SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Joe Staley is No. 1 to the San Francisco 49ers - or to be more precise, the big offensive tackle was well worth their No. 1.
The 49ers are in for months of grief next year for their decision last April to trade their first-round draft pick in 2008 to New England. That pick will be awfully high after San Francisco's (4-10) unexpected struggles this season, and the unbeaten Patriots will add an elite prospect to their already-loaded roster.
But there was a definite method to the 49ers' madness. Coach Mike Nolan moved that pick and a fourth-rounder to get the Patriots' 28th overall pick, which the Niners used on Staley, a fairly unsung lineman from Central Michigan.
Eight months later, is Nolan is still glad he did it?
``Without question,'' Nolan said. ``What we'd do over is our record. ... Joe is a very good player. After watching the film of the other tackles in the draft, Joe is right up there.''
The 49ers fell in love with Staley at last year's Senior Bowl, and he has met every expectation from his first days in minicamps. Staley unseated Kwame Harris as the 49ers' starting right tackle before the final preseason game, and he has steadily matured into perhaps San Francisco's most consistent lineman this season.
Staley's coaches expect him to be the club's starting left tackle soon - probably next season, with oft-injured Jonas Jennings's future up in the air during his latest stint on injured reserve.
Though he doesn't have the pedigree of Cleveland's Joe Thomas, or any of the attention bestowed on the No. 3 overall pick, most observers think Staley already is among the elite linemen from last season's draft - and many agree with Nolan's belief that Staley was well worth that high pick.
``I think it was a good move, too,'' Staley said Thursday, laughing about the scrutiny he'll face. ``I feel like I've done real well comparatively to the other rookies. I felt like I did all I could do to prove the Niners made the right decision.''
San Francisco's coaches could see Staley's raw athleticism and surprising grace when they had a week of up-close looks at him while coaching the Senior Bowl. Staley began his college career as a 225-pound tight end, but eventually matured into a dominant tackle.
The 49ers also could see Staley's receptiveness to coaching - a key to turning him into an elite NFL lineman.
``I've put a lot of hard work into it,'' Staley said. ``I don't think it's been easy. I've really had to focus on my technique, which is something I never had to do before. I got away with a lot of stuff while I was just playing on talent at Central, and getting here, I've really made a lot of strides in my technique.''
He endured a typical rookie learning experience when the 49ers visited the New York Giants in October. Staley got starry-eyed about his matchup with Michael Strahan, one of his favorite players as a youngster - and Strahan had 2 1/2 sacks before Staley got his mind back in the game.
``I let Michael get in my head,'' Staley acknowledged. ``He's one of those guys that you always look up to. I've just got to play my game and can't worry about other people and what they're going to do. I've got to sound in my techniques and have confidence that if I do what I can do right, nobody is going to be able to beat me.''
After Strahan taught him the paramount importance of aggression as a pass-blocker, Staley has been nearly unbeatable in the 49ers' eight games since. He's even speaking up in the locker room and striving for a leadership role on a line that's been criticized for San Francisco's poor running game.
But Staley is still a goofy 306-pound rookie. He and fellow lineman Damane Duckett have a running gag in which they hang pictures of themselves in each other's locker.
``I like the guys I play with,'' Staley said. ``They're all good guys. I didn't like a couple of the guys I played with at Central. I actually couldn't stand them, but I had confidence they were going to get the job done. You don't have to like everybody you play with. You've just got to have confidence and trust that they're going to get the job done.''

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