building through the draft

The Ravens and the 49ers will face each other for a championship and they share more than a head coach with the last name of Harbaugh.  Both teams earned their tickets to Super Sunday due in large part to impressive contributions from their own drafted players.  The 49ers drafted Patrick Willis in 2007 and he became an instant starter.  The powerful inside linebacker was the only defensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl in 2008 and he has set the tone for a disruptive yet cerebral defensive unit.  Baltimore Ravens fans may or may not know of the old adage of the draft being an “inexact science” because they have landed so many elite players, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  For example, they have drafted three Defensive Players of the Year (Ray Lewis in 1996, Ed Reed in 2002, and Terrell Suggs in 2003) in the first round.  A relentless inside linebacker, a revolutionary ball-hawking safety that can make plays in a variety of ways, and a terror of a pass-rusher? It is challenging to argue with the results.

At quarterback, the 49ers drafted Nevada dual-threat QB Colin Kaepernick at the urging of their head coach, Jim Harbaugh in 2011.  Kaepernick has a long way to go to join the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young in franchise lore but he is certainly off to a great start.  At the very least, Kapernick won’t be mentioned with Giovanni Carmazzi and Tim Rattay in terms of San Francisco quarterback duds.

Alex Smith was the quarterback he replaced.  The number one overall draft choice in 2005, Smith declared as an underclassman at exactly the right time.  Had he stayed in school and been in the same quarterback crop as Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, or Vince Young in 2006, he might have been pushed out of the first round entirely.  Smith had an uneven career before Harbaugh took over from Mike Singeltary as head coach.  It is widely believed that Smith will quarterback somewhere else next fall.

When it comes to professional talent evaluators, you would be hard pressed to find someone who is on the mark as GM Ozzie Newsome.  He is the architect of the Ravens and has done an exceptional job of finding players who fit the team’s system.  Newsome’s picks fit a blueprint; they have the mental and physical toughness needed to survive on Sundays. The prospects that the Ravens pick are not primarily workout warriors but guys who battle and possess elite instincts and intangibles.  Quite simply, the Ravens don’t reach for talent and they pounce on difference makers like Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed, and Michael Oher even though they usually draft in the bottom third of teams in the first round.  The worst first-round pick of the Newsome regime, Kyle Boller is no longer on an active NFL roster.  Steve Mcnair served as an effective bridge starter who gave the veteran Ravens a solid chance to win in 2006.  The 2008 first-rounder Joe Flacco emerged in this postseason and exhibited the elite arm ability to drive the ball and make every throw on the field.  Flacco may not have the movie star good looks of Tom Brady, the charisma of Cam Newton, or the self-depricating sense of humor of a Peyton Manning.  But, all that matters is that on Sunday, Flacco will be under center and the other aformentioned quarterbacks won’t be.

The Niners and Ravens have impressive running backs that were unearthed without the investment of a first round selection.  Baltimore picked Rutgers RB Ray Rice in the second round of the 2008 Draft and he took over for an aging Willis Mcgahee.  Four years later, the Ravens made a valuable third-round pick when they snared Temple RB Bernard Pierce with the 84th overall selection.  Both backs are solid and classy professionals and fit in well with the overall team philosophy of doing whatever is asked of them.  The 49ers waited until the middle portion of the 2005 NFL Draft to select Miami RB Frank Gore, a sturdy back who is blessed with tremendous vision.  He has been consistent in this league for a long time while some of his positional classmates from that 2005 class have retired (Marion Barber III, Cadillac Williams) or simply flamed out (Ciatrick Fason).

The NFL draft is crucial for achieving franchise goals and reaching the promised land that fans crave.  The organizations that miss on valuable, premium early-round selections are in a constant state of flux while their frustrated fans wonder if better days will ever be seen.  Strong teams like the Ravens and 49ers have a championship game appearance to show for their savvy drafting moves while their less than successful competitors have either unfulfilled expectations or pink slips to show for their draft-day snafus.