Regardless of your feelings on how the past couple of months have shaken out within the organizational hierarchy, one thing is certain: the San Francisco 49ers are Trent Baalke’s team.
While most general managers get to operate from the shadows, with the head coach and quarterback receiving much of the public attention for the team’s performance, the events in San Francisco since the conclusion of the 2014 regular season have thrust Baalke firmly into the spotlight. Right or wrong, the perception that Baalke is now the unquestioned puppeteer of the 49ers organization, pulling strings that extend all the way down to the sidelines, means that he is the one who will ultimately be held accountable for the Niners' on-field performance going forward.
With that in mind, I wanted to go back and retrace the steps from Baalke’s first five seasons at the helm of San Francisco’s front office to see if we can identify any overarching principles that have defined Baalke’s tenure thus far. Looking back, there have been some clear trends in Baalke's approach to roster building and it all begins with the Draft.
Load up on Draft capital
Scouting and selecting players in the NFL Draft is an inexact science at best. Every year, teams do a mostly subpar job of determining how college talent will translate to the professional level. Even the teams with a better track record than most routinely miss players that appear to have clear, can’t-miss ability in hindsight, occasionally putting together downright poor draft classes. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that concludes there’s nearly no difference at all in the drafting ability of teams when taking a long-term view.
The smartest teams understand this. Rather than operating under the assumption that their evaluations are always going to be better than the rest of the league’s, they look to give themselves as many opportunities as possible to get it right. Baalke has a firm grasp on this concept — since 2010, no team has turned in more draft cards at Radio City Music Hall than the 48 players selected by the 49ers1 — and has used all of the avenues at his disposal to acquire additional draft picks. It’s no coincidence that the 49ers are consistently among the teams to pick up compensatory draft picks on an annual basis. And when draft day rolls around, few general managers have been as comfortable moving around the draft board as Baalke.
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Baalke’s ability to control the draft board was never more apparent than a series of three trades on the second day of the 2014 Draft. Prior to draft proceedings kicking off again, Baalke sent a 2015 fourth-round pick to the Bills for wide receiver Stevie Johnson. It was a surprising move — not because Baalke was buying low on a veteran pass catcher — because it was the first time he had traded away a future draft pick, a move he was used to being on the receiving end of.2 But he wouldn’t be without that fourth-rounder for long.
Baalke shipped off his second-round selection, No. 56 overall, along with a seventh to the Broncos to move back seven spots, adding a fifth-round pick and most importantly, a 2015 fourth-rounder. Mission accomplished, right? Not quite. Baalke immediately traded the second- and fifth-round picks he gained from Denver to Miami for the No. 57 overall selection, one spot below his initial draft position.
If that’s a little difficult to follow, let’s recap: Baalke added Stevie Johnson, a valuable second or third receiver in the prime of his career, in exchange for moving down one spot in the second round plus a seventh-round pick. That sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen.
This feel for moving around the draft board was a skill Baalke displayed from the start of his tenure. In the third round of the 2010 Draft, Baalke had his eye on a linebacker, but also had a need to add some additional picks after trading away his fourth-round pick to move up in the first round and select tackle Anthony Davis. The Chargers also happened to be targeting a linebacker when the 49ers selection was approaching. Perhaps knowing that the prospect he was aiming for was slipping due to character and size concerns, Baalke swapped third-round picks with San Diego while adding a sixth-rounder and a 2011 fourth.
The Chargers would select linebacker Donald Butler from the University of Washington. That linebacker Baalke had his eye on? Penn State product NaVorro Bowman, who the 49ers selected with the No. 91 overall pick. A lesser GM would’ve avoided the risk and simply selected Bowman at No. 79, losing the opportunity to acquire those additional picks. Baalke’s risk paid off and that extra fourth-round pick proved to be quite valuable the following year. With the Chargers’ fourth-rounder in his back pocket, Baalke sent his own fourth-round pick as part of a package to move up to the top of the second round in 2011 to select quarterback Colin Kaepernick.3
That example is why it’s so important to acquire extra draft picks. Not only do you want to give your team as many chances as possible to hit on a player, but that extra draft capital gives you the ammunition needed to be aggressive and move up in the draft when the right opportunity presents itself. And as Baalke has demonstrated, it gives you the ability to buy low on veteran players who for one reason or another aren’t happy in their current situations for the pittance of a late-round pick, a strategy that brought Anquan Boldin to San Francisco.
