughed at you. Maybe one or the other, but both? No way."

Way. And the upshot is, in addition to finding a player projected to be the 49ers' first big-time wideout since Terrell Owens was traded after the '03 season – not coincidentally, that was the last time they had a receiver who had 1,000 or more yards in a season – this once-proud franchise may finally have solidified the power base (McCloughan, coach Mike Singletary and newly empowered team president Jed York) that can lead it back to the land of the functional.

San Francisco, the most successful franchise in major pro sports through the '80s and much of the '90s, may never again approach the standard forged during that Eddie DeBartolo/Bill Walsh era. Yet for the first time in a long time, it appears the Niners have a plan and are being directed by competent people with a chance of bringing it to fruition.

Like Wolf, the former Raiders personnel man who helped restore the Packers to prominence as the team's GM, McCloughan is not big on fanfare. He's a scout at heart who thinks about football an embarrassingly high percentage of his waking hours and is happy to let Singletary, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker he chose as his interim coach after firing Mike Nolan seven games into the '08 season, be the face of the franchise.

McCloughan also seems enthusiastic about the increased role Jed York is now playing. Jed, the son of owners John and Denise DeBartolo York, was elevated to the title of team president at age 27 last December, an acknowledgement that he has now succeeded his parents as the franchise's day-to-day head honcho.

Whereas John York was a drastic departure from Eddie DeBartolo, his emotional and gregarious brother-in-law – employees often described him as aloof and condescending – Jed has helped restore a sense of community within the building. He and his uncle speak frequently about the challenges of running a franchise, and it was not insignificant on Saturday that, for the first time ever, Jed was the executive who walked from the war room to McCloughan's office to speak to Crabtree by telephone before the pick was officially submitted.

At that point, about halfway through the team's allotted 10-minute window, McCloughan had finally given up on trading down. Having watched nervously as the teams in front of him (Oakland at 7, Jacksonville at 8, Packers at 9) selected other players – the Raiders, in what seemed to be an instance of Al Davis playing to his own stereotype, took speedy but inconsistent ex-Maryland wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey, a Christmas-in-April gift to their Bay Area rivals – McCloughan had locked in on Crabtree, unless another team were to make an extremely enticing offer.

To that point, the only call he had fielded was one from Redskins vice president Vinny Cerrato a couple of picks earlier, "and that was just them futzing around," McCloughan says. "Our thought was that if our guy's there, someone had better blow our socks off, 'cause I'm taking the big SOB who can score touchdowns."

In evaluating Crabtree, McCloughan decided that productivity (41 touchdown receptions in two years at Tech) and his own impressions from face-to-face meetings at the NFL scouting combine and the Niners' facility overrode the perceived negatives – that the receiver lacked blazing speed and, because of a stress fracture in his foot that was surgically repaired in March, was unable to submit an official 40-yard-dash time during the evaluation period. The GM wasn't dissuaded by reports that the Browns were turned off by Crabtree's entourage and regarded the receiver as a diva; in McCloughan's eyes, Crabtree is a committed player who grows uncomfortable outside the football environment.

McCloughan wasn't surprised that the Raiders passed, given Davis' desperate and unwavering need for speed. "It's important to him," McCloughan says of Oakland's owner. "Crabtree's not a sprinter, which is what they're looking for. But I'm not in this to get sprinters. I'm in this to get football players. T.J. Houshmandzadeh's not a sprinter, but he's productive. The same goes for Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. We think this kid can do the same types of things. If we were at 5, we would've taken the same guy."

It was that type of conviction that led McCloughan to make the call on Crabtree with several minutes left on the clock. The GM reasoned that "if anyone wanted him that badly, they'd have called in the first 10 seconds. Finally I thought, 'Fill out the card and turn the son of a gun in. He's our guy. Let's let everybody know.' "

Rather than celebrating – McCloughan's not a big high-five-in-the-war-room guy – he immediately turned his attention to the second round. As the 49ers' pick (43rd overall) approached, there were two players the team was targeting. Each of them, however, was snapped up with one of the five picks that immediately preceded San Francisco's. (McCloughan wouldn't say which players he wanted, but Matt Maiocco, the superb writer who covers the team for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, speculated that linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Darius Butler were the likely targets.)

