Starting from Scratch: Positions I Would
Pick First

By Bill Walsh

PSX Draft Insider Special



Here is the challenge before me: Pick five players from different positions to start a new team.

So the question is, which five positions would be most important to me?

It is an intriguing situation and I wouldn't be surprised if five different coaches went about this task five different ways.

And who's to say one way is right and another is not? After all, Super Bowls have been won by teams with decidedly different approaches to the game, both in philosophy and personnel.

Still, these are the positions I would fill first, in order:

1. Quarterback.

2. Pass Rusher

3. Safety

4. Running back.

5. Receiver.

In this make-believe situation I have been guaranteed I would get the best available player at each of these positions, thereby eliminating the necessity of comparing, for example, a fair middle linebacker to a good running back.

I know there are other philosophies that coaches believe are best. One is to build a good offensive line first, hopefully a great one. The theory there is that the offensive line will be able to control a certain amount of the game while you continually upgrade the other players.

There certainly are merits to this "trench" approach. Some believe that the health of the quarterback might be better protected. And if the line was physically dominating, the theory is that you could install a relatively simple plan to help control the clock, which is good for a new team on offense and defense.

Obviously if a team wants to be consistently great, it will need a great offensive line. But in this case we are talking about starting with nothing and becoming as competitive as possible as quickly as possible.

When we won our first Super Bowl championship with the 49ers after the 1981 season, our left tackle was a smallish (245-pound)Dan Audick. We're talking about left tackle, the position people believe is so important because it protects the blind side of a quarterback, or a right-handed quarterback at least.

Audick was a very intense player, but we had to make adjustments to account for his deficiencies and we were still able to go all the way. Yes, the offensive line is critical to become a consistent championship contender. But to become competitive initially -- sort of overnight -- here are the positions I would pick, and why:



I'm sure it surprises nobody that this is my first pick. You need a person who can engineer and who can manage the team. Sometimes his athletic ability isn't as important in the early stages of developing a team. It is to manage it well, with the least amount of error and allowing the team to perform smoothly.

Now the more gifted the quarterback, the more you can take advantage of his abilities.

We have seen great examples of quarterbacks who stepped in and almost immediately took charge -- Jim Kelly with the Bills; Troy Aikman with the Cowboys; Dan Marino even as a rookie with the Dolphins; and Warren Moon when he went from Canada to the Houston Oilers.



Hopefully, we are getting an outside rusher. We want somebody who can cover ground, has the explosion and quickness to beat an offensive tackle ... who has the upper body strength to beat that offensive lineman when he gets off-balance.

Lawrence Taylor may have been the best in the history of the game at showing this is an impact player position. When he began with the New York Giants in 1981 he immediately revolutionized the position of outside linebacker. Until he arrived, the most important linebacker -- sometimes the most important defender -- was the middle linebacker.

With the 49ers we had pass rushers who were crucial to our success. There was Fred Dean, who came to us from San Diego in 1981 and gave us that ingredient we needed to help prevent opponents from battling from behind. Later we drafted Charles Haley, one of the great pass rushers of his time.



You might think that the most important job of a safety is to be a pass defender. Of course that is important, but I want one who can clean up on broken tackles. He must be able to pursue and stop people if they break open.

Typically in the NFL it takes more than one man to make a tackle. Most often the ball carrier is going to partially break the first tackle. He's going to fall forward for two or three yards after he is hit. That's where the safety comes in. He stops that guy after the initial hit is made on the ball carrier.

We're talking about Ronnie Lott, who played with the 49ers, Raiders, Jets and Chiefs. Tim McDonald showed that with the Cardinals and 49ers. Others include David Fulcher of Cincinnati and Steve Atwater of the Denver Broncos.

Of course a safety must cover ground and make plays when the ball is in the air -- make additional hits on the pass receiver.

The safety position has become critical to football because those are the guys who make the hits, make the stops because they are most often unblocked. If they are big hitters and excellent tacklers they can stop a play at a four or five yard gain instead of a first down or more. And they can also hit receivers to the extent where they knock balls loose and they can really intimidate, like Jack Tatum of the Raiders in the 1970s.



The running back can make up for a lot of deficiencies. He can break tackles, he can make people miss, even unblocked people. If he has the power, he can fall forward for the extra yard. In that role, if that's all you had, you want a powerful back.

Of course, if he is also fast, has some elusiveness, that's even better. Add to that the ability to catch and reach full stride speed quickly and you have a back that can add a lot of versatility to an offense, and help the quarterback keep the ball moving.



First, you need a receiver you can count on to go to on third downs. Again, this is critical in maintaining a consistent offense and helping the quarterback.

Naturally, you would like him to be so gifted that he can make touchdowns, too, like Jerry Rice and John Taylor of the 49ers, Michael Irvin with the Cowboys, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth with the Steelers in the 1970s.

He must be able to make the key catch, the key play in critical passing downs. That typically takes the stronger athlete who won't be jostled and have the ball knocked loose. So he must be able to catch between linebackers.


That's five positions.

Now, how about a middle linebacker? Somebody like Mike Singletary?


All right, then, I'll take the five that I've been dealt and build my team around them.

See you on the field.