SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Now that the San Francisco 49ers' offense is finally respectable after two years of drafting and teaching and patient building, almost everyone thinks Mike Nolan will take the same approach with his defense.
The third-year coach has won 11 games in his first two years with the Niners - and he's probably made even fewer substantial, definitive statements about his plans for the future.
And Nolan's caution is grounded in good reason. Both in public and in private, he refuses to lock himself into drafting for a particular need for a club that's been through four straight losing seasons. The 49ers still need help in many place, and Nolan still plans to pick the best available player.
``We're not at the point where we just need one specific thing,'' Nolan said. ``That will be a nice spot to get into at some point, but we certainly don't think that way today.''
But stats don't lie in this case: seven of Nolan's top eight picks over the last two springs were used on offensive players. San Francisco's defense clearly could use a boost even after a free-agent spending spree that landed cornerback Nate Clements and three more potential starters.
Nolan knows a space-eating defensive tackle or a hard-hitting linebacker will be available when the 49ers use the 11th overall pick. Yet San Francisco still has other needs, such as a topflight receiver or an offensive lineman, that could be addressed high.
``Most of our draft choices thus far have gone on the offensive side of the ball,'' Nolan said. ``But we will take the best available player. I would like to think that if it comes our way that a defensive player would possibly be there, then we would like to do that. But at the same time, we won't shove fellas up the board because of a need factor.
``We're still in need of as many good football players as we can have. I would rather work on the best player, rather than the depth of our football team. I think the depth will create itself.''
That should be good news to fans of the 49ers, who have a history of failing with ``need'' picks. Former general manager Terry Donahue usually used his top pick on what he thought was the best available player at the position he targeted, and most of those players flopped, from defensive tackle Reggie McGrew in 1999 to receiver Rashaun Woods in 2004.
Though Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan love to discuss the flexibility and preparation that allowed them to snag Frank Gore with a third-round pick two years ago, McCloughan said the 49ers' high pick will allow them to be ``pretty specific'' about who they get. Many think they'll be after a future defensive star.
Nolan wouldn't acknowledge any plan to draft players to fit the 3-4 scheme he intends to employ in full force next season. But most of the players commonly linked with the 49ers would fit that profile.
Arkansas defensive end Jamaal Anderson, Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch, Mississippi linebacker Patrick Willis and Nebraska lineman Adam Carriker all should be drafted around the 49ers' pick, and all four have intrigued the club.
``(Anderson) is an interesting guy because of his basketball background,'' McCloughan said. ``He is very unique, because those younger big-body guys can grow and keep their quickness and athleticism. You want big defensive linemen because they can play throughout the season. Adam Carriker can, as well.''
But unlike last year, Nolan doesn't expect his first-round pick to be an automatic starter. He will have to win a job in training camp from one of the 22 starters already penciled into Nolan's lineup.
Both of last season's first-round picks became immediate contributors, though injuries and inexperience made their impacts minimal. Tight end Vernon Davis essentially was made a starter on the day he was selected, and linebacker Manny Lawson quickly took over a starting position.
But all the debate about the 49ers' defensive needs could be erased if a top offensive line prospect such as Penn State tackle Levi Brown is available. The 49ers' defensive needs then could be addressed with later-round picks, something Nolan and McCloughan have done fairly successfully so far.
McCloughan takes a particular interest in making good use of those picks, looking for players who ``will be productive players for four to five years,'' he said.
``The draft is critical,'' Nolan said. ``Scot and I both believe it's really what the 49ers will be built around. We'll supplement our football team through free agency and some other things, but the draft needs to be an area that we are successful in every year.''

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