Now McCloughan was willing to trade down, and to his surprise he quickly fielded calls from five teams who wanted to move up to the Niners' slot. The last of those calls was from Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, whose job security has been the subject of much media speculation. With star pass rusher Julius Peppers' future in Carolina uncertain, Hurney really wanted to move up to take Florida State defensive end Everette Brown.

"What are we talking about?" McCloughan asked Hurney, who answered, "Next year's 1 for this and your 4 [San Francisco's fourth-round pick in '09]."

McCloughan was so happy, he was tempted to make the deal on the spot. Instead, he said to Hurney, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, "OK, I'll get back to you."

It was halfway through the team's seven-minute window, and there were a lot of nerves in the draft room as McCloughan hung up the phone and did absolutely nothing.

"That's the part of the draft I love," he says. "It's like a chess match. When I hung up the phone, everyone in the room was looking at me, and I just stared up at the ceiling. They're going, 'What are we gonna do?' I'm there thinking, 'Hmmm, Carolina's got the toughest schedule in the league next year. [Jake] Delhomme's a pretty good quarterback, but if he gets hurt … that pick could be pretty high.' "

About two minutes passed before McCloughan reached for the phone. Instead of calling Hurney, however, he added to the tension by "purposely dialing the wrong number first. Finally, I dialed again and tried to get more out of Marty – 'Can you throw in your [sixth-round pick]?' I had to try it. He said no, and I said, 'OK,' and made the trade."

To say McCloughan was thrilled would be an understatement. With cap space and a pair of 2010 first-rounders, he now has the ammunition to make a big move if he decides there's an impact player worth acquiring via trade, either during next April's draft or at any time before it.

"I got on the computer and checked the numbers" of the widely used chart that assigns points for draft picks, McCloughan says, "and the thing that's interesting is that first-round picks the next year are only half as [valuable] as this year's No. 1. I realize you don't know where the team you trade with will finish, which affects the value, but it really makes no sense.

"Having two No. 1s gives us tons of leverage. We got huge value, not just for next year but if we decide to make a trade. We've got tons of cap room, so nothing's holding us back."

All of this made the draft's second day a far less stressful exercise for McCloughan. While failing to land an offensive lineman or pass rusher in the later rounds, he took several complementary players who could fill key backup roles. He also seemed to be channeling Wolf, whose philosophy was to draft a quarterback every single year, when he took Ball State's Nate Davis with a compensatory pick late in the fifth round.

"We had him rated a little bit higher than that, and he intrigued me quite a bit," McCloughan says of Davis. "He [says he has a] learning disability, so he's slow in picking stuff up. But you watch him on tape, he's the best player on the field every game he plays, and he's got the skills to be a first-round pick. I look at him as a Matt Hasselbeck/Aaron Brooks-type pick, a guy who you wait on and he might be very good a few years down the road."

McCloughan is a realist, too, about the state of the Niners. Just as he understands that the team's return to its classic, cherry-red uniforms won't automatically bring back the glory days, he gets that it all comes back to the quarterback spot. This year's training camp competition between resourceful career backup Shaun Hill, who played well as the stopgap starter in the second half of '08, and Alex Smith, the humbled No. 1 overall pick in '05, won't remind anyone of the Joe Montana/Steve Young battles. And McCloughan knows that until someone steps up to lead the offense, even a player with Crabtree's skills won't be truly transformative.

"For us to contend, the quarterback situation has to be taken care of," McCloughan concedes. "Whoever wins the job has to be a confident and consistent player who executes the offense the way we want him to and who gets what we're trying to do. We need to get solidified at that position, without a doubt."

As a longtime personnel man, first under Wolf in Green Bay and later as the Seahawks' director of college scouting (under current Packers GM Ted Thompson), McCloughan has been through enough drafts to know that even picks he considers can't-miss, like Crabtree, aren't infallible. That's why, rather than gloating over a draft that played out beyond his expectations, he's getting revved up for the remainder of an offseason that might still feature a surprise acquisition or two.

