A.J. Jenkins

Grading Trent Baalke’s tenure as 49ers GM

Trent Baalke 49ers GM

Jed York maintains that he didn’t choose Trent Baalke over Jim Harbaugh. Even taking York at his word, it seemed like a good time to examine Baalke’s tenure as General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers. It’s not an easy task (as you’ll see by the length of this post). That’s because GMs are responsible for so much and every team needs different things. Also, there’s one particular thing that makes grading Baalke more challenging.

49ers Scot McCloughan mutually parted ways

Hey, that sounds familiar!

Rumors persisted for years as to why the 49ers terminated McCloughan, and we got confirmation in Seth Wickersham’s outstanding feature on McCloughan that was posted a few weeks ago. McCloughan’s drinking was out of control at the end of his 49ers tenure, something he discussed quite candidly with Wickersham.

Much like their “mutual” parting of ways with Harbaugh, the 49ers refused to provide any insight as to why York said goodbye to McCloughan and handed control of the 2010 draft to Baalke. (And, like last week, the 49ers front office got absolutely hammered in the media for keeping quiet.)

So that’s where we’ll start on Baalke, as we form grades for each of the general managing disciplines. At the end, we’ll calculate a GPA. I’ll try to avoid grades of “incomplete” wherever possible, which will probably lead to criticism from those who think I’m grading Baalke too harshly.

Everyone has a different grading style. Some professors grade solely on midterms and finals. Others grade on a curve. I’ve had teachers who put more weight on end-of-term performance, meaning one could see his or her grade rise or drop dramatically based on what he or she did in the final two or three weeks.

In Baalke’s case, I’ll try to be as fair as possible. Here’s a caveat: since the 49ers were capable of winning a Super Bowl in 2013 and 2014, based on what was accomplished in 2011 and 2012, Baalke had a responsibility to do whatever he could to get the team ready to win the ultimate prize before rebuilding (sorry, “retooling”) was necessary.

Course No. 1: Drafting

Before we get started … I’m not one of those people who judges drafts based on who a general manager could’ve taken instead. Over 200 players are drafted each year, and All-Pros are drafted in the later rounds all of the time. So cherry-picking by saying, “Oh, he could’ve gotten so-and-so three picks later” isn’t fair. However, each draft should add some starters and hopefully at least one star-type player.

49ers 2010 Draft

This was an outstanding draft. The 49ers raised eyebrows with two offensive linemen in the first round. People thought Anthony Davis was too immature, and while they liked Mike Iupati, some thought taking a guard that early was a reach. But the 49ers’ o-line was Staley and trash at the time, and both Davis and Iupati have accomplished quite a lot and contributed to an awful lot of wins. Mays was chosen too early, but several reports at the time said Mays was Mike Singletary’s draft crush. NaVorro Bowman is the best player Baalke ever drafted. Throw in four other players who played in a bunch of games, and Baalke was off to a tremendous start.

2010 Grade: A

2011 49ers Draft

This draft doesn’t look as unbelievably great now as it did a year or so ago, but it’s hard to find fault with a class that includes a starting quarterback and five more players who are still on the 49ers three years later. Ronald Johnson never played, but extra points for DE-turned-FB Bruce Miller, an inspired pick in the seventh round.

2011 Grade: A

49ers 2012 Draft

I remember how excited everyone was for this draft. The 49ers had just risen from 6-10/7-9 purgatory to 13-3 and their first NFC Championship Game appearance in 14 years. Baalke and Harbaugh could do no wrong. Then they drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round.

Wait, who? Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it! Baalke surely knows what he’s doing.

Oooh, LMJ! He was fun to watch at Oregon, and so fast. Hmmm, this Looney character is already injured, but whatever. He’ll be great. So will Fleming, and Robinson is probably a stud in the making.

Uh, yeah. James was the only player who contributed to the team that went to the Super Bowl (and Ravens fans thank him for his contribution in that game). Randy Moss was the No. 2 receiver in the Super Bowl, and Jenkins still barely saw the field. Two seasons later, the only player left on the team was Looney, one of the team’s lowest-rated o-linemen in 2014 according to Pro Football focus.

2012 Grade: F

49ers 2013 draft

The 49ers got a good safety in Eric Reid who showed a little feistiness in Seattle, a welcome occurrence that, along with his solid play overall, shows he’s ready to be one of this team’s leaders in the coming years. That is, as long as he can somehow avoid concussions in future seasons.