If history tells us anything, it’s that teams who have been able to maintain extended runs of success master the draft process. And it’s not because they are consistently able to pick better players than everyone else. Instead, they acquire additional draft capital, properly value those picks, and then use those extra assets to take advantage of opportunities that other teams cannot.
Target needs early
Acquiring extra draft picks is a necessary and important part of the process, but the realities of the league mandates that you actually find quality players with those picks lest you be out of a job. As previously mentioned, that part is a bit more tricky. Teams just haven’t been able to prove over an extended run that they are better at evaluating players than the competition.
From the very beginning, Baalke has maintained that he believes in a value-based approach to the draft, with talent coming first and need being secondary. When considering Baalke’s drafts as a whole, it certainly appears as if Baalke has lived up to his word. Despite that, Baalke has shown a clear affinity for addressing need at the top of the draft.
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In his first draft, Baalke took drastic steps to remake an offensive line that was a mess the season prior4 by spending first-round picks on tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati. Davis and Iupati became day one starters, and though each has seen his share of ups and downs, both players have been among the best at their position at various points of their careers.
The following season, Baalke set out to address a pass rush that was overly reliant on blitzing to generate pressure5 and featured only two players who managed to eclipse five sacks on the year. Baalke gave the 49ers a true pass rushing threat by selecting Aldon Smith with the No. 7 overall selection. Off-the-field issues have resulted in Smith missing 14 games over the past two seasons, but he has been dominate presence at one of football’s most important positions when on the field, recording 44 sacks in 50 career games.
The 49ers were desperate to find a complementary receiver to line up opposite Michael Crabtree after losing the 2011 NFC Championship Game in large part due to a receiving corps that couldn’t get open against a physical Giants’ secondary. It was here that Baalke finally struck out with his first-round selection, reaching for Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins at No. 30 overall. Jenkins struggled to get on the field during his rookie campaign, failing to catch even a single pass in red and gold before getting sent to Kansas City in a swap of disappointing pass catchers. The Jenkins selection has been emblematic of one of Baalke’s largest problem spots: evaluating the wide receiver position.6
After turning over the entire starting secondary in the past two offseasons, Baalke opted for a defensive back in the first round of back-to-back drafts. In 2013, Baalke traded up into the middle of the first round to select Dashon Goldson’s long-term replacement, LSU safety Eric Reid.7 Last year, Baalke added Northern Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward at the bottom of the first round to step in as the team’s slot corner and eventual counterpart to Reid at safety. While Reid has been stellar in his first two seasons, Ward struggled early on before having his season derailed by injury right as he started to find his stride. It’s too early to pass final judgement on Ward, but his improvement as the season progressed was encouraging and he remains a talented player.
While you’ll find that most successful organizations emphasize best player available at the top of the draft, Baalke’s need-first approach has generally avoided a major pitfall that plagues the league’s worst franchises: overdrafting or sacrificing assets to fill a position of need.
This partly stems from the relatively unique position among NFL general managers Baalke has been in during his tenure. Thanks in large part to two strong drafts to begin his run, along with a solid core of players already in place, the 49ers roster has been among the league’s most talented for the past several seasons. This has given Baalke the luxury of targeting top-flight talent to fill the few holes that required plugging without having to worry about a missed pick submarining the franchise.
For the 49ers to continue to be in that position, Baalke must hit on these top picks. With each passing season it will become more and more difficult to keep San Francisco’s roster flush with talent, but so far Baalke’s track record here is one that any GM would be envious of. Baalke has chosen Pro Bowl-caliber8 players with four of his six first-round selections.