"I'm very logical about what we did in the draft," McCloughan says. "We added a very, very good football player – a college football player – who hasn't done a thing in the pros yet. Is he the answer to put us over the top? No. But he can help us get there.

"I realize that the only reason he made it to us was that he hurt his foot, didn't work out at the combine and had some bad reports about [his character] circulating. It also helped that because so many college teams are running the spread offense, you have all these productive receivers coming out who are filling everybody's draft boards up. So teams figure, 'We don't need to get this guy up high when we can get one of these other guys in a later round.' That helped, too."

All of which explains why McCloughan, after a very happy and casual Monday, was to be back working the phones Tuesday in an effort to see if there's another move he can make on the chess board.

"My head is always spinning," he says. "Now, with the second first-rounder next year, I'm thinking, 'Can we trade for somebody? Should we investigate this stuff that's out there about the Cardinals moving Boldin?' Even though this is supposed to be a slower period, my thoughts are dominated by, 'How do we improve this roster?' It's kind of sad, but that's the truth."

On that count, I absolutely believe him.

TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)

"Your story on Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart was awesome. I'm impressed that you could put your Golden Bears love aside for this phenomenal piece. Go Trojans!"

David
Miami

Once these guys get to the pros, we're all part of the same team. And for what it's worth, the best thing about draft weekend was getting to Carson City, Nev., in time to see my OTHER favorite team, Supremacy, battle its way to a second-place finish in a very entertaining girls soccer tournament. Not that I'd ever miss a minute of Mel Kiper Jr.'s infinite wisdom …


"What gives with your obvious friendship with both Leinart and Warner? You seem to relish in strongly criticizing certain players and yet these guys get your unconditional love. As a strong Cal fan, do you think the Browns did well with Alex Mack at No. 21 or was that a stretch pick?"

Tim Corbett
Ladera Ranch, Calif.

I like Matt Leinart, and we had a fun time while I was reporting what turned out to be the final Sports Illustrated feature of my 13-plus-year stint at the magazine . But whereas Kurt Warner and I did a book together and, as you suggest, are obviously friends, there's been some distance between me and Leinart since early in the '07 season, when I wrote that he was frustrated about having to split time with Warner and, the next day, he told reporters that he didn't remember "ever saying any of those things to anyone." I get grumpy just thinking about it, and I'm pretty sure Matt does as well. But hey, I like the guy. I'm rooting for him. We're moving on. As for Alex Mack, I think that over the years Browns fans will end up focusing a lot more on how he plays and how he conducts himself than on where he was picked. That he's made it this far is no Mack-cident.


"I am a big Ravens fan and totally agree with your article about the overrated QBs this year. Ryan is excellent. As a Ravens fan I know that Joe Flacco was successful because he had a running game and a great defense. Like you, I can't understand how the Jets could pick Sanchez. He only has 16 starts. And Stafford going to the Lions. He will have a lot of learning to do with no defense and no running game. Just think he is overrated. Great article. Thanks."

Gene Winer
San Diego

I'm not saying the Jets shouldn't have picked Sanchez – they had a need, and they aggressively addressed it – nor that he and Stafford will be bad NFL players. But I definitely believe that if thrown into the lineup as a rookie, it's highly unlikely either player will replicate the immediate success enjoyed by Flacco last year, let alone Matt Ryan's.


"Hey Michael, get it right! Savoy Truffle was written by George Harrison, not John Lennon! So shouldn't he be getting his 'George Harrison on?'"

Kim Clayton
Adelaide, South Australia

Yes, he should. And I should be getting my dunce cap on. Thank you.


"Your first installment of power rankings in 32 questions was shameful. I didn't think it was possible for someone so ugly to be so dumb."

Brian

Dude, I'm flattered that you're so interested in my looks. Is it possible you, too, have some questions to ponder?


"Yet again proving your worth, or lack thereof … did you really put any thought or care into your colts question? It makes no sence and shows that you put less effort into your work than most. get a clue"

Jay
Wayne, N.J.