It gets dicey from there. Baalke drafted three “redshirt” guys. Tank Carradine (ACL) finished the 2014 season with three sacks and showed some promise recently, but the 2013 squad could’ve used some help from the 40th overall pick. Marcus Lattimore provided plenty of notebook material for scribes who cover the 49ers, as fans were fascinated by his potential after an amazing college career, but he never played a snap for the team. Quinton Dial played sparingly in three games during his rookie season, but looked like a potential building block for the defensive line in the last three games of the 2014 season.

Picks three, four and five look pretty bad after two seasons. Vance McDonald transformed himself into a good blocking tight end with horrendous hands who landed on IR this year — not exactly what the 49ers should expect from a second-rounder. Corey Lemonier is quickly playing himself out of the league with his 2014 regression (one hit and one hurry in 93 pass rush attempts, no sacks). Quinton Patton was inactive most of the year, and lost a fumble in overtime in the Week 16 loss against the Chargers.

Nick Moody is a special-teamer who missed several tackles as an inside linebacker in Weeks 16 and 17 (when the top three inside backers were on IR), and Marcus Cooper was surprisingly good for 15 minutes last year with the Chiefs. However, the problem with this draft comes from rounds two-through-four. For a team looking to get any possible edge on Seattle and win its first Super Bowl since 1994, getting so little production from those five players was crippling. Harbaugh had a right to be pissed over Baalke’s performance during this draft– besides allowing the team to weather the loss of Dashon Goldson via free agency, this is a draft designed to help Harbaugh’s replacement … and that’s the best-case scenario.

2013 Grade: C+

2014 49ers draft

On one hand, they got a bunch of nice players. Carlos Hyde might not be a star, but it’s probably foolish to judge either Hyde or Frank Gore based on the play of this year’s o-line. Chris Borland finished tied for 12th in the NFL in solo tackles despite only playing nine games. Bruce Ellington scored three touchdowns and showed some improvement as a returner as the season progressed. Dontae Johnson has shown flashes of being a good corner with size, and Aaron Lynch tied for the team lead in sacks with six. Every player drafted either got hurt or finished the season on the 53-man roster, which means Baalke added a lot of young, cheap depth for the next few years.

Ahem.

The pick of Ellington (who was underutilized by Greg Roman and Harbaugh, as the 49ers’ offensive braintrust forced the issue with Brandon Lloyd for much of the season) made sure this wasn’t an out-and-out whiff, but Baalke hit a foul-tip on one of the best wide receiver drafts in history. Trading up for Odell Beckham Jr. or Brandin Cooks wouldn’t have been easy, and it’s apparent that Baalke really likes Jimmie Ward. That’s fine, but there were a lot of other receivers out there, and the 49ers had 12 picks. I’m going to give Ward a pass on his year, because the 49ers asked him to wear a bunch of hats early (not only was he the team’s nickel corner, but they hoped he’d back up Reid or Antoine Bethea at safety if necessary), and he seemed to improve after getting embarrassed on national TV by Brandon Marshall. Yet, it’s a little too generous to say Baalke hit a home run with this draft when the first round pick never looked like a first round pick and they failed to get a potential No. 1 wideout.

2014 Grade: B+

Total Grade for all five drafts: B-

***

Course No. 2: Free Agency

2010

Undrafted rookies: LB Mike Balogun, CB Tramaine Brock, QB Jarrett Brown, LB Keaton Kristick, WR Scott Long, S Christopher Maragos, WR Jared Perry, CB Patrick Stroudamire and CB/RS Leroy Vann

Veterans: LB Brandon Long, WR Bakari Grant, T Barry Sims, PK Shane Andrus

2010 Grade: B (Not much impact, either good or bad; plus, Baalke took over for McCloughan after many free agents had signed.)

2011

Undrafted rookies: C Chase Beeler, WR Tyler Beiler, C/G Donovan Edwards, T Derek Hall, WR Joe Hastings, WR Chris Hogan, RB Jeremiah Masoli, TE Konrad Reuland, LB Kenny Rowe, NT Sealver Siliga, DB Anthony West, T Kenny Wiggins, NT Ian Williams, WR Dontavia Bogan, DE Brian Bulcke, DE Demarcus Dobbs, CB Corey Nelms, RB Seth Smith and LB Monte Simmons

Veterans: SS Donte Whitner, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Carlos Rogers, S Madieu Williams, K David Akers

2011 Grade: A (Whitner, Goodwin, Rogers and Akers were absolute home runs who helped change the team’s personality heading into one of the more remarkable seasons in franchise history. Williams and Dobbs were good rookie finds — especially Williams, a very good nosetackle who’s had terrible luck with injuries.)

