The 1997 NFL draft was a perplexing one for the San Francisco 49'ers. The team hoped to find young players to groom at both the quarterback and tight end positions. It also needed to address problems in the defensive secondary, which had lost most of its depth through free agency. The Niners were also expected to take a look at finding a backup fullback and a return man late in the draft. But, the major area of concern figured to be the offensive line where the team desperately needed some new blood. Although San Francisco is strong throughout its starting lineup, it figured to take plenty of players to fill holes in the depth chart as well as begin grooming young players to take over for established stars. It came as no surprise that the 49'ers wheeled and dealed on draft day. What was shocking was that the Niners traded up in the draft rather than down. In the end, a team that needed a slew of young players grabbed just three in the draft in the persona of Jim Druckenmiller, Marc Edwards and Greg Clark.
Early in round one, the Niners targeted California tight end Tony Gonzalez as the prize on their wish list of potential draft picks. Current tight end Brent Jones isn't getting any younger and his backup, Ted Popson, is a free agent. The Niners talked with Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Dolphins about a deal that would have seen the Niners move up to the 15th pick in the draft to grab Gonzalez. Kansas City beat San Francisco to the punch though, trading up to the 13th pick where they nabbed the tight end. With Gonzalez off the board, the Niners were content to see what they could get with the 26th pick overall. Player personnel director Vinny Cerrato wanted to grab Druckenmiller with the first round pick, if Druckenmiller fell to #26. Team consultant Bill Walsh wanted to trade out of the first round and then grab Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer in round two while head coach Steve Mariucci was tempted to trade out of the first round and grab Cal quarterback Pat Barnes later in the draft. But when Druckenmiller did drop into the 49'ers' laps, Mariucci and Cerrato couldn't resist picking up the Virginia Tech prospect.
Druckenmiller was rated as the best quarterback in the draft once Tennessee's Peyton Manning withdrew his name from consideration. Druckenmiller possesses the size (6-4 1/2, 230) and arm strength that the scouts drool over. He's also proven himself to be a savvy leader in the Jim Kelly / Brett Favre mold. He's a quarterback with a linebacker's mentality. At Virginia Tech, he lifted weights with the lineman. The only questions about Druckenmiller are his age (he'll be 25 by the time the season starts), his mobility and his ability to run the west coast offense. But he is more mobile than given credit for (although he is no Steve Young) and he'll have plenty of time to learn the west coast offense as Young's understudy.
Perhaps the most confusing of the Niners' three draft choices is their second one--Edwards, a fullback out of Notre Dame. The 236-pounder reminded some scouts of former 49'er fullback Tom Rathman. The Niners must have thought so too, as they traded their sixth and seventh round picks to Philadelphia in order to swap second round picks with the Eagles and grab Edwards before the Carolina Panthers took him. What's confusing about this pick isn't Edwards talent, he was the best fullback prospect in the draft. But the Niners already have an established fullback (albeit one still recovering from a knee injury) in William Floyd. If Floyd is able to return to the dominating form he showed his rookie season (1994) when he earned the nickname "Bar None" the it is conceivable that Edwards will waste away on the Niners' bench. For now, Edwards fills a void as the team's backup fullback with Tommy Vardell leaving free agency.
The 49'ers traded up again in round three, swapping picks with Indianapolis in a deal that saw San Francisco send its fifth round pick to the Colts. With its third and final pick the Niners drafted tight end Clark out of Stanford. Like Druckenmiller, Clark will be 25 by the time the season starts. He's a good receiver who has improved on his blocking while at Stanford. His only downside is that he's a bit slow in the open field. Still, Clark should be valuable this season as both the backup tight end and the long snapper for the team. Eventually the 262-pounder will be counted on to replace the soon-to-be-retired Brent Jones. The selection of Clark likely means the team won't attempt to resign last year's backup Ted Popson.
With the selection of Clark, the Niners were out of draft picks having traded their fourth round pick to Miami last August for running back Terry Kirby and their fifth, sixth and seventh round picks to move up and grab Edwards and Clark.
The final analysis on the 1997 draft for the 49'ers won't be complete for probably two or three years. Druckenmiller was the key to this draft and he, hopefully, won't see any significant playing time over the next couple of years. If Druckenmiller continues the quarterback legacy set by Joe Montana and continued by Young, then this draft will be considered a success. But, if Druckenmiller turns out like the last quarterback taken by the Niners in the first round (Steve Spurrier in 1967) then this draft will have been for naught. In the short-term analysis though, it appears as though this draft was hardly a successful one for the team. This isn't to say that the Niners wasted picks on mediocre players, all three should become quality NFL players and Druckenmiller could very well pay big dividends down the road for San Francisco. But, the Niners needed help at both offensive line and defensive back. Both positions were well-stocked with quality players in this year's draft. San Francisco should have traded down to grab a few more young players that could give more immediate help with team depth while setting a foundation for the future. Instead they traded up to grab yet another young fullback. Edwards will be a great NFL player, but will he ever start for San Francisco with Floyd already manning the position? If not, then the team wasted a second-round pick that could have been used for the offensive line. The team now has its quarterback of the future, its tight end of the future and insurance against Floyd's knee injury. But it also still has glaring weaknesses on the offensive line, in the defensive secondary and in the return game. Mariucci may just wish he had some of those traded picks back come November if the offensive line suffers any kind of injuries.