A few days ago, the guys at Niners Nation were nice enough to publish my article “What should the Niner do with the 12th pick of the 2021 NFL draft,” where I argued that the Niners should trade their first-round pick for a 2022 first-round pick plus whatever they can get in later round 2021 draft picks. A lot of comments missed the 2022 first-round pick. By the way, I appreciate all the comments, and there were a few nice unique perspectives. In a later article, I’m going to tell you exactly who they should target with such a trade and what players they will target in the draft, but today I’m going to break down why they should take this route, and in the process, I’ll tell you what separates this staff from past GM/Coaches.
Kyle Shanahan has given us every reason to be excited, and he’s been around a long time, but he has only been a 49er for a few years. He didn’t live through the Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly years like you, and I did. So, let’s look back at the most influential drafts of the past 20 years and see if we can learn anything that we can pass along to the man.
I know most of you will go one of two ways; 2007 or 2005. In 2007 we drafted Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Ray Macdonald, Terrell Brown, and Deshawn Goldson, but what are we supposed to say, “Draft really good players?” We usually learn a lot more from our mistakes than from our failures, and we all know what happened in 2005 when we drafted Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. However, I’ll be honest; I’m not the guy who can tell you how to separate the Payton Mannings from the Ryan Leafs coming out of college.
Instead, I’m going to focus on 2012 and, to a certain extent, 2011 and 2013. The 2012 NFL draft is what I believe was the downfall of Jim Harbaugh. If you don’t remember, I’ll post all three drafts below for your reference. Hopefully, it doesn’t ruin your day.
Wow! It still hurts. Joe Looney had a few decent years, but no team can be sustainable if they draft like this. I know anyone can have a miss in the draft, so I won’t waste much of your time, but they took AJ Jenkins in between Harrison Smith and Doug Martin, with Alshon Jeffery and TY Hilton still on the board. They took LaMichael James between Kelechi Osemele and Casey Hayward.
Try to keep in mind, they made so many trades up and down, left and right, through time and space, it would make your head spin. Clearly, Baalke had some mathematical formula he was following, and it had something to do with arm length and the moon’s position with the stars when the player was born, and it all came down to “Value.”
Every GM misses on players every year; even Bill Belichick missed on Brady before he actually selected him. But this draft was horrible, and in 2013, they weren’t much better. What happened?
Well, you could easily argue that Baakle had no idea what he was doing, but if that were the case, how to do explain the perfectly respectable draft in 2011, with Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and company. Culliver, Miller, and Kilgore all went on to play in the NFL, provided there was a lot of off-field trouble with this group, so he must have been able to spot talent.
Maybe he lost his damn mind in 2012? Insert Picture of Stanley from the office
That’s not it either; in 2012, they took Michael Thomas (the safety, not the wide receiver) as an undrafted free agent but didn’t let him play. Miami signed him off the practice squad, and he is still in the league playing for Houston and even more bizarre because the best value pick from the 2013 group was Marcus Cooper, who was cut before the season and went to play for Kanas City. Even Vance McDonald’s career took an upturn when he left town.
With the exception of the AJ Jenkins pick, most of the beat writers thought both drafts were decent at the time, with words like “Value” and “steal” being used over and over. So, what happened? Was Jim Harbaugh incapable of developing a young player? Absolutely not! We can criticize Jim Harbaugh all day, but he can develop young talent. He did a fine job with the 2011 draft class, and before that, he was involved with players like Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman at Stanford.
I’ve intentionally left out part of the story that I’m sure everyone must be waiting for me to bring up by now. The 2012 and 2013 Niners were probably the most talented rosters in the league, going to the Superbowl and championship game, respectively. Can you remember who AJ Jenkins would have had to beat out for the third WR position in 2012? Randy Moss. Even the best Wide receiver in the class probably wouldn’t have seen the field that year.
So why was Baalke constantly trading back to add more sixth-round picks? Even at the time, Ty Schalter wrote of the 2013 draft class:
“The San Francisco 49ers entered the draft with the shortest list of roster needs and the longest list of picks… I have a hard time seeing any of their third-day picks making the 49ers’ stocked roster.”
That doesn’t include that Trent Baalke himself also recognized the problem. There was no room for rookies on that team, and he addressed it by intentionally picking injured players so he could essentially redshirt them for a year. He seen the problem but really thought because he was getting “value” in the seventh round, he was doing a great job. A rookie contract is only 4/5 years, so you aren’t getting the same value if you take a year off. He should have done trade-off most of the later picks to either move up for a potential star or trade for a veteran.
What about Lynch/Shanahan? Do they understand this concept? Yes, they understand this very well. In 2017, the Niners drafted 10 players and brought in tons of UDFAs - remember the 2016 roster wasn’t spectacular – and even the day three picks were quite good (Kittle, Colbert, Jones, Taylor) because they all had a chance. Kyle learned from his 2019 selection of Kaden Smith, a decent player, but he wasn’t going to crack the roster. Therefore the Giant’s basically got a free player.
In 2020, the Niners only took five players, and two of those were first-round potential stars. After a Superbowl appearance, you use your late-round picks to trade up for Brandon Aiyuk, trade for a veteran superstar like Trent Williams, or fill a hole mid-season with Emanual Sanders. You don’t make trade backs for more late-round picks.
So, what do the Niners need this year? Right now, it looks like they are going to lose a lot of talent to free agency due to the current cap situation. Also, from the way they’ve had to deal with injuries the past few years, we don’t know how many players will perform week 1 and how many new injuries we should expect during training camp. For those reasons, it’s clear that this year, the Niners need another influx of youth in the locker-room.
The next article will show exactly how I’d go about drafting them. Thanks for your support, and I’d love to hear your comments.