The draft that gave the NFL Andrew Luck was also one of the weakest drafts in recent memory, both in depth and quality at the top. It’s no coincidence that 2012 also happened to be Trent Baalke’s worst draft class to date.
The San Francisco 49ers failed to find a single meaningful contributor from this class, and only one player even remains on the roster as we near the 2015 Draft. Let’s run through that draft again and see what could have been.
Round 1 (30th overall): WR A.J. Jenkins, Illinois
Jenkins’s failures have been well documented in this Internet space, and you don’t need me to recap them here. Opinions on the diminutive wide out entering the draft varied a decent amount, but most had him coming off the board some time on Day 2, in the second or third round. Scouts, Inc. and NFLDraftScout.com rated Jenkins as the seventh-best wide receiver in the class; Mike Mayock had him eighth; Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller slotted him at no. 11, but listed him as the class’s biggest sleeper; SBNation’s Dan Kadar put Jenkins a bit further down at no. 14. But the draft analyst with the most accurate projection of Jenkins’s prospects as an NFL pass catcher, at least that I found, was Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Waldman ranked Jenkins as the no. 36 wide receiver available and questioned his ability to make an NFL roster. (Note: Matt recently joined Oscar and myself on the Better Rivals podcast to discuss the 2015 Draft, so be sure to check that out if you haven’t already.)
Ultimately, the 49ers selected Jenkins at the bottom of the first round as the fourth wide receiver off the board, a move that looks like an even bigger reach in hindsight. It’s easy to understand why the 49ers wanted to add a wide receiver early in the draft — three months earlier San Francisco lost the NFC Championship Game in large part because they lacked receivers capable of defeating press coverage and getting open on the outside. However, the Jenkins selection turned out to be the rare instance in which Trent Baalke made one of the biggest draft-day no-nos a general manager can make: over-drafting a player at a position of need early in the draft from a class that is especially weak at that position.
The NFL Draft is a crapshoot and all general managers possess a draft record littered with mistakes. But through five drafts as the 49ers GM, A.J. Jenkins represents Baalke’s biggest whiff.
Redraft Pick: WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina
The wide receiver Baalke should have selected went 15 picks later to the Bears. Jeffery missed a large swath of time in the middle of his rookie season with injuries to his hand and knee, limiting his immediate impact. But in the two seasons since, Jeffery has put up an average line of 87–1277–9 and has become arguably the best wide receiver from this class (though Michael Floyd and T.Y. Hilton would certainly have something to say about that).
Jeffery would have given the 49ers’ offense a big, physical target on the outside capable of high-pointing the football and winning 50/50 passes, something San Francisco has lacked since Terrell Owens was in town. Thanks in large part to Colin Kaepernick’s explosion on to the scene midway through the year, the 49ers finished the 2012 season as the league’s fifth-best passing offense despite trotting out the likes of Mario Manningham and a washed-up Randy Moss as their top receivers behind Michael Crabtree. Adding a player of Jeffery’s caliber to that mix would have given an already effective passing game an additional dimension that Jenkins was never able to provide.
Round 2 (61st overall): RB LaMichael James, Oregon
James is the go-to example among a subset of 49ers’ fans who argue the previous coaching staff was incapable of integrating a speedy space player such as LMJ, ignoring the notion that he just might not be any good. More than half of James’s 53 career carries (including playoffs) netted two yards or fewer, contributing to his sub–40 percent success rate. Many of those carries saw him unnecessarily attempting to bounce outside and failing to get the edge before falling to the ground somewhere around the line of scrimmage.
There were a few moments over the final stretch of the 2012 season in which it appeared as though James might be finding his niche in Harbaugh’s offense — his 15-yard touchdown to kickstart a 49ers comeback against the Falcons in the Divisional Round of the playoffs immediately comes to mind. But James’s boom-or-bust style, featuring far more busts than booms, limited his playing time and ultimately led to his release early in the 2014 season. He re-signed with the Dolphins this offseason, and will likely be competing just to stay in the league come training camp.
Redraft Pick: CB Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt
Cornerback wasn’t a huge need for the 49ers going into the draft as everyone returned from a unit that ranked as the sixth-best pass defense in football the previous season. But the 49ers have consistently struggled to defend slot receivers in recent seasons and Hayward gives San Francisco perhaps the league’s premier slot corner. Even though he wouldn’t have been an immediate starter, in a league where nickel is the new base defense, Hayward has incredible value. And considering San Francisco has overhauled the cornerback position in back-to-back seasons, it’s safe to say Baalke would love to have Hayward on the roster entering 2015.
Round 4 (117th overall): OL Joe Looney, Wake Forest
San Francisco’s good fortune in health and continuity along the offensive line in 2012 and 2013 kept Looney from seeing much action during his first two seasons in the league. That good fortune changed in 2014, thrusting Looney into the starting lineup in four games and requiring him to play a significant chunk of snaps in reserve in three others. The results weren’t pretty.