One reason it makes no "sence" is that "sence," in fact, is not a word. I thought we were through with that 'non sens' last week. As far as what I wrote about the Colts, I was making the sarcastic point that new coach Jim Caldwell was unlikely to have much of a role in deciding who the team would select in the draft. I suspect that has the number before the question been "3" instead of "16," your objections might have been a bit more muted.


"Giants at 11? After they beat Arizona in Week 12 without Plax and Brandon Jacobs? Did you even watch the Plax-less come-from-behind overtime first-seed clinching victory over Carolina in Week 16? This team is nasty, even without Plax. Find me a better team in the NFC. Yes, the Plax loss hurts. But the Giants are a running team, and Eli will adjust to whatever new receiver they get him, especially since he has an entire offseason to do so, not just a few weeks midseason. I'll have you remember that he got a ton better after they got rid of Shockey, and he's exceptional when he distributes the ball, rather than forcing it to one guy, look at the numbers. The fate of this team rests on its defense and its offensive line/running game. Even though we lost Spagnuolo, we have Osi returning to anchor a line that was still the best in the league without him. We also set the record for least turnovers in a season last year. If not for the forced late-season adjustments with the loss of Plax, we had a real shot at 15-1 (the 1 being a 3-pick fluke against the god-awful Browns). Even losing Plax, we still managed a first-round bye, and now you're willing to put 10 teams in front of us? You're delusional. But thanks for the locker room material. As I recall, this team is pretty good at the whole underdog thing."

Sam G
Irvington, N.Y.

First question: What position do you play? Second question: Will you be the one putting this up in the Giants' locker room, or do you only go there when it's imagination time? OK, sorry, I'll stop. I get your point, and I realize that on paper the Giants look like they'll be strong again in 2009. Call the ranking a lasting reaction to the team's decidedly meek playoff performance against the Eagles, a thrashing I witnessed , as well as a belief that things change more rapidly in today's NFL than most fans of winning teams care to admit to themselves. Either that or I really am delusional (but happily so).


"Next time you want to try to be a journalist get your information right, the steelers have over 6 playoff apperiences. They have 7 superbowl apperiences alone, and then there was 2001 when the pats cheated (like you said). So that's 8 right there."

TR

Next time you want to try to be a credible critic I suggest that you a) get your information right (I was talking about playoff appearances in the current decade) and b) learn the difference between appearances and experiences while resisting the temptation to form a hybrid word that does not, in fact, exist.


"Mike, thank you for bringing up the cheating thing again. You suck and the Cal bears suck too, in fact your whole (let me not go there). Let's just say your a (expletive expletive) for bringing it up (Again, again, again). We know one of the all-time best coaches and players had nothing to do with the success they have had, right?

Dave Cafasso
Dartmouth, Mass.

Right, and they also have the best owner, Robert Kraft, who last year apologized to his peers for, get this, having cheated. If Kraft is classy enough to do that, you and the other Patriots fans who sent similar emails should consider at least being man (or woman) enough to accept the fact that Spygate will (gasp!) be mentioned in articles from time to time. As for the Golden Bear


"I hope Rulon Davis gets picked and has an outstanding career in the NFL. Guys like him are hard not to root for. He is what a hero should be considered to be … even before playing in the pros he is mine for his service. Him and every other man and woman who has had to deal with a war and situations most of us can only imagine. Regardless of who takes him I will be a fan of his … even if not the team he plays for."

Eric Minton
Ft. Worth, Texas

I'm happy to report that though Davis didn't get drafted, he signed with the Broncos as a rookie free agent and will fight for a roster spot this summer. As for your sentiments on men and women who serve, I agree wholeheartedly, and I can't imagine that anyone who has served wouldn't be rooting for Davis to make it.


"Mr. Silver, I love the NFL draft and the feel-good stories that go along with it, but I can't handle this one. The story about an aviation mechanic who spent six whole months in Iraq and never fired his weapon … come on. Personally, I am on my fourth tour here, have been blown up and have a Purple Heart, etc. … I'm just not impressed by this guy and the way he portrayed himself. My hats off to him for coming over here, but he's just a mechanic, he's not in the infantry. Anyway, that is just my thoughts. Have a great day."

Mike Grose
Baghdad, Iraq

OK, perhaps I was being a bit naïve .


