Grading Trent Baalke’s tenure as 49ers GM (updated with 2015 moves)

Trent Baalke San Francisco 49ers

Trent Baalke is the most important figure on the 49ers … other than Jed York, who can fire him at any time. Baalke both possesses and wants to maintain all power over personnel matters, including who’s on the active roster and how they’re being coached during the week. Throughout the 49ers’ search for a head coach, one theme kept coming up: those who want some degree of roster control either wouldn’t be interested or wouldn’t make the cut.

Which begs the question: Does Baalke deserve the power he wields?

A year ago I took a thorough look at every personnel move Baalke has made since becoming the team’s GM. I gave him a letter grade for each draft, each year’s free agency class, and each year’s set of trades. Then I averaged each mark over five years.

After determining his GPA, I dropped him half a grade overall based on how things went with Jim Harbaugh and a roster that — in my opinion at the time — seemed to be deteriorating. The finished product looked like this:

Overall grade for Trent Baalke: B-


His toughest challenge starts now: The 49ers have gone from young up-and-comers to an aging group that needs a new head coach. Can Baalke “reload” without a major regression?

We all know the answer to the question I posed a year ago. Now the only question isn’t if Baalke’s overall grade drops after accounting for 2015, but by how much.

Course No. 1: Drafting

2015 49ers Draft class

This section is the most difficult to assess after only one season. Draftees are relatively cheap and under team control for several years, and most get better and stronger over time. It usually takes at least two seasons to know whether a player is a hit or a miss.

The 2015 class includes some potential hits.

  • Arik Armstead wasn’t a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, but he showed flashes of becoming an effective pass rusher and his strength is undeniable.
  • Jaquiski Tartt should be a nice replacement for Antoine Bethea as a starting safety for the foreseeable future.
  • Blake Bell didn’t produce much, but he did enough to carve out a role in 2016 and perhaps even start.
  • Bradley Pinion was above average on kickoffs and below average as a punter. He wasn’t as bad as he looked at times (he ranked 23rd in net average, but he only finished 0.7 yards behind Andy Lee, who was 15th), but he shanked more than his fair share, especially considering he was the only punter taken in the 2015 NFL Draft.
  • Trent Brown got folks excited at the end of the season — not just because he wasn’t Erik Pears, but because he proved to be more than a long-armed, gigantic prospect.

OK, now for the bad news.

  • The top three players drafted were on defense, and the 49ers finished with the worst offense in the league. Baalke can’t just blame the “retirement” of Anthony Davis for that, either. They could’ve used another skill position player in the top three rounds.
  • Corey Lemonier had a better rookie season than Eli Harold. Not by much, but still.
  • Mike Davis averaged 1.7 yards per carry.
  • DeAndre Smelter is the latest edition to Baalke’s underwhelming “ACL Team.” If Smelter makes Baalke’s trust in modern knee surgery pay off, he’ll be the first to do so.

2014 Grade: C+

Total Grade for all six drafts: B-


Course No. 2: Free Agency

Undrafted free agents: WR Dres Anderson, WR Issac Blakeney, WR DiAndre Campbell, WR Darius Davis, OL Patrick Miller, DL Marcus Rush, QB Dylan Thompson, WR DeAndrew White and S Jermaine Whitehead.

Veterans: DT Darnell Dockett, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Torrey Smith, CB Shareece Wright, OL Erik Pears, RB Reggie Bush, LB Nick Bellore, LB Philip Wheeler, RB Jarryd Hayne, RB Shaun Draughn, RB Pierre Thomas, RB Travaris Cadet, RB DuJuan Harris

A general manager almost has to try to perform this poorly. Dockett was released before the season started. He cost $2.5 million. Shareece Wright’s only contribution to the 49ers was his awful performance against them when the Ravens visited Santa Clara. He cost $2.6 million.

That’s pretty awful, but money wasn’t the issue with the 2015 49ers. They’ll roll $12.2 million in unused cap space into 2016. Their problem was a lack of above average players.

Blame the quarterbacks and/or Geep Chryst if you like, but Smith had his worst year as a pro. Pears was awful, but he and Smith were the best offseason acquisitions Baalke made … because they actually played! That’s more than one could say for Bush. Simpson was out to lunch (drops, wrong routes) after his six-game suspension, but no surprise there. Hayne sold some jerseys and garnered interest from Australians, but the coaches didn’t want to use him. The only reason Baalke doesn’t get a failing grade is he found a couple serviceable running backs off the street in Draughn and Harris. Then again, Baalke was forced to sign several running backs throughout the year because his top two backs are injury-prone and the kid he drafted was so easy to tackle.

2015 Grade: D-

Total Grade for all five years of free agency: C+


Course No. 3: Trades

  • 6/6/15: 49ers traded P Andy Lee to the Cleveland for a seventh round pick in 2017.
  • 8/21/15: 49ers traded TE Derek Carrier to Washington for a fifth round pick in 2017.
  • 9/5/15: 49ers traded conditional seventh round pick to Baltimore for C Nick Easton.
  • 10/6/15: 49ers traded C Nick Easton and a sixth round pick to the Minnesota in exchange for LB Gerald Hodges.
  • 11/2/15: 49ers traded Vernon Davis and a 2016 seventh round pick to Denver for sixth round picks in 2016 and 2017.

Yawn. #TraderTrent didn’t hurt or help the team significantly with his deals. They could’ve used Derek Carrier, but it was obvious that Baalke likes the “Belldozer” and wasn’t ready to part with Vance McDonald. Lee was traded to Cleveland after his infant daughter passed away in a deal brought the longtime 49ers punter closer to his family, so the 49ers deserve some credit for compassion in that case. Baalke should’ve cut Davis before the season, but they had already lost so many veterans and most personnel evaluators probably knew his prime stopped abruptly in 2013. The only acquisition other than an extra draft pick was Hodges … I thought he showed flashes of being better than Michael Wilhoite, at least.