Add depth to core position groups
Prior to running the 49ers, most of Baalke’s experience came studying under two of the NFL’s most widely respected personnel men, Bill Parcells and Scot McCloughan. Both evaluators emphasized size and a "build from the inside out" approach to roster construction, a philosophy that emanates from Baalke, particularly in the middle of the draft. In rounds two through five, Baalke has loaded up on three primary groups: offensive line, defensive front seven, and running back.
Though the 49ers top offensive lineman were all first-round selections, Baalke continues to restock the position with depth on an annual basis, selecting at least one offensive lineman between rounds three and five in three of the past four drafts. San Francisco was fortunate to have incredible health and continuity along the offensive line from 2011–13, so few of these middle round prospects were ever asked to step into meaningful roles. That changed last season, when veteran center Jonathan Goodwin left in free agency and five more 49ers’ offensive lineman missed time due to injury.
This led to players such as Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney, and Marcus Martin — all selected by Baalke in the middle rounds — building significant snap totals. Kilgore began the season as Goodwin’s replacement at the pivot and did solid work in the run game before a broken leg landed him on injured reserve. Looney started games at all three interior line positions over the course of the season. He had his fare share of struggles in those games, but in a league where only 46 players suit up on gameday, there’s value to be had in that type of versatility. And from the land of backhanded compliments, the line didn’t really collapse when Looney was in the lineup, which is about as much as you can ask from your eighth-best lineman.
It’s Martin and fellow draft-class mate, Brandon Thomas, who are likely to be Baalke’s most significant offensive line selections since Davis and Iupati. Despite getting beat out by Kilgore for the starting center position last offseason, Martin is the superior talent and the team’s center of the future. Thomas was one of Baalke’s medical redshirt selections and missed the entire 2014 season while he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in a April workout with the Saints. With Iupati potentially moving on in free agency, Thomas will have every opportunity to be the 49ers next left guard. The development of Martin and Thomas — along with Davis’s return to health — will play a significant part as to whether San Francisco’s offensive line can bounce back from a rough season.
On the flip side of the ball, Baalke has done a great job at restocking one of the league’s best front sevens with depth in the middle rounds and later. In his five seasons running the show, Baalke has selected seven linebackers or defensive lineman between rounds two and five, the best of whom came in Baalke’s very first draft. In many ways, NaVorro Bowman is the representation of all of the things that Baalke does well and is the single-best draft pick of Baalke’s tenure.
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Last year, Baalke landed a pair of starting-caliber linebackers in rounds three and five when he selected Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch. With a healthy Bowman and Patrick Willis back in the lineup, Borland gives the 49ers perhaps the best reserve inside linebacker in football and a player new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini can plug in with confidence should injury strike again. Lynch steadily improved as the season went along, eventually usurping Ahmad Brooks at right outside linebacker. Combined with Aldon Smith, Lynch gives the 49ers defense their best pair of edge rushers in quite some time.
Additions along the defensive line haven’t been quite as splashy, but Baalke has been able to find quality depth to occasionally spell Justin Smith & Co. Nose tackle has been a revolving door over the past several seasons, but the 49ers have continuously been able to plug in players at the position with almost no noticeable impact on performance. 2013 fifth-round pick Quinton Dial was the first of Baalke’s medical redshirt selections to make an impact on the field. Dial made his way into the line rotation at defensive end to begin last season before taking over as the 49ers’ primary nose tackle in the second half of the season. The man he filled in for, Ian Williams, happens to be one of Baalke’s few undrafted free agent success stories. Perhaps the most important defensive line draft pick Baalke has made is the player many peg to be Justin Smith’s eventual replacement: Tank Carradine.
It took Carradine nearly two full seasons to finally get on the field, joining the defensive line rotation for the final five games of the 2014 season. Carradine’s play was a bit shaky when he finally got an opportunity, mixing a few splash plays (he picked up three sacks in those five games) with moments when he appeared to lack the necessary strength to excel as a 3–4 defensive end. With Ray McDonald getting cut near the end of last season and Justin Smith contemplating retirement, Carradine’s development this offseason could have a significant impact on the field and will likely determine how people look back on Baalke’s 2013 draft class.
