Ann Killion
Tuesday April 20th, 2010

The San Francisco 49ers are taking a risky approach to this year's primetime NFL draft.

Heading into the most important draft in years, they're flying without a general manager.

Oh, they have a guy who's the point person on the draft. His name is Trent Baalke and he spent 10 years as a scout before becoming the 49ers director of player personnel two years ago. And coach Mike Singletary is going to be heavily involved -- he even missed team organized training activities to go out on the road for a scouting trip and getting-to-know-you session with Baalke.

But a general manager? Nope. Not now. Maybe never.

"I don't know if we're going to have a general manager," team president Jed York said a few days after a "mutual parting" with Scot McCloughan. McCloughan was the team's general manager until his awkward departure just five weeks before the draft.

If the 49ers wanted evidence of what a bad concept the GM-less football team is, all they would have to do is glance across the bay to their neighbors in Oakland. The Raiders have been operating without a true general manager ever since Bruce Allen left for Tampa Bay in 2003. Allen's stability and credibility was never replaced and in the seven years since the Raiders have won just 29 games.

Most NFL teams need a well-defined general manager. A clear chain of command. Someone who can be the final decision-maker.

Apparently not Bay Area teams.

This is a critical draft for the 49ers. With the retirement of Kurt Warner in Arizona, the 49ers have a clear chance to seize the upper hand in the NFC West. And with three picks in the top 50, this draft could provide them the talent to take the next step and also lay the foundation for the future.

It's a potentially huge turning point for a team that hasn't finished above .500 in seven seasons. In addition, the franchise faces a critical vote in early June on a stadium measure in Santa Clara. The 49ers are hoping to build a $937 million stadium and asking for a public contribution of $114 million. So it would be a good idea to head into the vote looking like a capable, efficient team that's worthy of the public's trust.

A few years ago, the 49ers had a lengthy and comical discussion about who had "the trigger" on personnel decisions -- Mike Nolan or McCloughan? The debate became so ridiculous that it seemed that the trigger was a physical entity sitting on someone's desk. After Nolan was fired, there was no debate. McCloughan had the trigger. Now that McCloughan has departed, the trigger's location is again a mystery.

Baalke is clearly acting in the general manager role for the moment, so you could argue this is just semantics. But no one has given him the official title. And semantics and clarification of duties are important in any organization. The teams moving forward are generally the ones with a transparent structure and obvious accountability.

The 49ers have a lot of needs. The most glaring is offensive tackle, and the 2010 draft is rich with offensive line prospects. The 49ers -- with picks at 13, 17 and 49 -- have the means to get creative, packaging picks and to move up or down. They already made a positive move, sending their fifth-round pick to Miami for return specialist/receiver Ted Ginn Jr. That fulfills one of their biggest needs -- shoring up their pathetic return game.

Quarterback remains an ongoing issue for the 49ers. Though the team has publicly backed Alex Smith, Smith has just one more year on his contract to earn the team's confidence. This offseason, the 49ers signed David Carr. The recent draft buzz has the 49ers interested in Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen if he's still available at 13; York is a passionate Notre Dame alumnus.

There are a lot of big decisions to make for a guy who's only had five weeks to get ready and is working without the trigger or the title. Welcome to primetime, Trent Baalke.

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