2012

Undrafted free agents: CB Anthony Mosely, T Kevin Murphy, G Al Netter, WR Chris Owusu, WR Nathan Palmer, CB Deante Purvis, K Giorgio Tavecchio, S Michael Thomas, WR Brian Tyms, FB Cameron Bell, LB Kourtnei Brown, DT Patrick Butrym, TE Garrett Celek, OL David Gonzalez, RB Jewel Hampton, LB Joe Holland, DT Matthew Masifilo

Veterans: WR Randy Moss, CB Perrish Cox, WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, G Leonard Davis

2012 Grade: D+ (When the best free agent signee spends Super Bowl Media Day bitching about his role, that’s a bad sign. No diamonds in the UDFA rough either, although Celek has at least played.)

2013

Undrafted free agents: C Sherman Carter, FB Alex Debniak, HB Marqueis Gray, RB D.J. Harper, WR Chuck Jacobs, T Luke Marquardt, LS Kevin McDermott, CB Darryl Morris, DL Lawrence Okoye, G Patrick Omameh, NT Mike Purcell, CB Lowell Rose

Veterans: DT Glenn Dorsey, LB Dan Skuta, S Craig Dahl, WR Marlon Moore, S Darcel McBath, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, G Adam Snyder, WR Kassim Osgood, CB Eric Wright, WR Austin Collie, WR Lavelle Hawkins, K Phil Dawson

2013 Grade: B (Dorsey and Skuta were fantastic signings, two players who produced like crazy and didn’t cost a lot. Snyder and Osgood were productive. Other than that, not much from the UDFAs or the other veterans. Asomugha was clearly a bad signing in hindsight, but it’s tough to rip Baalke in hindsight for an addition that a lot of people liked at the time.)

2014

Undrafted free agents: LB Morgan Breslin, TE Asante Cleveland, G/C Dillon Farrell, QB Kory Faulkner, G Pou Fonoti, S James McCray, LB Shayne Skov

Veterans: S Antoine Bethea, CB Chris Cook, WR Brandon Lloyd

2014 Grade: B+ (Bethea was cheaper than Whitner and helped immensely in coverage. Bethea was probably the 2014 team MVP. Cook played pretty well before going on IR. Baalke keeps hoping that one of these mercurial mid-30s receivers will pay off — Lloyd played well in three consecutive games, but didn’t do much else. Cleveland, Farrell and McCray played snaps in 2014. They also re-signed a few key free agents: Anquan Boldin, Perrish Cox and Phil Dawson.)

Total Grade for all five years of free agency: B

***

Course No. 3: Trades

2010

  • 4/16/10: The San Francisco 49ers announced they have acquired WR Ted Ginn, Jr. via trade (fifth round pick went to Miami).
  • 4/22/10: The 49ers have traded their first-round pick (No. 13 overall) and their fourth-round pick (No. 113) overall to the Denver Broncos in exchange for the No. 11 selection in the first round. The 49ers picked tackle Anthony Davis with the No. 11 overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.
  • 4/23/10: The 49ers traded their No. 79 overall pick to San Diego for a third-round (No. 91 overall) and sixth-round pick (No. 173) in 2010, plus a fourth-round pick in 2011.
  • 8/16/10: The San Francisco 49ers announced they have traded DT Kentwan Balmer to the Seattle Seahawks for undisclosed compensation.

2010 Grade: B (Ginn was under-appreciated … until he left and the 49ers had to find another returner; most thought that the 49ers didn’t need to trade up to land Davis, but he’s performed mostly well on the field and on Twitter; the trade on 4/23 was a clue into Baalke’s wheeling-and-dealing ways during the draft; the Balmer trade was addition by subtraction.)

2011

  • 4/29/11: The 49ers traded the No. 45, No. 108 and No. 141 picks in exchange with the Denver Broncos’ No. 36 pick. The 49ers selected Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick with the No. 36 overall pick.
  • 4/29/11: The San Francisco 49ers traded third-round pick No. 76 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for a third-round pick (80th overall) and sixth-round pick (182 overall).
  • 4/30/11: The 49ers traded their sixth-round selection (No. 174 overall) and seventh-round selection (No. 231 overall) to the Green Bay Packers to pick move up to No. 163 to select Appalachian St. guard Daniel Kilgore.
  • 8/23/11: The 49ers have traded safety Taylor Mays to the Cincinnati Bengals for a seventh round pick.

