49ers need to focus on defense 

click to enlarge Niners GM Trent Baalke has come up aces in the NFL Draft thus far. It will be interesting to see how he utilizes the team’s 13 picks this time around. - BRIAN SPURLOCK/USA TODAY SPORTS FILE PHOTO
  • Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports file photo
  • Niners GM Trent Baalke has come up aces in the NFL Draft thus far. It will be interesting to see how he utilizes the team’s 13 picks this time around.

At this stage of the game, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke appears to have a good handle on this whole NFL Draft thing.

In the last few rodeos, he’s snagged quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the No. 36 pick (2011), NaVorro Bowman with the No. 91 pick (2010) and he scored by gambling on Aldon Smith with the No. 7 pick two years ago.

With 13 picks this week, Baalke can set up an already stacked 49ers roster for the next decade. I obviously lack the experience, insight and expertise to tell Baalke how he should use each of these picks to maximize the 49ers’ return, but here’s my two cents on the first two rounds anyway.

Sports Illustrated projects the 49ers drafting Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson with their first pick (No. 31) while ESPN’s Todd McShay is going with the kid Jim Harbaugh recruited to Stanford, tight end Zach Ertz. It’s easy to salivate over the prospect of adding new, explosive pieces to an offense that already features Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Realistically, though, Baalke needs to focus on defense with his first two choices.

The 49ers may have been one play away from winning the Super Bowl last year, but the defense’s performance in the aftermath of Justin Smith’s triceps tear suggests that help is needed up front. With a limited Smith, the defense’s run-stopping prowess took a serious hit and Aldon Smith’s pass-rushing skills suddenly looked human.

This year’s draft is deep with defensive line talent, so the 49ers should be able to land an All-Pro-caliber athlete at the tail end of the first round.

ESPN draft czar Mel Kiper Jr. is predicting that SMU defensive end Margus Hunt will wear red and gold next season, which would be an excellent selection. Hunt is 6-foot-8 and 277 pounds with freakish agility; the perfect lineman for a defense that faces the challenge of having to slow down the Seattle Seahawks’ powerful offense two times a year to secure a division title.

With the departure of Dashon Goldson, the team also needs a safety, which Baalke can acquire with the additional second-round pick obtained in the Alex Smith trade. Vic Fangio might be able to get away with playing the newly acquired Craig Dahl (St. Louis Rams) alongside Donte Whitner, but this is the perfect opportunity to grab a safety with the tools to match up against uber-athletic tight ends, like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Jason Witten.     

As more coaches look to the tight end position to create mismatches, teams are scouring for big safeties, like the Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor (6-foot-3, 232 pounds), to rein them in. The 49ers could secure this crucial piece for the next decade by drafting LSU’s Eric Reid (6-foot-2, 212 pounds).

With a top safety and defensive end in the bag, Baalke could use his other second-round pick to haul in another tight end, like Michigan State’s Dion Sims.

Honestly, I don’t see a glaring need for another receiver. Baalke already picked up Anquan Boldin via trade this offseason, he still has Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins could blossom down the road, like Crabtree did last season.

Yes, Trent, it all seems so easy. But then again, what do I know?

Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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