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  • The importance of defensive linemen Justin Smith (third from left) and Aldon Smith (second from left) to the 49ers' success was clear during the 2012-13 season. In this year's draft, the team might pick a defensive end in hopes of providing backup to the two stars.

  • Missouri's Sheldon Richardson could tempt the 49ers to trade up in the first round.

49ers' abundance of picks raises the stakes for GM Baalke

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 5:05 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 - 7:34 am

SANTA CLARA - The 49ers enter Thursday's NFL draft with perhaps the most talented roster in the league and more selections than any other team.

That should make this year's three-day draft more exciting than usual - expect plenty of trades - and give the 49ers a rare chance to sustain their recent success for the foreseeable future.

For general manager Trent Baalke, it's an opportunity - and a burden. With so many picks, this year's draft will be scrutinized for years to come. If he hits a home run, Baalke will create a legacy. If he comes up short, it will be considered a colossal waste.

Five questions the 49ers hope to answer over the next three days:

Can the 49ers find an heir apparent for Justin Smith?

The last defensive lineman the 49ers picked in the first round was Kentwan Balmer in 2008. That experience was so unsettling that they've drafted just one defensive lineman since - Ricky Jean Francois in the seventh round in 2009. Instead, they've been content to fill backup defensive-line positions with undrafted players such as Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddie.

This year, though, the 49ers may have to make a stronger investment. Justin Smith's arm injury late last season provided a glimpse of what the defense would be like without him, and it wasn't pretty. Offenses gouged the 49ers through the air, and sack master Aldon Smith wasn't nearly as effective without Justin Smith next to him.

Justin Smith, who turns 34 in September, is entering the final year of his contract. If the 49ers trade up in the first round - certainly a possibility - it could be for his eventual replacement. A fellow University of Missouri product, Sheldon Richardson, could be appealing. And if Utah defensive lineman Star Lotulelei starts to fall, the 49ers could be the team that catches him.

How many picks will the 49ers actually make?

The 49ers have the most picks - 13 - in the draft. But they don't have 13 spots on their roster and no one expects they will make 13 picks. One scenario has them using some of those picks to make a bold move up in the first round.

The counterargument is that this is a particularly weak draft class when it comes to sure-fire, first-round talent. The strength of the draft is in the middle rounds, where there are an abundance of cornerbacks, safeties, tight ends and wide receivers - positions the 49ers likely will need to fill in coming seasons.

Would the 49ers move up in the first round and deal those valuable mid-round picks? They could do both. Their first pick in the second round, No. 34 overall, could be valuable for teams seeking a quarterback, and they could parlay that into more mid-round picks this year or perhaps extra picks in 2014.

Who will start at safety in 2013?

It's almost certain the 49ers will pick a safety over the next three days. One of their starters, Dashon Goldson, left via free agency last month, while the other, Donte Whitner, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Many of the top safeties in the draft, such as Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien and LSU's Eric Reid, are expected to be taken at the end of the first round or at beginning of the second. The 49ers have two selections in this vicinity. Also, they could use a later-round selection on a safety. The team has shown interest in Florida's Josh Evans, Nevada's Duke Williams and Oregon's John Boyett, The Bee's 2007 All-Metro Player of the Year from Napa High School.

Will the 49ers take a quarterback?

The 49ers aspire to be one of those teams that use mid- or late-round picks on quarterbacks, nurture them for a few years and then trade them for multiple draft picks. The question is whether this is the year to begin that process.

This draft's quarterback class is considered flimsy, and no quarterbacks might be taken until the end of the first round. Still, there are some who could tempt coach Jim Harbaugh, such as Arizona's Matt Scott, a mid-round pick, and Duke's Sean Renfree, a late-round pick. As Stanford's coach, Harbaugh recruited Renfree.

Where will "The Honey Badger" land?

The 49ers' abundance of picks means they might be more willing to take chances on questionable players.

The 49ers and New England Patriots have shown the most interest in cornerback Tyrann Mathieu - "The Honey Badger" - who was booted off the LSU team, reportedly because of drug violations. Mathieu was an exciting return man for the Tigers, and the 49ers could use one of those after losing Ted Ginn in free agency.

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320. Follow him on Twitter @mattbarrows.

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