2011 Grade: A- (They got a starting quarterback by trading up, never a bad thing; the next two trades were fine; Mays wasn’t going to fit in with the new coaching staff.)

2012

  • 4/27/12: The San Francisco 49ers traded their third-round pick No. 92 overall to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a fourth-round pick (97th overall) and 2013 fifth-round pick.
  • 4/28/12: The San Francisco 49ers traded their fourth-round pick No. 97 overall to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a fourth-round pick (103rd overall) a sixth-round pick (No. 196) and a 2013 sixth-round pick.
  • 4/28/12: The San Francisco 49ers traded their fourth-round pick No. 103 overall to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round pick (180th overall) and a 2013 third-round pick.
  • 4/28/12: The San Francisco 49ers traded their fourth-round pick No. 125 overall and a sixth-round pick No. 196 overall to the Detroit Lions in exchange for their fourth round pick (No. 117) and selected Wake Forest G Joe Looney.
  • 8/31/12: The 49ers traded S Colin Jones to the Carolina Panthers for a seventh round draft pick.

2012 Grade: B+ (The 49ers came out of this year with four extra draft picks, and I’m dizzy.)

2013

  • 3/12/13: The 49ers have acquired an undisclosed 2013 Draft pick and a conditional pick in the 2014 NFL Draft from the Kansas City Chiefs for QB Alex Smith. (Both picks were second-rounders.)
  • 3/12/13: The 49ers have acquired WR Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens for an undisclosed 2013 Draft pick (sixth-round).
  • 4/2/13: The 49ers have acquired QB Colt McCoy and an undisclosed 2013 Draft pick (sixth round) from the Cleveland Browns for two undisclosed 2013 Draft picks (fifth and seventh).
  • 4/25/13: The 49ers have traded picks No. 31 and 74 to the Dallas Cowboys to select Eric Reid at pick No. 18 in the 2013 NFL Draft.
  • 4/26/13: The 49ers have traded pick No. 34 in the 2013 NFL Draft to the Tennessee Titans in exchange for picks No. 40, 216 and a 2014 third-round selection.
  • 4/26/13: The 49ers have traded picks No. 61 and 173 to the Packers to select TE Vance McDonald with pick No. 55 in the 2013 NFL Draft.
  • 4/26/13: The 49ers have traded picks No. 93 and 216 in the 2013 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers to select Auburn LB Corey Lemonier with pick No. 88.
  • 8/19/13: The 49ers have acquired WR Jon Baldwin from the Kansas City Chiefs for WR A.J. Jenkins.
  • 8/27/13: The 49ers have traded OLB Parys Haralson to the New Orleans Saints for an undisclosed draft pick (conditional seventh-rounder).
  • 9/2/13: The 49ers have traded LB Cam Johnson to the Indianapolis Colts for an undisclosed draft pick (2015 seventh-rounder).

2013 Grade: A+ (Everyone knew they wanted to deal Smith, and they still got a pretty good haul that Baalke turned into five players in total; the Boldin deal was one of the best in franchise history, and marked the first and only excellent receiver Baalke ever acquired. He traded up a few times in the draft with mixed results and somehow got the worse player in the Jenkins deal, but overall Baalke did a good job here.)

2014

  • 3/11/14: The 49ers have traded a sixth round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for QB Blaine Gabbert.
  • 3/11/14: The 49ers have traded an undisclosed draft pick (conditional seventh-rounder) to the Miami Dolphins for OT Jonathan Martin.
  • 5/9/14: The 49ers acquired WR Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills for an undisclosed 2015 draft choice (conditional fourth).

2014 Grade: B- (On one hand, they got a swing tackle for barely anything. On the other, that swing tackle was Jonathan Martin. Gabbert cashed paychecks and Johnson was a third down conversion machine for a while.)

Total Grade for all five years of trades: A- 

***

Course No. 4: Overall Impact

Teams are carried by their coaches and best players. Baalke obviously did a fine job locking down Harbaugh, but whose players did Harbaugh coach? Baalke’s or McCloughan’s? I went through the top 10 players in terms of Annual Value (Pro-Football Reference’s flawed yet interesting rating system) and top 12 in Pro Football Focus grades (I added a couple more spots because PFF loves kickers and punters), then looked at all of the team’s Pro Bowl (also flawed) and All-Pro players. I placed “*” next to players brought in by Baalke.