Baalke’s affinity for drafting running backs — he’s chosen one in the middle of the draft in each of the past four years — can be viewed one of two ways: 1) The 49ers have a team built to run the football (and will continue to be built in that fashion going forward) and Baalke wants to ensure there is always a quality back toting the rock, or 2) Baalke is using up too many resources on a position that has been devalued league-wide in recent seasons. Baalke undoubtedly believes the former, but it’s fair to at least wonder about the latter.
With Frank Gore continuing to defy Father Time over the past three seasons, the return on investment for Baalke’s running back selections hasn’t been great. Kendall Hunter gave Gore the first legitimate change-of-pace option of his career, but has now seen two seasons end due to a significant injury. LaMichael James gave us some brief flashes at the tail end of his rookie season, #notaboutfootball, and little else during his two-and-change seasons with the 49ers. Marcus Lattimore was unfortunately unable to complete his valiant comeback attempt from one of the most gruesome knee injuries you’ll ever see. It’s with the most recent selection, 2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde, that Baalke might have finally found a running back of the future.
If Baalke and Gore are unable to find a way to keep Gore in a 49ers’ uniform for the twilight years of his career, it will likely be Hyde who will take over as San Francisco’s primary ballcarrier.
Baalke has hardly hit on all of these middle round picks. At the same time, it’s hard to argue that offensive line, running back, and the front seven haven’t been the strongest portions of the 49ers’ roster over the past four seasons. And given Baalke’s focus on ensuring there is always young talent to develop at these positions, it’s likely to remain that way for as long as Baalke is calling the shots.
Supplement with free agency
Baalke doesn’t quite follow the free agent blueprint of teams like the Packers and Steelers, who basically opt to forego free agency entirely, but it’s clear that Baalke views free agency as a supplemental avenue of player acquisition. If the Draft is where Baalke builds the interior of the roster — focusing primarily on positions such as the offensive and defensive lines, linebacker, and running back — then free agency is where he fills in the edges with cheap, veteran talent.
Of the notable free agent signings Baalke has made in the past five seasons, the majority have been wide receivers or defensive backs, with nearly all of them signed to one- or two-year deals that netted them next to nothing in the way of guaranteed money. In most instances, these players failed to move the needle, served out their one-year contract, and went their separate ways the following offseason, costing Baalke and the 49ers essentially nothing in the process. But on a few occasions, Baalke was able to land a talented player at the low point of his value.
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Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers, both former top ten draft picks who had worn out their welcomes with the team that drafted them, were key components of San Francisco’s rebuilt secondary in 2011. When Whitner flipped his success with the 49ers into a payday with the Browns this past offseason, Baalke signed Antoine Bethea for 57 cents on the dollar. Many considered Bethea to be a player on the downside of his career and a downgrade from Whitner. Bethea was not only an improvement over Whitner, especially in coverage, he was named team MVP and was the most consistent performer on the league’s fifth-best defense.
The additions at wide receiver have been numerous, but most have fallen into the failed to move the needle category. Baalke brought in Braylon Edwards, Randy Moss, Marlon Moore, and Brandon Lloyd for brief stints over the past four seasons. Moss and Lloyd had their moments, but none of them provided the downfield threat in the passing game that the 49ers had hoped they might. Combined, those four receivers posted a line of 58–915–4 across 45 games in San Francisco.
Despite the fact those players produced so little on the field, the downside was so minimal that it’s hard to consider those moves failures. Baalke invested almost nothing in those signings — all four players were signed to one-year deals with no guarantees. Each were examples of low-risk, high-reward signings that you want to comprise the bulk of your free agent acquisitions as a general manager. If it works out, you get to reap the benefits at a cost below-market value. If not, you’re able to move on without compromising the long-term financial situation of the organization.
