The 2011 NFL Draft was Trent Baalke’s first under the official title of general manger. It was also his best draft class to date. While undoubtedly flawed, Baalke hit on star-caliber players at two of the most important positions in football with his first two selections. In the mid and later rounds, he added four quality role players, three of whom contributed immediately before going on to become starters later on.
Let’s run the 2011 class through a redraft and see how things hold up four years later. If you missed the guidelines for how I’m selecting players in the redraft, it’s outlined in yesterday’s yesterday's 2010 redraft.
Round 1 (7th overall): OLB Aldon Smith, Missouri
The selection of Smith represents the rarest of draft-day victories: securing a top-flight player at one of your team’s greatest positions of need, with bonus points for that position also being one of the league’s most important. Finding an edge player capable of providing consistent pressure on the passer had been a decade-long search for the 49ers. San Francisco’s pass rush was perennially awful for nearly all of the aughts, with their most consistent pressure coming from interior players such as Bryant Young and Justin Smith. From 2000 to 2010, the 49ers had just one player reach double-digit sacks in a single season — Andre Carter’s 12.5 sacks during his sophomore campaign in 2002.
Smith’s arrival in 2011 changed all of that. He recorded 14 sacks in a part-time role as a rookie, tying him with Terrell Suggs for the fifth-best total in football. Smith improved upon that mark in year two while taking over for Parys Haralson in the starting lineup, notching 19.5 sacks and proving to be a capable run defender in the 49ers’ base defense. Those 33.5 sacks bested Reggie White’s record for sacks in a player’s first two seasons, firmly establishing Smith as one of the league’s premier pass rushers.
Off-field issues have limited Smith’s impact over the past two seasons — he’s played in just 18 of the team’s 32 regular season games in that time — while also putting his future with the 49ers in jeopardy. San Francisco has already put themselves in position to easily move on from Smith should he misstep again during the final year of his rookie contract, and it’s difficult to imagine Baalke offering up an extension before Smith can prove he can make it through a season unscathed off the field while also returning to his 2012 form on the field.
Redraft Pick: DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
The top of the 2011 Draft was loaded, particularly on defense, and there are a number of quality players who come off the board in the picks following Smith at no. 7, including Tyron Smith, Nick Fairley, and Robert Quinn. That said, J.J. Watt is a no brainer.
Watt is the league’s best defensive player by a wide margin, and is arguably the most dominant non-quarterback in football. He’s disruptive in every aspect. In addition to being one of the league’s best run defenders, Watt has surpassed Smith in the rate at which he sends quarterbacks to the ground. Watt’s two 20-plus sack seasons is a feat no other player has accomplished, and his 57 career sacks are the most from this class. That’s not even taking into consideration the number of times he disrupts passing plays via quarterback hit, hurry, or swatting away throws at the line of scrimmage. Watt is skilled enough to rush off the edge, and he’s an absolute nightmare for guards on the interior.
Given Baalke’s distaste for paying players near the top of the market for their position, it would have been interesting to see if he would have given Watt the record-breaking $100 million extension he received from the Texans. Regardless, watching offensive lines try, and fail at a laughable rate, to handle the combination of Watt and Justin Smith over the past four seasons would have been entertaining as hell.
Round 2 (36th overall): QB Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
Even taking into account his flaws, Kaepernick has far exceeded the expectations many had for him entering the draft and is, at worst, the second-best quarterback from this class behind Cam Newton. The lanky kid who dominated a small conference operating out of a weird offense was considered to be a very raw prospect who would need significant time on the bench learning the NFL game and reworking his mechanics before he would be ready to contribute. Though it would take Kaepernick a season-and-a-half to get on the field full-time, his time came much quicker than most anticipated.
Since taking the reins as San Francisco’s QB1 midway through the 2012 season, Kaepernick’s performance has wavered erratically between breathtaking (2012’s Divisional Round game against the Packers) and vomit-inducing (2014’s Week 13 game against the Seahawks).1 With the ease in which the 49ers can rid themselves of Kaepernick’s contract, every season will ultimately be make-or-break year until he’s able to more consistently perform at a high level.
Redraft Pick: QB Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
There’s no one selected over the next 43 picks that makes the 49ers think twice about selecting Kaepernick. DeMarco Murray and Justin Houston are the biggest names to go off the board in that stretch, and there are a couple of quality receivers in Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith. But Kaepernick’s performance and the positional value of quarterback — plus the fact that Alex Smith had not yet completed his climb to mediocrity — makes him an easy choice in this spot.
Round 3 (80th overall): CB Chris Culliver, South Carolina
I wrote about Culliver a bit more in-depth prior to the start of free agency, but the former Gamecock is among the most underrated players from this class. Off-field problems and a torn ACL have certainly impacted his value, but when Culliver was on the field, he was the 49ers’ most consistent performer at cornerback. The final season of Culliver’s rookie contract was his first as a full-time starter and turned out to be the best of his career thus far. That banner year put him out of San Francisco’s price range this offseason, where he received a sizable payday from Scot McCloughan in Washington.
Redraft Pick: CB Chris Culliver, South Carolina
Enticing options at this portion of the draft are few and far between. K.J. Wright, Jordan Cameron, and Cecil Shorts are the most intriguing possibilities available to us with this pick, but none of them are enough to usurp Culliver.
Round 4 (115th overall): RB Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
Injuries have been the largest deterrent from Hunter carving out a more significant role during his four seasons in the league, keeping him off the field for one-third of regular season games during his career. Hunter has been solid on a per-play basis when healthy, averaging 4.6 yards per rush over 262 career carries, proving to be a quality outside runner and compliment to Frank Gore. After spending the final season of his rookie contract on injured reserve, Hunter opted to return to San Francisco on a one-year, prove-it deal in 2015.