2011 AV

  1. J. Smith: 19
  2. N. Bowman: 18*
  3. P. Willis: 16
  4. J. Staley: 13
  5. C. Rogers: 12*
  6. Alex Smith: 12
  7. F. Gore: 10
  8. M. Crabtree: 9
  9. D. Goldson: 9
  10. R. McDonald: 9

2011 PFF

  1. J. Smith: 39.2
  2. D. Akers: 38.7*
  3. A. Lee: 35.9
  4. Aldon Smith: 35.5*
  5. N. Bowman: 29*
  6. R. McDonald: 23.6
  7. P. Willis: 23.3
  8. Alex Smith: 19.2
  9. M. Iupati: 15.9*
  10. C. Rogers: 12.2*
  11. D. Whitner: 11.8*
  12. V. Davis: 7.0

2011 Pro Bowl

  • F. Gore
  • J. Staley
  • J. Smith
  • P. Willis
  • C. Rogers*
  • D. Goldson
  • D. Akers*
  • A. Lee

2011 First-Team All-Pro

  • J. Smith
  • N. Bowman*
  • P. Willis
  • D. Akers*
  • A. Lee

2011 Baalke Stars: 12-of-35 (34%)

2012 AV

  1. Aldon Smith: 13*
  2. P. Willis: 13
  3. N. Bowman: 12*
  4. J. Smith: 12
  5. M. Crabtree: 11
  6. F. Gore: 11
  7. M. Iupati: 11*
  8. J. Staley: 11
  9. D. Goldson: 10
  10. C. Kaepernick: 10*

2012 PFF

  1. J. Staley: 37.5
  2. D. Akers: 26.9*
  3. P. Willis: 26.7
  4. A. Lee: 26.1
  5. Aldon Smith: 23.3*
  6. A. Boone: 24.6
  7. M. Iupati: 22.5*
  8. M. Crabtree: 20.2
  9. A. Davis: 19*
  10. V. Davis: 15.9
  11. J. Goodwin: 15.5*
  12. N. Bowman: 14.7*

2012 Pro Bowl

  • Aldon Smith*
  • P. Willis
  • N. Bowman*
  • J. Smith
  • F. Gore
  • M. Iupati*
  • J. Staley
  • D. Goldson
  • D. Whitner*

2012 First-Team All-Pro

  • Aldon Smith*
  • P. Willis
  • N. Bowman*
  • M. Iupati*
  • D. Goldson

2012 Baalke Stars: 17-of-36 (47%)

2013 AV

  1. C. Kaepernick: 15*
  2. N. Bowman: 14*
  3. A. Boldin: 12*
  4. A. Brooks: 12
  5. J. Smith: 12
  6. J. Staley: 11
  7. P. Willis: 11
  8. A. Boone: 10
  9. V. Davis: 9
  10. F. Gore: 9
  11. E. Reid: 9*
  12. D. Whitner: 9*

2013 PFF

  1. P. Dawson: 25.5*
  2. J. Staley: 24.4
  3. N. Bowman: 23.9*
  4. A. Smith: 23.4*
  5. P. Willis: 18.6
  6. A. Lee: 16.8
  7. A. Boldin: 15.5*
  8. V. Davis: 13.2
  9. D. Whitner: 12.1*
  10. F. Gore: 9.8
  11. T. Brock: 9.6*
  12. J. Goodwin: 9.0*

2013 Pro Bowl

  • N. Bowman*
  • A. Brooks
  • J. Smith
  • J. Staley
  • P. Willis
  • V. Davis
  • F. Gore
  • E. Reid*
  • D. Whitner*
  • M. Iupati*

2013 First-Team All-Pro

  • N. Bowman*

2013 Baalke Stars: 17-of-35 (49%)

2014 AV

N/A (not calculated yet)

2014 PFF

  1. J. Staley: 22.2
  2. C. Borland: 20.8*
  3. Andy Lee: 18.4
  4. J. Smith: 16.6
  5. R. McDonald: 15.2
  6. A. Bethea: 12.2*
  7. M. Iupati: 11.2*
  8. C. Culliver: 8.5*
  9. A. Boldin: 6.6*
  10. B. Miller: 6.4*
  11. A. Boone: 6.2
  12. S. Johnson: 6.0*

2014 Pro Bowl

  • J. Staley
  • M. Iupati*

2014 First-Team All-Pro

N/A (no one came close)

2014 Baalke Stars: 8-of-14 (57%)

Summary

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.

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 “retool” without a major regression?

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