In the rare instances in which Baalke has handed out a multi-year deal with guaranteed cash attached to it in free agency, it’s almost universally worked out in the 49ers favor. Whitner and Jonathan Goodwin both signed three-year deals in the 2011 offseason and remained productive players for the duration of those contracts. Craig Dahl also got a three-year deal, albeit with only $700,000 in guarantees, and will likely finish out that deal in the coming season as the team’s primary reserve safety.
Bethea is the latest to secure a multi-year contract from Baalke in free agency, signing a four-year deal last year. If Bethea’s first season is any indication the 49ers won’t come to regret that deal anytime soon, but even if things turn south, Baalke can cut ties with the veteran safety with minimal cap penalties after 2015.
The biggest flaw I can find with Baalke’s free agent signings has been his insistence on paying a premium for veteran kickers. David Akers and Phil Dawson have both been given multi-year contracts that made them one of the ten highest-paid kickers in football. Each of them had strong debut seasons with the 49ers and proceeded to fall off significantly in their follow-up campaigns.9
This type of inconsistency on a year-to-year basis isn’t unique to Akers and Dawson. Kickers simply don’t get enough attempts in a single season to exhibit their true ability level, leading to field goal percentages that vary wildly from one season to the next. Kickers are among the easiest positions in football to replace and it’s just not worth paying them top dollar.
Ultimately, neither of the contracts handed out to Akers or Dawson were crippling and it feels a bit nitpicky to even bring them up. If the worst thing you’re doing in free agency as a general manager is throwing a couple million extra dollars to a veteran kicker, you’re probably doing alright.
There’s not a single free agent brought in by Baalke that would be considered a splashy move, as Baalke has completely avoided the top tier of free agents during his tenure. In fact, very few of his free agent signings have made a significant impact at all. But the goal should never be to win free agency. It’s rare that teams who spend top dollar on the best available free agents are happy they did so even a year or two later. Franchises that spend an extended stretch of time at the bottom of the standings have a tendency to repeat these types of mistakes over and over, getting lured in by the free agents from hell. Baalke has avoided that pitfall entirely and the 49ers have been better off for it.
Identify and extend homegrown talent
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Internal scouting has been perhaps Baalke’s greatest skill. Baalke has an incredible feel for identifying core, homegrown players with whom he’s going to build his roster around and then locking those players up to long-term deals that look like bargains just a year or two into the contract. Some of those decisions have been easy; the first two players Baalke inked to long-term extensions were Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis. Far more impressively, Baalke has a remarkable track record at identifying players even before they’ve had a chance to make much of an impact on the field.
Alex Boone and Ray McDonald had little in the way of meaningful snaps at the time they received their extensions. Eager for some financial security and lacking the leverage to test the open market due to the lack of exposure to the 31 other NFL franchises, Baalke would sign both Boone and McDonald to deals they would outperform almost immediately. Ditto for Ian Williams and Daniel Kilgore, though to a lesser extent. NaVorro Bowman was extended after just one season as a starter, with Baalke trading the final two seasons of Bowman’s rookie deal that would have paid him a pittance for a deal that now leaves one of the league’s best defenders outside of the top ten highest-paid players at his position.
The work Baalke has done in extending his starting tackles could be considered criminal. Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are both signed through the end of the decade and have been among the most consistent performers at their positions over the past several seasons. And somehow, neither are even among the top 25 highest-paid tackles, something that will look better and better with each passing season.
It's impossible to mention Baalke's extensions without bringing up the Colin Kaepernick deal. Throughout Baalke's tenure, the 49ers have never been forced to pay anywhere near top dollar at the quarterback position, benefiting from Alex Smith's cheap extension and Kaepernick's cost-controllled rookie deal. This luxury has allowed Baalke to reallocate millions of dollars to other positions.
When Kaepernick led the team to consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances, it appeared all but certain that luxury would disappear when it came extension time. Yet, once the shock from the initial numbers wore off – 6 years, $114 million – what was left was an inexpensive deal that didn't even put Kaepernick among the top 20 quarterbacks in terms of guaranteed money. It was the perfect deal for a young quarterback who has been as inconsistent as Kaepernick. If Kaepernick performs like a top signal caller, he'll get paid like one; if he fails to develop, Baalke has a built-in out prior to every season.