2014 Grade: B

Total Grade for all five years of trades: B+


Top players

In the previous incarnation of this post, I went through the team’s highest-ranked players using a few different methods. The point was to determine what percentage of the team’s “stars” were brought in by Baalke or by his predecessors (Scot McCloughan and Mike Nolan).

  • 2011 Baalke Stars: 12-of-35 (34%)
  • 2012 Baalke Stars: 17-of-36 (47%)
  • 2013 Baalke Stars: 17-of-35 (49%)
  • 2014 Baalke Stars: 8-of-14 (57%)

A few things have changed since last year. First, Pro Football Focus changed the way they rate players and my yearly subscription expired, so I’m leaving out their rankings this time. Second, the roster turned over so much since last year that only two players on the 2015 roster were with the team before Baalke became the GM (Joe Staley and Ahmad Brooks). Since the 53-man roster was 96% Baalke at all times in 2015, I’m going to give him a grade for star power.

2015 AV (Pro Football Reference)

1. N. Bowman: 14
2. J. Staley: 7
2. I. Williams: 7
4. A. Brooks: 6
4. Q. Dial: 6
4. B. Gabbert: 6
4. E. Pears: 6
8. K. Acker: 5
8. A. Boldin: 5
8. A. Boone: 5
8. T. Brock: 5
8. A. Lynch: 5
8. M. Martin: 5
8. E. Reid: 5
8. M. Wilhoite: 5

NOTE: With Martin supposedly as valuable as Lynch, and Brooks/Pears ahead of Boldin/Lynch, I probably should’ve ignored these rankings as well.

2016 Pro Bowl

N. Bowman
J. Staley

2015 First-Team All-Pro

N. Bowman

NOTES: Bowman was the team’s only “star” in 2015. While he led the league in tackles and had a few really nice performances, he also had some rough games on the road and was a liability in coverage all season. Staley didn’t deserve to make the Pro Bowl. Williams was probably the most consistent performer throughout the year. Let’s see, what else … quarterback play was subpar throughout the season, none of the skill position guys sniffed 1,000 yards, and the 49ers collected 28 sacks while allowing 53.

Total grade for star power: D


Here’s what I wrote a year ago:

Strengths: Great at maintaining defensive depth — linebackers and defensive backs in particular; active and generally effective deal-maker in a league where trades are supposedly rare; adept at playing the free agent market the right way — he avoids high-priced free agents (the kinds of players who usually bust) and generally has done a great job retaining the team’s own impact free agents; never gets into cap hell, although Paraag Marathe probably deserves come credit here.

Weaknesses: Kyle Williams is the best WR he has ever drafted (seriously); Derek Carrier is the best TE he has ever acquired; he lucked out with Frank Gore because none of the other RBs he’s drafted have done much (jury still out on Hyde and Hunter); admitted several times this year that he despises communicating with the media (bummer, dude … it’s part of your job); couldn’t bridge a personality gap between his boss and a successful head coach; mostly unconcerned with “character” until recently (when the problem became too noticeable to ignore); more than half of the team’s best players were acquired by McCloughan in every year Baalke has been GM besides 2014.

Other than that part about free agency, all of this still seems fairly accurate.

One area that’s a little difficult to assess is coaching.

  • Baalke had a relationship with Jim Harbaugh before 2011, but by some accounts their relationship soured during Harbaugh’s four-year tenure.
  • It seems pretty obvious at this point that the Yorks wanted Jim Tomsula, and while Baalke “signed off” on the hire, he might not have had a choice. Maybe Baalke wanted Adam Gase all along.
  • Likewise, we don’t know what went into hiring Chip Kelly — was he one of Baalke’s top choices, or did Jed target Kelly from the moment Philadelphia fired him?

With a lot of this stuff going on behind closed doors, Baalke’s grade for choosing coaches can’t be anything other than “incomplete.” However, the way things ended with Harbaugh and Baalke’s penchant for coaching players himself might not play all that well with prospective coaches from outside the organization.

When it comes to attracting and keeping great coaches — while steering the Yorks in the right direction — Baalke’s record is uneven at best, and certainly doesn’t provide enough reason to give his GPA a boost.

Overall grade for Trent Baalke: C

Just as teachers often place extra weight on how a student finishes a term, I’m dropping Baalke a bit for one reason above all. As the percentage of Baalke-acquired players has increased, the overall roster quality and winning percentage has gone down. This is an undeniable trend, and one the Yorks can’t help but notice.

After two very strong opening years as a general manager, the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl despite Baalke’s moves in 2012. Since then, he’s failed to replace most of the stars he inherited (and drafted/signed in 2010-11) with players of equal talent. Add some organizational discord and an overmatched head coach, and the 49ers suffered through a 5-11 season that could easily have been 4-12 or 3-13. Many have pointed to a seemingly unfair string of departures, but only the retirements of Chris Borland and Davis could be considered “bad luck.” Neither Justin Smith nor Patrick Willis looked like themselves in 2014, and offense was this team’s most glaring weakness anyway.

Now he goes into 2016 with a new coach in Kelly, who’ll need an infusion of talent suited to his unique, tempo-based style. There’s some reason for optimism about this partnership, as Baalke and Kelly look for the same type of players from a physical standpoint (translation: might beats slight). Baalke also has over $50 million in cap space, a No. 7 overall selection and 11 other draft picks to remake a roster that was as exciting as plain nonfat yogurt in 2015. Yet, based on his performance over the last six years, I have my doubts that he can pull off such a massive rebuild in just one offseason, and it isn’t known whether the Yorks will give him another shot if things don’t improve dramatically in 2016.

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