Mariucci's draft plans up in the air
Wide receiver J.J. Stokes could be on his way out.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci made his mark in the NFL as the Green Bay quarterbacks coach when Brett Favre became a starter.
If anyone values how much a top-flight receiver can do for an offense, it's Mariucci.
And if anyone knows how hard it is to defend the NFL's best aerial threats, it's Mariucci.
So while the 49ers coach won't say the names of players he hopes will be available in today's NFL draft (ESPN, noon) when San Francisco picks 27th, it's safe to say that wide receiver and cornerback are positions he'll be watching closely.
With 20 starters back from last season's 12-4 playoff team and two veteran free agents in the other two spots, the 49ers are picking for depth and to help fill future free agency losses.
Unless they decide to do something about the J.J. Stokes problem.
Stokes, as Cleveland Browns fans recall, was a first-round draft pick (No. 10 overall) in 1995. The Browns had the No. 10 pick, thanks to a trade that sent Eric Metcalf to Atlanta.
Bill Belichick, then-Browns coach, promised to get "an impact player" with that No. 10 pick.
Belichick coveted tight end Kyle Brady, but with the ninth pick, the New York Jets, who didn't need a tight end, stunned the Browns by taking Brady.
Belichick had a hissy fit in the Cleveland war room, forcing the Browns to trade the "impact" pick to the 49ers as time was expiring.
As part of the trade, the Browns were given the 49ers' No. 30 pick and took Ohio State linebacker and Youngstown native Craig Powell, who never made it in the NFL.
Seven years later, the 49ers feel they need an upgrade at starting wide receiver to help draw attention away from Terrell Owens.
Stokes has never lived up to the promise he showed coming out of UCLA.
Signed through the 2005 season with a salary of $3.75 million this year alone, Stokes is considered by analysts here to be the NFL's most overpaid player.
In recent weeks, the 49ers have circulated trade feelers about Stokes with no takers.
This year's draft is loaded with gifted wide receivers. Four of them -- Tennessee's Donte Stallworth, Hawaii's Ashley Lelie, Florida's Jabar Gaffney and LSU's Josh Reed -- are considered to be worthy of first-round selections.
If one of those four is still available after the 20th pick is made, the 49ers could engineer a trade up to get him, then release Stokes after June 1.
Otherwise, bolstering the defensive secondary seems to be the 49ers' biggest area of concern.
"We need to add to our linebacking corps, but our first priority on defense is in the secondary," Mariucci said. "We'd like to add to our cover guys back there."
The 49ers have been pleased with the work of third-year cornerbacks Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer, but feel they need an upgrade when they use a nickel cornerback.
"We've drafted a lot of players in the secondary lately, but we need to continue to do that," Mariucci said. "[Our division opponents], especially the Rams, have speed and some good four-wide receiver groups, so you have to have enough cover guys to match up that way."
Although the 49ers' pass rush struggled last year, Mariucci feels the free-agent signing of former Ram Sean Moran has eased that burden.
"Signing Moran added depth at defensive end, but we may add another defensive lineman through the draft," Mariucci said.
As for a draft-day trade, the 49ers are more likely to trade down.
The team doesn't have a third-round pick -- the NFL took that selection away as punishment for a salary cap violation four years ago when Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark were running the front office.
If the 49ers feel they can move down and still get a quality cornerback or safety and pick up a third-round selection, that move wouldn't be a shocker.
No matter who's available at No. 27, Mariucci is ready for teams to go on the clock.
"It's not the same [as regular-season games], but it's the next closest thing, especially Saturday," Mariucci said. "It's game day for organizations to be right.
"It's exciting -- I think it's exciting for the general public because it's on TV from morning until night both days," Mariucci said. "The TV coverage is amazing."