SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Trent Baalke guided the San Francisco 49ers through the NFL draft for the first time a year ago, adding a few key pieces to a team favored to win the NFC West and reach the playoffs after a long absence. His top two picks became immediate starters on a revamped offensive line, and several others also made impacts as rookies.
In Baalke's second go-round, after a promotion to general manager, his moves this time will be an even bigger deal: San Francisco is in dire need of a difference-maker at quarterback. And this could be the best chance to find that person in a time of uncertainty with the lockout.
"It's a critical decision," Baalke said this week.
The 49ers have the No. 7 overall pick Thursday night. They likely will use that first selection on a defensive player, such as outside linebacker and proven pass-rusher Von Miller or cornerback Patrick Peterson -- the kind of shutdown defender the veteran unit could use in the backfield -- if either is still on the board. Or it could be reliable run-stopping linebacker Robert Quinn out of North Carolina.
But Baalke and new coach/former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh will have their eyes on all the talented signal-callers in this draft to see who might fit well into their West Coast offense.
Although San Francisco has extended an offer -- an "olive branch," as Baalke put it -- to 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith to return and compete for the starting job this year, the 49ers still hope to find their man of the future.
"Obviously, we need a quarterback," Baalke said. "When I made that statement, that the quarterback of the future wasn't on the roster. You simply look at the roster, and we have one quarterback under contract, and that's David Carr. So we've got work to do, whether it's in free agency, whether it's this draft or whether it's in a trade. We've got to figure it out ... I've got tremendous confidence in Jim and the coaching staff to win football games with whoever we bring in here."
A college star at Michigan and a first-round draft pick taken 26th overall by Chicago in 1987, Harbaugh played 15 seasons in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers.
During the evaluation process of potential draft picks, Harbaugh put the quarterbacks through a quiz in which he had them draw up plays and coverages to find out how they would handle different reads and progressions in the offense.
"If you have the DNA of a quarterback, you have the ability to figure things out," the coach said. "I don't think there's any one way to know if a guy's going to be a Pro Bowl quarterback, even a starting quarterback. There's a lot of factors, and I'm not professing to have all the answers. You do the best you can and you try to evaluate the quarterback like you do any other position."
Last year, Baalke selected right tackle Anthony Davis at No. 11 and left guard Mike Iupati six spots later. Both started every game for a team that underachieved and finished at 6-10 following a surprising 0-5 start. The 49ers haven't had a winning season since their last trip to the playoffs in 2002.
Filling in some missing parts through the draft is the only option, considering teams can't sign free agents during the lockout. The 49ers also hold picks in the second and third rounds and have 12 selections in all, most of any NFL team.
San Francisco has two core players locked up to long-term deals: linebacker Patrick Willis and tight end Vernon Davis. Baalke orchestrated those contracts last year in what became a productive first few months as the team's top personnel chief. He certainly showed something to team president Jed York, who this winter said he would launch a national search for a new GM and wound up elevating Baalke.
Then Baalke lured the biggest recruit of all -- Harbaugh -- to move a few miles down the freeway from Stanford four days after football's hottest commodity led the Cardinal to a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and a school-record 12 wins.
Everybody involved is eager to get going, and at this point, the draft is the first and only step until the lockout ends. York has vowed to return this downtrodden franchise to its glory days of the past when San Francisco was a perennial contender not only its division but for Super Bowl titles, too.
"We're doing everything we can to prepare for the season, and we're moving full steam ahead as if we're playing," York told fans in a call-in forum Wednesday night. "I'm really looking forward to seeing what Jim can do with this team. I know it's going to be very special."
With the unsettled labor situation, it's hard for Baalke to compare running this draft to last year's process after he took over top executive duties following the abrupt departure of then-GM Scot McCloughan. Still, there were experiences he gained.
"I think the No. 1 thing I learned through the process is you've got to stick to your beliefs. Every time you make an exception, you usually get burned," Baalke said. "I think you learn a little bit every year. You stick to the core values of what you're looking for."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press