Even with the success Baalke has had in locking up the core of the 49ers roster at team-friendly costs, some of his best decisions have been on the players he didn’t extend. Bad general managers will often overpay to keep homegrown players rather than run the risk of replacing him with an unknown commodity. This fear of the unknown doesn’t appear to be a factor in Baalke’s decision-making process. If a player winds up commanding more on the open market than the value Baalke has assigned to that player, he’s shown time after time that he’s willing to move on to the next man up.
Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner both desired to be among the top paid safeties in football, a price Baalke was unwilling to pay. Recognizing that nose tackle wasn’t a critical position in the 49ers’ defense, Baalke had no issues allowing the likes of Aubrayo Franklin and Isaac Sopoaga to take pay raises with other teams. And when Takeo Spikes was coming off his second consecutive strong campaign back in Baalke’s first offseason running the show, he was allowed to leave in free agency. All of these players wound up getting overpaid by other teams and none performed at the same level once they left the comfy confines of Patrick Willis & Co.
By staying away from overpaying this middle class of players, Baalke has kept the 49ers out of salary cap hell and had the necessary funds to extend the Bowmans, Willises, and Staleys of the world.
Baalke’s tenure hasn’t been without the occasional misstep. If you’re forming an anti-Baalke argument, there are several things that you could point to, many of which I’ve touched on at various points above. By investing heavily at positions such as running back, inside linebacker, safety, and kicker, Baalke has put a good amount of his resources into positions that have been devalued by the majority of teams around the league. He’s struggled evaluating the wide receiver position and at times has seemed nearly incapable of adding quality players to the position via either the draft or free agency. And his 2012 draft class was legitimately awful, failing to produce even a single notable contributor.
Baalke has been able to overcome these mistakes in large part because understands what Grantland’s Bill Barnwell has referred to as the two most fundamental processes an NFL organization needs to get right: valuing and evaluating. Whether it be in the draft, free agency, or extending homegrown talent, Baalke has consistently shown the ability to properly value his assets. It’s this value-based approach that has led to Baalke accumulating the league’s highest number of draft picks over the past five seasons, the numerous team-friendly contracts he’s handed out to San Francisco’s top players, and complete absence of a cap-crippling transaction throughout his tenure.
With a number of key pieces likely to move on, not to mention the coaching staff makeover, the 49ers are facing more unknowns this offseason than any other point during the past five seasons. And any time there are that many questions marks, it’s naive to assume they will all work out positively. Missteps are inevitable. Baalke has shown comfort navigating the unknown in the past by sticking to core tenets that have defined successful organizations for decades. And if the 49ers continue to put together winning seasons following the turmoil that has surrounded the franchise for the past 12 months, they will have Baalke to thank.
The Eagles and Seahawks have also selected 48 players over that time frame. ↩
Since 2010, only the Browns have acquired more future draft picks than the six added by Baalke during his tenure. ↩
Baalke selected running back Kendall Hunter with the Chargers’ fourth-round pick. ↩
In 2009, the 49ers finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, which attempts to separate the offensive line’s contributions to the running game from the running back, and 26th in adjusted sack rate. ↩
According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, the 49ers rushed five or more defenders on 31 percent pass plays in 2010. ↩
Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, and Rueben Randle were all taken in the two rounds following the Jenkins pick. ↩
Baalke used an extra third-round pick he had gained from the Panthers by trading out of the fourth round the year prior in addition to the 49ers’ own first-round pick to move up. Again, this asset acquisition thing is important. ↩
Pretend for a moment that the Pro Bowl actually means something. ↩
Akers made 85 percent his attempts in 2011, setting an NFL record for field goals made; he made just 69 percent of attempts in 2012 leading to his release. Dawson was given a contract extension after converting 89 percent of his kicks in 2013; he made 80 percent of his kicks in 2014, the ninth-worst rate among qualifying kickers. ↩