Redraft Pick: CB Richard Sherman, Stanford
There’s no guarantee that Sherman would have developed into the shutdown corner he is today outside of Pete Carroll’s cocoon in Seattle, but he’s easily the best player available with this pick. Cornerback was a large need for the 49ers entering this draft — Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer were the team’s primary corners in 2010, and Carlos Rogers had not yet been signed at the time of the draft — and with Sherman and Culliver, they’re able to get two of the top options in this class.
Round 5 (163rd overall): OC Daniel Kilgore, Appalachian State
Kilgore got his first crack at significant playing time in 2014 after Jonathan Goodwin was allowed to leave in free agency. Prior to that, Kilgore’s playing time consisted of limited snaps in San Francisco’s heavy-OL packages. While his proficiency at the fulcrum of San Francisco’s offensive line has been greatly exaggerated by some, Kilgore proved to be capable starting center before landing on IR with a broken leg after seven games. He’ll be competing with last year’s third-round pick Marcus Martin — who had his ups and downs after taking over for Kilgore last season, but is a more physically gifted player — for the starting center job in 2015. Even if Kilgore loses that battle, he figures to be the team’s primary interior reserve, and could even potentially slide over to guard if Brandon Thomas fails to impress.
Redraft Pick: TE Charles Clay, Tulsa
With Delanie Walker still around at this point, the 49ers wouldn’t have had an immediate need for Clay, but he would have been the perfect replacement for Walker following his departure after the 2012 season. Clay is another Swiss-army-knife-type player capable of lining up in the backfield as a blocker, inline as a tight end, or split wide of the formation as a receiver. Like Walker, Clay has had some issues with drops over his career, and he’s probably a small step down as a blocker. But the drop-off from Walker to Clay in 2013 would have been minimal.
Round 6 (182nd overall): WR Ronald Johnson, Southern California
Baalke picked up the no. 182 overall selection from the Jaguars on draft day to move down from no. 76 to no. 80 in the third round (the pick that became Chris Culliver), and went with the undersized receiver from USC. Johnson wasn’t able to make it to his first regular season on San Francisco’s roster, and went on to spend small stints in Philadelphia and Seattle. Most recently, Johnson caught on with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
Redraft Pick: RB Jordan Todman, Connecticut
It’s slim pickings with only seven players selected until the 49ers next pick, but after passing on Kendall Hunter earlier in our redraft, I’ll give Baalke a running back here. Todman spent time with the Chargers and Vikings during his rookie season before getting signed off Minnesota’s practice squad in 2012 by the Jaguars. Matt Waldman had positive things to say about Todman in his 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, concluding that he had the ability to develop into a solid contributor, or perhaps even a starter. Todman has yet to see extended playing time, but performed well in limited carries for the Jaguars last season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry on 32 rushes.
Round 6 (190th overall): DB Colin Jones, TCU
San Francisco picked up this selection from Seattle in return for offloading failed first-rounder Kentwan Balmer. Jones lasted one season with the 49ers before getting shipped off to the Panthers for a seventh-round pick, where Jones has been able to find a role as a reserve safety.
Redraft Pick: OC Jason Kelce, Cincinnati
Kelce became a day-one starter at center for the Eagles, and has developed into one of the league’s best at the position. He offers a significant upgrade over Kilgore, and might have even forced the 49ers to move on from Jonathan Goodwin earlier than they did.
Round 7 (211th overall): FB Bruce Miller, Central Florida
Miller’s transition from the defensive line at Central Florida to fullback has obviously been a successful one. He took over for Moran Norris as the 49ers’ starting fullback very early on in his rookie season, and thanks to San Francisco’s run-heavy scheme under Jim Harbaugh, he has gone on to play more snaps than just about any fullback in football over the past four seasons. Miller’s efforts earned him a three-year contract extension prior to the 2014 season, likely keeping him in San Francisco through at least the 2017 season.
Redraft Pick: FB Bruce Miller, Central Florida
There’s no hidden gems to unearth during this stretch of the draft. Miller, especially considering his fit in one of the few offenses that has regularly used a fullback in recent seasons, remains the obvious pick.
Round 7 (239th overall): OL Michael Person, Montana State
Person made it one season on San Francisco’s roster as a reserve tackle, and has since taken a tour through the NFC West with stops in Seattle and St. Louis. After spending 2014 out of the league, Person signed with Atlanta in March and will be competing for a fringe roster spot.
Redraft Pick: LB Malcolm Smith, Southern California
It took a couple of seasons for Smith to find his way on to the field, but he certainly made the most of his opportunity once he did. Smith finished 2013 as one of Pro Football Focus’ top 4–3 outside linebackers, a season he capped with a Super Bowl MVP trophy. He fell off a bit last season, and after landing in Oakland as a free agent, he’s not exactly in the most ideal situation to have a bounce-back year. But with no other appealing options on the board, Smith is the clear choice with this pick. Smith is a better fit for a 4–3 defense than the 3–4 San Francisco ran under Vic Fangio, but could have potentially bulked up and became a reserve inside linebacker in the 49ers’ scheme.
Round 7 (250th overall): DB Curtis Holcomb, Florida A&M
Holcomb lasted two seasons in the league, one year with the 49ers and another with the Jaguars, but wasn’t able to make the trek from the bottom of the draft onto an NFL field.
Redraft Pick: DB Tommie Campbell, Pittsburgh
Of the four players selected after Holcomb at the end of the draft, three of them were still in the league as of last season. Campbell has received the most playing time for the three, the majority with the Titans, making him the final pick of our 2011 redraft.
OK, vomit-inducing might be a little strong but you get the idea. ↩