Jonathan Martin was the rightful punching bag for many of the 49ers’ issue up front a year ago, but Looney was just as bad, he just didn’t get the same number of snaps to belabor that point. San Francisco is a bit thin entering the 2015 Draft at the interior of the offensive line, which might keep Looney around a bit longer if Baalke chooses not to add an extra body or two into the mix. But as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, barring a dramatic improvement in year four, Looney is likely to be looking for work sooner rather than later.
Redraft Pick: DE Mike Daniels, Iowa
Daniels was a 4–3 defensive tackle in the Hawkeyes’ defense, but has transitioned well to 3–4 defensive end with the Packers, where he’s developed into one of the league’s best pass rushers at the position. Daniels would have been able to take some of the heat off of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald — both of whom were still playing roughly 90 percent of defensive snaps at the time — potentially preventing them from wearing out and breaking down during San Francisco’s Super Bowl run. And with McDonald, and potentially Smith, no longer on the 49ers’ roster entering 2015, Daniels would be an improvement over the guys who remaining at the position.
Round 5 (165th overall): LB Darius Fleming, Notre Dame
Fleming’s NFL career got off to an unfortunate start. He tore is ACL at the San Francisco’s rookie minicamp, robbing him of a rookie season. During the following training camp, Fleming tore the same ACL a second time, causing him to land on IR for a second straight season. After the 49ers decided to cut their losses prior to the 2014 season, Fleming caught on with the Patriots. He spent the majority of the season on the practice squad, but did make his way on to the active roster late in the year where he contributed as a special teams player and earned a Super Bowl ring for his efforts.
Redraft Pick: WR Marvin Jones, California
There are a couple of other players worth considering at this spot but ultimately weren’t good fits. Jeremy Lane is available, but we filled our slot corner role with Hayward earlier. Alfred Morris is also on the board, but is better served in a zone blocking scheme such as the one he’s thrived in during his time with Washington. Which leaves us with Jones. As he showed in his second season with the Bengals, Jones has the ability be a solid complimentary receiver on the outside and represents solid value at this point in the draft.
Round 6 (180th overall): DB Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
Robinson’s stay with the 49ers was brief. He spent just one season in San Francisco, seeing limited snaps on special teams early in the season before becoming a gameday inactive over the final three-quarters of the year. He wasn’t able to crack San Francisco’s 53-man roster in year two, and after a short stint on Philadelphia’s practice squad, Robinson landed in Washington where he’s carved out a role as a reserve safety and special teams conributor.
Redraft Pick: RB Dan Herron, Ohio State
Like our previous pick, Marvin Jones, Herron was also originally drafted by the Bengals. Herron’s most notable contributions, however, came last season with the Colts where he saw limited action as a committee back before assuming a much large role once Ahmad Bradshaw went out for the season with an injury. Herron has value as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield, and though he’s not as good of an overall player as Alfred Morris (who we passed over with the previous pick), he’s a better fit for the 49ers power running game.
Round 6 (199th overall): OL Jason Slowey, Western Oregon
The small-school interior lineman was the only player from San Francisco’s 2012 class that failed to stick around for even one season, and was also the first out of the league. Slowey made abbreviated stops with the Raiders, Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League, and BC Lions of the CFL before deciding to hang up the cleats for good last summer.
Redraft Pick: DE Billy Winn, Boise State
Winn is another player that was a 4–3 defensive tackle in college who’s made the transition to defensive end in a 3–4 scheme as a pro. Winn hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with the Browns, but he’s one of the few players at this point in the draft who’s been good enough to stay on the field as a rotational player.
Round 7 (237th overall): LB Cam Johnson, Virginia
Baalke’s final addition to the 2012 class might also be his best selection of this draft, which isn’t really saying much. A medical condition caused Johnson to slip to the bottom of the draft, and he wound up spending the majority of his rookie season on the 49ers practice squad. He was traded to Indianapolis prior to the start of the 2013 season, but Johnson did manage to leave an impression in his final game in a 49ers uniform. Johnson recorded two sacks and blocked a punt, which he also recovered in the endzone, in San Francisco’s preseason finale, likely propping his value up just enough to allow Baalke to extract a conditional draft pick from the pass-rush needy Colts.
Johnson saw just north of 100 snaps as a part-time pass rusher during his first season with the Colts, and was in line to hold a similar role in 2014 before a torn triceps landed him on IR.
Redraft Pick: WR Jermaine Kearse, Washington
Kearse went undrafted before getting picked up by the Seahawks, but he’s more enticing than any of the players selected in the final 16 picks of the draft. Kearse’s ability as a big-play threat down the sideline would’ve been a welcome addition to a receiving corps that has struggled to stretch the field vertically in recent seasons.