Running an NFL team like an NCAA team

Since acquiring Jim Harbaugh years ago, one thing that I've noticed and really liked is that he remains in-tune with his coaching roots in the college game. Many times when there's an FA or a trade linked to the 49ers in the media, or a draft darling that seems destined to be a 49er, the article will mention that the player was coached by Harbaugh, or was recruited by Harbaugh, or snubbed Harbaugh's recruitment but had an eye kept on his progress.

This article isn't going to be informative at all, by the way. Just a rambling thought I've been kicking around. Succinctly put: if you've got stuff to do or are thirsty for knowledge, come back to this when you have time to kill.

So anyway, due to the tendency of Trent Baalke to trade players from the bottom of the roster, or picks, or players from the top of the roster, or anything really, to acquire new picks, to get new players, and trade those away for more (and keep the cream), but never really hit FA too terribly hard (aside from this year with the Bethea signing, but that's just good business), it really seems like Baalke is treating the 49ers team like a college team.

What do I mean by that? Allow me to explain. Basically, a college team gets a 1-4 (5 in certain cases) year window from players. Simple enough. Some get cut, that's the nature of the business. Some flash immense talent and leave early for the NFL, that's also the nature of the business. Then some stay through their senior year, and put as much into the team as they can, and then go on to wherever the wind takes them. Oddly enough, that's also the nature of the business. So no matter the situation, the nature of the business states that you're only getting a maximum of 4 playable years out of any player, no matter the talent or loyalty.

With that in mind, the entire organization needs to work hard to bring in as much talent as they can every year in order to cover for the perpetual loss of talent to attrition of any sort. One bad draft class can be devastating to a college team. One year where too many underclassmen declare with the upperclassmen can also be devastating, so having that constant upflow of talent is crucial. To this fan, that seems to be the mold that Baalke has formed his FO from.

Note: As I'm writing this, it feels like I'm just explaining the concept behind BPA, but I promise that there should eventually be some sort of point.

Let's take the idea of BPA and run with it for a while, I suppose. BPA is the draft concept that you take the best player available whenever it's your turn to draft with the belief that they'll find a way onto the field (Even though Player A is a position of need, Player B is a better player despite a logjam at that roster spot. Choose the talent, go player B). I'm not quite sure that this is the route that the 49ers employ, but it's not necessarily the opposite. The other school of thought is drafting for need, that's when you believe value is employed to a player based on how they'd immediately impact the roster (Player B is much more talented, but player A fills a direct need on the roster, go with the immediate need, choose player A). Again, I'm not sure that this is the 49ers game either. Rather, they draft seemingly capriciously somewhere between those poles.

Like any good market system, an NFL roster is built from competition, quality, and value. Some teams seem to be content with a player, then find a backup, and let that position fester until it's too late and a problem arises - be it financial or regression-related (Immediately I think of Peyton Manning & Curtis Painter). Some teams have a revolving door at certain positions that spins round and round for seasons and seasons, with the team dumping resources from FA and draft capital to no avail, while shorting the rest of the roster in hopes of plugging one gigantic hole (Immediately I think of the 2000's 49ers and 2000's Redskins QB quagmires). Again, the current incarnation of this 49ers team seems to reside at a happy medium between these ideals.

Edit: The idea behind this was supposed to be that teams with glaring needs spend so much cap space on FAs and draft capital to plug these holes, and then they get enamored because the new option is better than the previous, and they overcommit because the new is better than the old. Shortsightedly. They don't take the time to apply as much competition as possible, and realize that every position can always be better. This is something that the 49ers do well. I point to the secondary as my case and point, there's so much talented competition back there that the secondary unit just gets better year after year.

Except of course for WR, we've had a quicksand situation there.