"Great article about Rulon Davis. However, we Marines appreciate not being called soldiers. That is for the Army schmucks. Thanks."

Jason Cardella
Dublin, Calif.

Ouch. Got it.


"I am writing to you after reading just the first two mails that you mentioned in the Trippin' section. What the heck? Is America transitioning to any other language? Because before each UMD, you warn all your readers in a pretty good English but they keep showering you with angry 'your an idiot' emails and keep being embarrassed all the time. Keep me please updated if the USA are choosing another official language because I want to learn it as soon as possible.(:- ))"

Abdumalik
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

How do you say "Boom! Roasted" in Uzbec? Because Abdumalik is MY new hero.


"Two things that deliver: The Dead and Silver. You gotta catch a West Coast gig of the spring tour! I did the resurrection show in Greensboro. They're cookin'!"

Lex
Macon, Ga.

Don't tell me you're another one of those "Silverheads."


"Dear Michael, a lot has been written lately about how picking first in the draft has become a headache most teams would rather avoid. I am curious about your opinion about the following scenario as a possible solution. The team that picks first negotiates a deal in advance with a player they find attractive, but projected to go in the second or third round. This player would receive a premium of about 25 percent above what he could reasonably be expected to get at his projected position. The player is happy because he gets more money, and the team is happy because they use the number one pick on a player they want while avoiding the huge cost associated with that pick. The next several teams also use their picks on players projected to go a bit later. These players lose the leverage of the high pick position due to the reduced price of the number one pick and can be expected to be easier to negotiate with as they realize they are being picked ahead of more talented players. Those players originally projected to go in the top 10 would drop to positions where their salaries become more reasonable. The lower salaries would be on the books and the ever escalating first round salary cycle could be broken. The result is downward pressure on first round salaries allowing the rookie money pool to be more evenly distributed. The rookie class as a whole would benefit, and teams could select players without having to break the bank on a gamble. A possible side affect would be that some late first round players might get larger contracts than some players chosen before them, but this would be the result of a fair valuation of the player rather than an artificially inflated figure forced by the agents. Thanks for your thoughts."

Nicholas Zsoka
Cameron Park, Calif.

My opinion is that such collusion would be an unfair business practice, and if I were the NFLPA, I would then push for the abolishment of the draft altogether. And I think if I took it to court (in the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement), I'd have a pretty good case that the teams were conspiring to act in bad faith. Don't forget that the slotting of contracts is what players get in return for essentially surrendering their right to shop their services on the free market. I'm not saying nothing can be done about the enormous salaries at the top of the draft, but any change will have to be the product of collective bargaining. And remember, there's certainly an argument to be made that the draft goes against the free-market values that this nation holds so dear. If Matthew Stafford had been free to negotiate with all 32 teams, how sweet might his deal have been?


"Hey Silver, I am a fan but I still don't get you changing your pick from the Steelers to the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. What were you thinking?"

Rob Ramos
Milan, Mich.

Here's what I was thinking: This is going to be an exceptionally tight game, and the Steelers will get the ball with less than three minutes remaining at their own 22 after falling behind by three. Ben Roethlisberger will march them down the field, and then he'll float a perfect pass over the outstretched arms of Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown to the back corner of the end zone, where wideout Santonio Holmes will secure the ball (with safety Aaron Francisco closing) and somehow get his feet down perfectly with 35 seconds to go. I guess that means I should pick the Steelers. But I have this weird feeling that, after Kurt Warner gets stripped by LaMarr Woodley, the booth will call for a replay review, the officials will overturn the fumble and Warner will connect with Larry Fitzgerald on a Hail Mary. So I guess I'll disrespect the Steelers by picking Arizona.


"You know, I have tried to keep this inside of me for so long but I can't help it anymore. You are by far the sexiest Yahoo! Sports writer, and I am not even gay. At least I think I am not gay. If there was a cross between Michael Keaton's awkward good looks and George Clooney's sexual prowess that would be you my friend. And yes I am just writing all of this to see if I could get on your mailbag because that would make my week, nay, my month."

Andrew
Pittsburgh

Thanks for letting it out. And now you're in.