I haven’t seen Baalke’s name mentioned once in our 3-1 start, so I thought I’d do a little review of the decisions he’s made and give some credit where credit is due. I hopefully won’t be flamed as hard on the grades as Baalke was flamed before the season, but I’m going to temper the grades with how I feel we’re set up for the long term (see: Secondary). Without getting overly optimistic on a small sample size, I think there’s a good indication that Baalke knows what he’s doing. If he can keep getting quality players that fit the scheme of Harbaugh and the coaching staff, then we’ll be in a good position long term. I appreciate that Baalke hasn’t felt the pressure to overspend on big names early, which probably would have hurt Harbaugh’s career in SF.
Analysis and grades after the jump...
Secondary - Grade: C+
I think many people reasonably questioned the glut of quantity over quality at safety, even though all the signings were reasonably priced. The depth has proven necessary, with some nagging injuries overcome by a rotation of veterans. Goldson looks better than he played in 2010. Cutting Mays was probably the right thing to do, as much as it makes the Niners look foolish. It takes marbles to admit that kind of mistake without throwing Singeltary under the bus.
I was scared to death early that nobody would be signed to replace Clements, but the acquisition of Rogers has been huge. Long term, I’m not sure much has been done to help us at CB, since Rogers is here on a 1 year contract and the opposite side of the field is shaky. Maybe Culliver will have the long term impact many people are optimistic about.
The secondary has been burned quite a bit, but the Niners have managed to close games the secondary would blow in previous years (outside of the Cowboys game, obviously). Right now, I’m going to be cautious about overestimating a unit that may be getting carried by the front 7 (i.e. Justin Smith stopping the Eagles).
Linebackers - Grade: A
I know we all liked Takeo, but so far the decision to trust the job to Bowman has been beyond reproach. The guy has been at absolute monster. Brooks and Haralson have been solid playmakers and we have some solid vets to back them up should the worst happen. But, that brings me to the newest A. Smith. So far, Aldon has shown tremendous upside and was probably our most effective player at disrupting Vick.
It doesn’t seem that Willis has made many big impact plays yet, but this is probably a good thing. The best LB is in the league is going to get his. We might be set at LB for the next 5 years with this young crew. Manny who?
D-Line - Grade: B+
I think it’s safe to say the only people missing Franklin at this point are the doughnut vendors (just kidding Aubrayo!). Seriously though, Baalke took some heat for trusting the line to McDonald and Soap as full time starters. The unit is stuffing the run effectively and producing turnovers. I don’t think I even need to comment about Justin, but Maclin is going to regret that fumble for quite a while. Depth might be a concern, but I feel pretty confident with RJF. We have a big test this week against the Bucs and some other big rushing teams later in the season (i.e. Giants and Ravens).
WR/TE - Grade: B-
Do the receivers not produce because of the QB? Or does the QB not produce because the receivers aren’t making plays? Without even bringing the offensive line protection into the mix, we have a serious chicken and egg debate. Signing Braylon to an inexpensive one year contract was a good move. Saving some money on Ginn was a savvy move as well. Regardless of whether Braylon stays beyond 2011, I think Baalke has a talented group for the coaching staff to develop. Sustained improvement from the receiver (less drops please), QB and O-Line will make people reevaluate what is generally considered a weak point. I know a lot of people like Delanie Walker, but he scares the crap out of me with his propensity for carelessness with the football. Oh and please get the ball to Vernon regularly. He’s a boss.
O-Line - Grade: C-
By far the biggest weakness on our team, I struggle on this rating because of three factors. First, the unit has been nothing short of horrid with penalties, blown assignments, etc. Secondly, will the high draft picks gel and produce long term? Third, could we have done better in free agency? We had the cap room to throw a few more dollars at Kreutz, even if we resigning Baas was not an option. Yes Bass is overpaid, but if a reliable center directing our young line is what stands between us and the playoffs (or a playoff win), then I don’t think anyone is going to feel good about settling for Goodwin. Goodwin looks old and slow. Right now, I don’t feel that I can give a lot of credit for future development. Chilo sucks and Davis concerns me. Iupati’s solid play and hoping Davis or another prospect turns it on is the only thing between me and a D.
RB/FB - Grade: B+
Sometimes you need the ball to bounce your way. You got a little lucky here Baalke, with Moran Norris injured. My only criticism is that you didn’t replace him before the season, but the coaches may have influenced you. Or Gore threatened to steal your lunch money. Anyways, I think you gave a fair extension to keep Gore happy, which he deserved. I know some disagree here, but you didn’t throw the farm at Gore. Miller is filling in nicely for Sergeant Whiff.
Hunter looks like a great draft pick and Dixon is a solid prospect as well, even if he doesn’t stay long term. I think he’s good enough to get more playing time on another team right now and this will probably be determined by Gore’s status come contract time for Dixon. Can Dixon play some FB?
QB - Grade: B
There really wasn’t any better option than keeping Alex, but you could have bungled it and left us in a much worse situation. I’ll say the play of McNabb, Tavaris and Kolb has been nothing to write home about. So far, Alex is playing above average ball and dare I say it, we may be extending him again next year if he continues to play well. Moving up in the draft to take Kaepernick ahead of AZ was an excellent move. We may have our QBOTF, especially if we don't have to rush him early in his career. We’re rolling the dice without a vet backup, but hopefully Alex can stay healthy. Thanks for not running Alex out of town.
Special Teams - Grade: A
How did this go from a liability to strength so quickly? Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re not fumbling the punt returns with regularity, but we’re making some big plays in the return game and coverage is consistently solid. Adding role players and improving our depth at almost every position has translated well to our talent level on special teams. In the kicking game, Akers was a great signing to avoid a drop off from Nedney and Lee continues to kill it. I think coaching has something to do with it as well…
Coaching - Grade: A
Home run so far and I’m impressed that you’ve maintained clear accountability for personnel decisions. I’m not saying Harbaugh wanted more control, but overburdening a new coach can be a really bad decision. Here’s looking at you, Broncos. We kept the coaches worth keeping and brought in experience across the board to support Harbaugh. We’re all hoping to see some continuity from our coaching staff going forward.
I hope this has been worth your time to read. It was fun to write and reflect. Keep up the good work Baalke.