Back to Jim Harbaugh and the quarterbacks, it seems like Baalke has found a golden goose in this coaching staff that helps him do what he does best - constantly plow through the roster for talent, depth, and external value. This 49ers organization seems, to me, to employ a college mentality to their roster - they don't seem to be willing to stand pat at any position, it feels like there's competition at every single level of the roster, from starters to backups to depth. It's almost as though they feel like players are guaranteed to "leave for the NFL draft" after a few years so they actively look for talent, even in spots of seeming strength. Certainly there are ways to convince me that I'm wrong, because they won't sign or highly draft an ILB for pretty obvious reasons.

Furthermore, like a college team, they don't hesitate to cut bait if a player can't hack it. Far too often you'll see a front office get trapped by a sunk cost fallacy with a highly drafted player or free agent acquisition, keeping them around for far longer than need be because of their initial investment. Certainly, it's not a universal truth (Jags cut bait with Gabbert finally, Bucs seem willing to unload Revis in a hurry), but I honestly believe that the 49ers value one roster spot much higher than upfront investment, to a much greater extent than any team in the league. Like a college team will cut a 5'8" fullback because he's just not that great, the 49ers have no problems dumping a first round wide receiver because he's not worth the roster spot.

LMJ is the "low-hanging-fruit" if we're going to debate that idea, by the way. Don't do it.

I think the reason I keep allowing myself to get sidetracked when talking about Harbaugh's contribution is because I'm fundamentally uncertain if what I'm thinking is even correct, but here goes. Harbaugh himself has shown an uncanny ability to squeeze water from rocks - of course I'm referring to QBs that other coaches can't find a way to work with. I'm referring to Alex Smith, and Kaepernick, and then the revolving door of Tolzien/McCoy/Johnson/BJD/McBLT, and now his new project of Blaine Gabbert.

I'm thinking this entire train-of-consciousness ramble-festival is my way of saying "I hope Gabbert pans out"

Anyway, Alex Smith was a dumpster fire. Harbaugh broke him down and engineered him into a stellar win percentage and a few 2nd round picks. Kaepernick was a "project" in the draft that he's turned into an 18m/year weapon. Every UDFA quarterback that Harbaugh has touched has found a spot on another team's 53. Now, Jim Harbaugh got himself a 1st round talent that he reportedly wanted in 2011. One who was widely seen as a better prospect than the "project" that he's now set to back up.

With a mad scientist as a GM who makes microtrades all offseason - Colin Jones, Cam Johnson, etc. - Harbaugh and his staff are able to coach up talent well enough that the GM has the ability to root around the roster, always finding some value in players. Rewarding the keepers in a controlled manner, finding external value in players on the bottom of the roster, constantly keeping a flow of talent through the roster and never allowing it to stagnate.

NCAA teams are forced to do this - they are allowed 4 years of play. But, it seems like Baalke is willingly employing these limitations to his roster in order to find the ones who deserve to stay, applying a sense of urgency in evaluation and coaching. I feel safe saying, as an observer, that no roster spots are definitively safe under Baalke's regime. There's no being grandfathered in, there's no cronyism. This sounds cruel and "Well that's just the nature of the business", but it helps the players as well. Quarterbacks WANT to play to Jim Harbaugh. Players WANT to come to the 49ers for the coaching and the chance to resuscitate their value, even on a poor man's 1 -year contract.

Like an NCAA roster, this 49ers roster is a living breathing thing. It's always changing, always evolving and growing. I guess the idea I'm getting at is that this isn't a BPA draft team, or a Needs-Based draft team. It's not a Kindergarten for hand-holding, nor a showroom for the gaudy. This isn't even an NCAA team where turnover is a necessity. This is a Coliseum, an arena for the talented to prove their worth. Maybe Baalke isn't applying a short window to his roster to force himself and his scouts into more efficient evaluation and roster movement, maybe the point is CONSTANT competition. A true meritocracy. The coming together of top notch personnel moves with world class player evaluation and building.

NCAA teams be damned, that was a bad analogy. [The word capitalism here is now removed because nobody cared to actually read it, see the word capitalism, and assume this was a political or economic thread. Sorry for including such a confusing word at the easily accessible conclusion.]

Damn I'm proud to be a 49er fan right now.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.

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